“I have never been that nervous! Not before or since!” says Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen about his appearance in the final round of the 2007 Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo. The aria he was about to sing – “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” from The Merry Widow – was familiar enough, but before this competition he had only performed it in a Danish translation. Luckily, once he got onstage, the words came out in the right order and in the right language, and Iversen went on to win the whole thing, the second Norwegian to do so since the competition began in 1995. Since then, Iversen has performed on stages all around Europe and the US and has become something of a household name, especially in his native Norway. This summer we met for an interview in Oslo, just as Iversen was preparing to head to Denmark for his role debut as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor.

Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen. © Tonje Eliasson
Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen.
© Tonje Eliasson

Opera wasn’t always the way for him. Classical music could be heard frequently in Iversen’s parents’ home in the North Norwegian town of Harstad, but music was never an activity that took up much space in his childhood. “I didn’t play an instrument. When I was nine, I did sing in a boys’ choir and I took some singing lessons at the municipal music school, but that was it.” Only when he left home did he start taking an interest in the music he’d grown up with. After some time in Oslo, Iversen moved to Trondheim, and started thinking about taking up singing. “I started taking some singing lessons, and from there I joined the student choral society and sang in the chorus of the local opera company.” His real start in singing, however, was in musical theatre: “I had done a musical theatre masterclass just south of Oslo. Afterwards, I was approached by the manager of Trøndelag Teater, the repertory theatre in Trondheim, who asked me if I wanted to be in their production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which I said yes to. I had a great time, but doing that whole 79-performance run made me realise that what I really wanted to do was to sing opera. Classical music is what I really love.”

By the time of the 2007 Queen Sonja International Music Competition, Iversen had been studying singing for six years – first in Oslo and Leipzig, and then at the Royal Opera Academy in Copenhagen – and he still had one year left in Denmark. “Before the summer of 2007, I had the idea that if at least part of my income comes from working as a singer, after all these years of studying, I won’t have done too badly for myself. Then that summer happened, and I decided it might be time to rethink those goals.” That summer, Iversen became a finalist at the International Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition, before turning his attention towards Oslo.

Winning in Oslo meant overnight fame for Iversen. “I was a complete stranger. Even when I left Oslo, I was relatively unknown, but then after studying for two years in Copenhagen, almost no one in Oslo knew who I was.” But participating in the competition – and not least doing very well in it – meant that people started noticing him. “My performance in the Queen Sonja Competition really helped me build a network. It definitely helped with getting an agent and the subsequent auditions and castings. Not least, participating in the competition helped to better establish my name in Norway.”

Doing well at all in the competition came as a surprise to him, and winning was a complete shock, with all the adrenaline that entails. Iversen recalls an interview he did with Norwegian radio the morning after the competition, a favourite anecdote of his sister. “It must have been around 7 am and I kept nodding off as I was being interviewed. On live radio! It was far too early, especially after what had happened the night before. My sister heard it live and called me afterwards to tell me I should maybe get out of bed before interviews. I’ve tried living by that advice ever since.” 

HM Queen Sonja of Norway awarding Audun Iversen first prize at the QSIMC in 2007 © Trygve Schønfelder
HM Queen Sonja of Norway awarding Audun Iversen first prize at the QSIMC in 2007
© Trygve Schønfelder

The repertoire Iversen takes on is on the varied side, spanning two and a half centuries and several languages, but almost from the start he’s had a clear idea of where he wants to end up vocally: “The first time I auditioned for the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, on the back of the application form, rather pretentiously under ‘Motivation’ I wrote that I wanted to become the best Norwegian Verdi baritone of all time.” Even though he takes frequent detours, it’s clear that the heavier Italian repertoire is where he feels he belongs: “The roles I feel like have helped me develop the most as a singer are roles like Silvio [Pagliacci] in Copenhagen and Germont [La traviata] at the opera here. And now I’m really looking forward to singing Enrico in Denmark. I finally feel ready for that role, and it’s nice to be able to try it out in a smaller house.”

Audun Iversen (Wozzeck) and Asmik Grigorian (Marie) in Wozzeck. © Erik Berg | Den Norske Opera & Ballett
Audun Iversen (Wozzeck) and Asmik Grigorian (Marie) in Wozzeck.
© Erik Berg | Den Norske Opera & Ballett

The fact that Iversen sees himself going forth in the Italian baritone repertoire hasn’t stopped him from taking on roles in other corners of the canon. The last couple of seasons have seen him take on roles as diverse as Fieramosca in Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini, the title role of Berg’s Wozzeck, Albert in Massenet’s Werther and The Protector in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. I ask him about Wozzeck, a role he did with searing intensity here in Oslo last season: “A role like Wozzeck doesn’t really help me develop vocally like other roles might, but I learn so much on other levels – musically and dramatically. And it helps me push my voice a little – I’m getting tired of hearing that I sing beautifully. I want to be more expressive with my voice!” 

In dealing with other singers, directors and conductors, Iversen primarily wants to be seen as a good colleague: “I believe that pays off, especially in the long run. If a scene partner is struggling or has a bad day, I prefer trying to help them along rather than using that as a time to out-sing them. Getting on with the people you’re on stage with helps you create memorable moments. After all, opera is art that happens in the moment – it’s just really well prepared.” 

This article was sponsored by the Queen Sonja International Music Competition.