WEXFORD, Ireland — From the moment Lise Davidsen bursts onstage midway through Act 1 of Cherubini’s opera “Medea,” the other characters don’t stand a chance.
It’s not just that the title character is hell-bent on wreaking a horrible vengeance on all around her. It’s also because the young Norwegian soprano unfurls a voice of such overwhelming power and beauty that she immediately casts the other singers into the shade.
Davidsen, taking on her most demanding role to date at this year’s Wexford Festival Opera, triumphs despite some mushy Italian diction and a bizarre updated production that forces her into awkward and even ridiculous stage business.
“Hers is truly a voice in a million,” raved Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph, “and it is one used with feeling and intelligence, too.”
Reviews like that are becoming commonplace for Davidsen. When she sang the title role in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” last summer at the Glyndebourne Festival, Fiona Maddocks wrote in The Guardian that her sound, “silken at the top, rich with deep mezzo colours, pours forth flawlessly as if in one clear, stupendous breath.”
She concluded: “It’s one of the greatest voices I have heard.”
And the great German mezzo Waltraud Meier was similarly impressed when she coached her in a master class in Aix-en-Provence in the summer of 2014. “When she opened her mouth and sang I almost fell back,” Meier told The Associated Press.
Davidsen, who grew up in Stokke south of Oslo, started studying singing at 15. But even after she graduated from the Grieg Academy of Music in Bergen in 2010 and enrolled at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Opera, she hardly anticipated making a career of it.
“I’m not from a musical family,” Davidsen said in an interview last week at the National Opera House, “so for a long time I felt that … well, one day this won’t work so I’ll have to do something else. I saw it more as a hobby rather than a profession.” She said she imagined a career following in her mother’s footsteps helping people with disabilities.
Eventually she became convinced that singing “was what I wanted to do when I grow up.” But when she left the academy in 2014 her huge voice was still developing, and rather than look for jobs immediately, she applied to various vocal competitions. “I understood my voice needed time,” she said, “and I needed time to get it settled for the auditions.”
Her breakthrough came in the summer of 2015, when she entered three contests and won two of them (Operalia and the Queen Sonja International Music Competition), while placing second in the Belvedere Singing Competition.
“That whole summer really caught me by surprise,” Davidsen said. “It took me a long time to realize what had happened. Then in September, I thought: ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve done the last three months!'”
The offers from international houses started pouring in and now, at age 30, she finds herself booked into 2022. She’ll sing her first Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhaeuser” in 2019, and she’s also slated to sing Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” and Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades.” An appearance at the Bayreuth Festival is scheduled, along with her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where general manager Peter Gelb said the company has extensive plans for her.
Until now she has merely nibbled around the edges of Wagner and will repeat three small roles next fall in Covent Garden’s “Ring” cycle: Freia in “Das Rheingold,” Ortlinde in “Die Walkuere” and the Third Norn in “Goetterdaemmerung.”
But as her voice continues to mature, pressure to take on heavier Wagner roles is inevitably mounting. “I call myself a LYRIC DRAMATIC soprano because of my age and what my sound is now,” Davidsen said. “But if everything goes according to plan, the DRAMATIC will come and Bruennhilde and Isolde will be my peak.”
Davidsen stands more than 6 feet tall (she declines to give her exact height) and her size would seem to be an asset in tackling the Wagner heroines, whom she calls “grown-up ladies.”
“It can be annoying in everyday life, but it’s good onstage,” she said, “and it goes together with my voice: ‘Long body, long vocal cords.'”
As for managing expectations, she tries to leave that to her agent and her public relations representative — even to the extent of not reading her own reviews.
“I’ll do the singing, do the opera. The rest I keep at a distance because it’s rolled over me much more than I thought it would,” Davidsen said. “And I really can’t do anything about it. So my way of dealing is to let it be what it is, and then do my thing. And hope and pray that it will be what they want it to be.”