Lise Davidsen triumphs in Bayreuth debut

With the Bayreuth festival under her belt, soprano Lise Davidsen looks ahead to the Metropolitan Opera

BAYREUTH, Germany -- When Lise Davidsen describes her Bayreuth audition as a chilling experience, she isn't being metaphorical.

Deep in the winter of 2017 she had journeyed to this city in northern Bavaria to sing Elisabeth's two arias from Richard Wagner's "Tannhauser" on the stage of the Festspielhaus. The opera house, which opened in 1876, was built to Wagner's specifications and to this day the auditorium has no heating or air conditioning lest they interfere with the acoustics.

The temperature at the time: 16 degrees Fahrenheit.

"I had my coat on in the dressing room and then before I went on I took it off, because that's what you do, but they told me it's OK to keep it on," the Norwegian soprano recalled. Still shivering from the cold, she made it through the first aria with no problem, but in the second — an extended prayer — "with all those long phrases that require absolute breath control, I think there was a little bit of extra vibrato!"

No matter. She sufficiently impressed festival co-director Katharina Wagner — great-granddaughter of the composer — to be engaged for the role in a new production that opened this summer's festival. This time there was no danger of anyone freezing: The temperature on opening day in late July was 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

For a Wagnerian soprano, it was the highest-profile assignment imaginable: singing in front of 2,000 well-heeled opera-goers who travel from all over the world to worship at the master's shrine.

"To be standing there on the opening night, in such a special house, I was like, this is just too much, in a really good way," Davidsen recalled in an interview at the Festspielhaus between performances. Even if I had my doubts and insecurities, I still feel like it's a good place to be insecure."

With no curtain calls between acts, Davidsen had to wait until the end for a solo bow.

"It's weird. You wonder what the audience thinks," she said, "but you know your job ... so by the time you take applause, even if they would have booed, I think I would have thought, 'OK, but then I am in the wrong place,' because I couldn't have done anything differently."

"Of course it would have hurt," she added. "I would have cried for days, but you're focused on doing your job and the applause is just a huge bonus."

And quite a bonus it was. The audience, which included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, embraced her, as did the critics. A lesser singer might have taken second billing to the production itself — a radical reinterpretation by director Tobias Kratzer that portrayed the goddess Venus as an anarchist cavorting with a drum-playing dwarf and a black drag queen.

But Mark Swed wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the evening's "loudest cheers" were "for the sensational emerging Wagnerian soprano Lise Davidsen." Shirley Apthorp in the Financial Times said she "raises the level of the evening from passable to miraculous with every note she sings."

With a career that "goes in high speed," there's little time to relax and savor her Bayreuth triumph. Coming up in three months is her Metropolitan Opera debut, singing the role of Lisa in Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades." In the spring she'll headline a new production of Beethoven's "Fidelio" alongside tenor Jonas Kaufmann at London's Royal Opera House. And she's invited back to Bayreuth next summer, to repeat Elisabeth and sing Sieglinde in a new production of the "Ring" cycle.

At just 32, Davidsen is determined to "hold on to the lyric, lighter sound of my voice as long as possible" and take her time building to the most taxing roles of the Wagnerian repertory. That means no Brunnhildes or Isoldes for "at least eight to 10 years" — a pronouncement that is sure to disappoint many of her fans. Meanwhile, she'll continue giving frequent song recitals and take on some Strauss heroines and what she calls "some of those Verdi ladies."

For advice on how to pace her career, she relies heavily on her London-based agent Maria Mot.

"I told Lise a long time ago that her career was going to be built on things she turns down rather than the ones she accepts," Mot said in an email. "So we mapped out a plan for each role she was going to take for the next 10 to 15 years and we stuck to it religiously."

Davidsen said she feels grateful for this guidance. "I know many colleagues who have agents who just push and push and push, and then after a couple of years you burn out, either mentally or vocally."

Avoiding burnout also means taking enough time off between engagements. Davidsen had a break of 10 days during the "Tannhauser" run and went on a rare vacation with her family to Croatia.

"It's true, I don't take many breaks," she said. "For me now I feel the career is such a blessing, I feel it's a responsibility to focus on that 100 percent. And then I still have an opportunity to have a family. But right now my focus is my career."