There’s plenty of cynicism on the opera circuit about competitions – that it’s less about winning than getting noticed by agents and casting directors. There’s a degree of truth to this, but it’s also about grabbing the opportunity to launch yourself onto the international stage. I’ll never forget the moment Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen won Operalia in 2015, literally blowing away the competition with Elisabeth’s “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser. Those three minutes left the audience breathless and nailed her the top prize. 

Lise Davidsen
© James Hole

It sounds like a cliché, but was it really a life-changing moment? “Oh absolutely,” Davidsen says. “It turned my life and my career upside down.” She also won the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo the following month. 

Fresh from her Master's degree at the Royal Opera Academy in Copenhagen, Davidsen hadn’t many engagements in her diary, so had tried the competition route. “To get auditions is hard. I had already auditioned at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Munich, but they see people all the time, so even if you do an audition, you’re one of many.” 

She was overwhelmed by her Operalia success. “It was so surreal,” she reflects. “I had hoped I was going to reach the second round, but then I was in the final and won first prize, also the audience prize. It was a complete shock. I never saw it coming at all.” 

Did the offers come flooding in? “I want to be humble and say it took a while, but no!” she laughs. “My agent [Maria Mot] and I had started working together before this, which was very lucky as she knew a lot of these people. When the Met or the Staatsoper Berlin or Covent Garden, these big houses, were making offers, I knew I had to wait for the right role rather than just jump in. Vocally, maybe I was ready, but mentally it was all very new to me.”

Davidsen is not one to let things go to her head. She strikes me as one of the most grounded singers I’ve ever met. “It’s easier to say no!” she confesses. “I’m that type of person that would rather run away than push myself into something. Curiosity is not my forte!” 

Davidsen came to her trade quite late. She didn’t hear her first opera until she was 20 while she was studying at the Grieg Academy in Bergen. “I realised that I had this space where I could communicate things that I couldn’t in real life – I played the guitar and I wrote songs, all very low key. I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but I really enjoyed expressing these things through singing. When people say they love singing in choruses, it can have the same effect as going for a run – a sense of release. That’s the thing that grabbed me at the beginning.”  

Lise Davidsen
© James Hole

Her real opera education took place in Copenhagen, where she developed from a Baroque mezzo into a soprano. “It sounds like it was a dramatic change but this was more of a development. My teacher said later on that it was good that I did it that way, because my vocal cords were long and a lot of things needed to settle. Some people settle their top first and then their lower range, I did it the other way around!”

Now, Davidsen commands international stages, in demand at all the major opera houses, but she’s preparing to face her largest audience in early September when she headlines the Last Night of the Proms. It’s a date rescheduled from 2022 when it was cancelled due to Queen Elizabeth II’s death. Though don’t go expecting a wacky costume for Rule, Britannia! à la Dame Sarah Connolly dressed as Lord Nelson, Juan Diego Flórez as an Inca warrior or Nina Stemme as a Valkyrie. “We’ve gone full circle at least three times about what I’m going to wear! I can’t carry ‘fun’ in a way others can, so we are going for an amazing dress. I hope people won’t be disappointed!” 

Gerald Finley (Wolfram) and Lise Davidsen (Elisabeth) and Royal Opera Chorus in Tannhäuser
© ROH | Clive Barda (January 2023)

Davidsen has been a regular in London this season. She brought her Elisabeth back to Covent Garden earlier this year when Tim Albery’s Tannhäuser production was revived. She has a number of Wagner and Strauss roles in her locker now – Elisabeth, Sieglinde, Ariadne, Chrysothemis, the Marschallin. A new Straussian role on the horizon is her first Salome next season in Paris – “sort of Chrysothemis meets Ariadne” – and she’ll be taking the score on holiday to Croatia this summer. 

But surely there must be a chase between the big houses and festivals to sign up her first Brünnhilde? “I wish I could say no, you are completely wrong, but you’re absolutely spot on!” she laughs. “It’s getting closer to coming, but it’s still far away. There are some Ring cycles coming up, but I am staying with my Sieglinde for now.” 

Isolde is another role she is content to wait for, although she concedes it is probably closer than Brünnhilde. We discuss how, with opera houses planning so far in advance, it is difficult to know where her voice will be in four or five years’ time. “What the houses say is that as long as we can have a dialogue a year or so in advance, then I will know if a role is going to be a good fit. How do I know now what will fit me in four or five years? I can guess, I can hope and we can plan accordingly but two years before is much more realistic. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, there are so many things that can change our lives, but houses are open to that dialogue. That’s also why I’m so private about my engagements because anything can happen. Until it’s official, I really can’t share because I really don’t know if it’s going to happen!” 

Brian Jagde (Don Carlo) and Lise Davidsen (Elisabetta) in Don Carlo
© ROH | Bill Cooper (June 2023)

For now, Davidsen is turning her attention towards Italian repertoire. She has sung Verdi’s Requiem a number of times, but her recent role debut as Elisabetta in Don Carlo was her first staged Verdi. How different is it to sing from her usual rep? “The elasticity and lightness of Verdi is, for me and my voice, very different from Wagner and Strauss. That said, Tannhäuser Elisabeth is the lightest Wagner role, where there is no need to push through the line, so it demands that same lightness, in a way. Verdi, especially in the first act of Don Carlo, requires a type of elasticity.”  

Elisabetta is still a taxing role, but stamina is less of a problem for a soprano used to singing Wagner. “The vocal break from Elisabetta’s romanza to the Act 5 aria is quite long. The scene with Philip is very emotional, but also quite short, so that was one of the key things for me, learning how to balance things and still have enough flexibility and energy left for the aria.” 

Lise Davidsen
© James Hole

Further Italian roles will follow: Tosca, which she’s already sung in concert, and Leonora in La forza del destino. Amelia in Un ballo in maschera (a 2021 pandemic casualty) will surely follow in time. But what of Desdemona in Otello? “Desdemona is a funny one. I love it and I actually covered it when I was at the opera academy, but I don’t think they would ever have seriously put me on stage! I think today they tend to cast it with a lighter soprano.” 

And if Davidsen were to suddenly find herself back as a mezzo – just for a day – which role would she perform? “Oh, that’s such a good question!” she exclaims. “Octavian is a fascinating role – there’s something there which is vocally amazing and the role, the development of the character is appealing. But I’d also want to go for Mozart, just to bang out some coloratura, so I’d say Octavian or Sesto in La clemenza di Tito because the characters are so different from what I sing.” 

Does she ever get asked to sing Mozart? “I studied some arias and during auditions I remember someone telling me I was born ten or twenty years too late.” We ponder the dangers of typecasting. Even singers such as Renée Fleming and Jessye Norman – singers Davidsen hugely admires – would struggle to get cast in Mozart today. 

Samantha Hankey (Octavian) and Lise Davidsen (Marschallin) in Der Rosenkavalier
© Ken Howard | Met Opera (March 2023)

“I think for some people it’s a necessary part of the industry,” she explains. “For younger people, it can be useful to somehow find their ‘box’, a way to sell themselves, but once they’ve done that, all boxes should be torn up and you should step back and say ‘What can I sing? What fits my voice?’ That’s all that matters. Of course, you can’t cast me as Desdemona opposite a Mozartian tenor as Otello! If you put two opposites together, it’s doomed to fail. I’m lucky that a lot of casting directors know me now and I know my agent has done a lot of hard work to say, ‘No, Lise can sing a lot of things other than Elisabeth in Tannhäuser!’.” Believe me, she can.

See forthcoming performances by Lise Davidsen. The Last Night of the Proms is 9th September.