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Norwegian opera singer Lise Davidsen is on the verge of superstardom

Lise Davidsen, performing in the title role of Richard Strauss' <em>Ariadne auf Naxos</em> at the Metropolitan Opera in Feb. 2022.
Marty Sohl
The Metropolitan Opera
Lise Davidsen, performing in the title role of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera in Feb. 2022.

Updated March 14, 2022 at 10:26 AM ET

Norwegian opera singer Lise Davidsen is on the verge of superstardom: Her voice has been described as "one in a million," but surprisingly, the 35-year-old singer never even saw an opera until she was 20.

Davidsen has a commanding stage presence – her charisma, her height, her acting – and then, that voice. "She really is in sort of a world of her own," says Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, where she's singing three leading roles this season. "This is a voice that seems to be miraculous in that it is unlike any voice that I've heard in my tenure at the Met. I really see her being kind of the vocal flagship of the Met in the decades to come."

It's been quite a trip for Davidsen, who grew up in a non-musical family in Stokke, a small town in Norway, about an hour-and-a-half from Oslo. She was more interested in playing handball, until she discovered singing in high school choirs and Christmas pageants. She even learned guitar, in the hopes of becoming a singer/songwriter. "There was something about singing that I found a place where I could talk about some things," Davidsen remembers.

She became serious enough about music that she went to the Grieg Academy, a conservatory in Bergen. It's where she saw her first opera, but Davidsen thought she'd sing Bach and Handel as a mezzo soprano soloist, with small ensembles. When she continued her studies in Copenhagen, her voice teacher, Susanna Eken, saw bigger and, well, higher things for her.

"She realized for me that no, no, you're not a mezzo, you are soprano," says Davidsen. "And I was like, OK, OK. So, with her, I discovered the world of opera."

Davidsen immersed herself in study – learning vocal technique, how to connect her body to her voice, how to act onstage. When she was in a student showcase, of scenes from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and Arabella, she had her lightbulb moment. "I remember like, 'Oh yes, this is it. This is where I want to be,'" she says, "because then I felt more comfortable onstage and I was like, 'This is not Lise. This is the character that I want to play.' And to be able to do that is a gift in a way."

Shortly after she graduated in 2015, Davidsen won two major vocal competitions: Operalia in London and the Queen Sonja Competition in Oslo. All of a sudden, the world came calling: Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House, Bayreuth, the Berlin Opera, the Met.

New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe has raved about her performances at the Metropolitan Opera (where she made her debut in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades in 2019), calling her voice sumptuous and her acting grounded. "It is a grand instrument, even when she's singing piano [softly]. And yet that grandeur can, I think, really be scaled up and down. And she is clearly interested in, and I think does really beautiful work, in the song repertory and even orchestral song repertory."

In addition to performances around the world, Davidsen has recorded a couple of albums of opera excerpts for Decca and, and after recovering from COVID in 2020, an album of art songs by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, with her fellow countryman, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. "Her voice is dark and velvety and dramatic and big," Andsnes explains, "but flexible and can do all sorts of things."

From left: Lise Davidsen as Eva, Michael Volle as Hans Sachs and Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther, photographed during a dress rehearsal of Wagners' <em>Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg</em> at the Met Opera on Oct. 19, 2021.
Richard Termine / The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera
From left: Lise Davidsen as Eva, Michael Volle as Hans Sachs and Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther, photographed during a dress rehearsal of Wagners' Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Met Opera on Oct. 19, 2021.

Davidsen is currently starring in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met, where she is playing both a comic prima donna and a regal princess. Marek Janowski is the production's conductor and he sees a great future for her: "It's absolutely clear that, if everything goes normally in her career, she will be, say, in about three to five years, one of the very important real heavyweight Wagnerian sopranos."

Lise Davidsen sees those big roles – Brunhilde, Isolde, as well as roles in dramatic Italian operas – in her future, too. But only when she feels ready to do them. "I plan with things that I think are right," Davidsen says, "So, like with these roles, I could, I feel that, OK, I could, in theory, work on them tomorrow. But that doesn't mean it's right to do now. I need more time. I need to study them properly."

When asked what he'd like to hear Davidsen sing, Gelb says, "Every major dramatic soprano role that she wants to do is hers as far as I'm concerned. She basically has the key to the Met."

Which, Davidsen says is kind of crazy for a singer who had never even seen an opera until fifteen years ago. "Yeah, it's surreal," she says, laughing. "Sometimes I need to pinch my arm and just remind myself of that."

In addition to Ariadne (which can be seen in Met HD broadcasts on Wed., March 16 at selected theaters), Lisa Davidsen will be appearing in Elektra next month.

Tonight, she will be performing live on the stage of the Met in a benefit concert for Ukraine, which will be broadcast on many NPR stations.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.