Lise Davidsen brings you Christmas From Norway
Crossing over from opera to Christmas
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
At age 36, Norway’s Lise Davidsen, is the most in-demand opera singer in the world now. Since winning first prize in the Queen Sonja Competition in 2013 and then first prize and audience prize in the Operalia competition in London the same year, her career has skyrocketed across the international arena.
She has conquered the stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in performance after performance. Her voice has been described as “exceptionally fine” by The Norwegian American’s own opera critic Rolf Kristian Stang (see “International opera fans strike gold—Norwegian gold!” The Norwegian American, Dec. 27, 2019).
And now Lise has crossed over to Christmas with the Nov. 10 release of her first holiday album, Christmas From Norway, on the Decca label. As soon as I caught wind of it, I pre-ordered one, and I am happy to report that it did not disappoint. Recently, I also had the unique opportunity to talk to Lise about her rise to fame and her new Christmas present to her fans.
Not just another Christmas album
For Lise, music is at the center of everything she cherishes about the festive holiday season. “Christmas is how I got into music,” she explained.“We listened to all kinds of music: choral music, popular music, and Norwegian songs.” She recalled with fondness how she would attend Christmas Eve services with her family, when everyone joined in to sing the old beloved Christmas hymns, the feeling of warmth and togetherness.
“No one really needed another Christmas CD,” said Lise most modestly. “It’s something I wanted to do out of my love for this music and those memories. It’s a very personal album.”
With Christmas From Norway, Lise brings to life the warm glow of a Nordic Christmas, creating the essence of the light in the darkness.
“For Scandinavians, Christmas is the white light we need in the middle of a long winter. Perhaps that’s why we embrace it. And we really do embrace it,” Lise has said.
Lise also understands that singing is a tradition to be shared. With this new album, she is hoping to reach a wider audience beyond the realm of opera.
Yet, with Christmas From Norway, she follows in the tradition of other opera stars who have produced classic Christmas albums on the Decca label, including the two Scandinavian greats Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. Many of the arrangements drew on recordings in the Decca archive, arranged for acclaimed singers including Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Renée Fleming.
“I find those recordings wonderful and so Christmassy,” Lise has said. “‘These are the songs we all know. I love that Christmas music has such reach.”
Hard acts to follow, but it just may be that Lise does it better—at least in my humble opinion. Crossing over from the classical genre to songs we all know and love can present challenges. There is the danger that opera technique can sound contrived; the music can lose its natural spontaneity and charm. Perfection can become an artist’s undoing when singing a Christmas song that we may want to sing along with.
Quite astonishingly, the magnificent Norwegian diva is able to avoid these pitfalls without sacrificing the perfection. Each tone is pure, crystal clear, as if Lise is singing to us directly from the heart. The songs have a beautifully natural ring to them, which is key in performing this kind of music.
It is not to be forgotten that Lise Davidsen, a true dramatic soprano, first trained as a mezzo soprano, and she is able to ascend from a fully resonant lower register to the bedazzling heights in her upper range, all in a way that seems effortless.
Much of her success with the new Christmas album has to do with the selection and sequencing of the songs that are perfectly suited to her voice. They take the listener on a journey that goes beyond the borders of Norway, giving the album a broader international appeal. As an opera singer, Lise has trained to sing in several languages, and on the album, we hear her favorite Norwegian, Swedish, German, and English Christmas songs.
She opens the album with the Swedish classic “O helga natt” (“O Holy Night”), which you would swear Adolphe Adam had composed for her back in 1847. The song’s text was actually first written in French as the poem “Cantique de Noël,” but having been made famous by the legendary Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, most Swedes today believe it is their own. And it is often heard in Norway—sung in Swedish.
Swedish Christmas songs have long been popular in Norway, and Lise includes two other Swedish-language songs,”Jul, jul strålende jul” and “Julvisa” (Giv mig ej glans, ej guld, ej prakt). The former is one of the most beloved Christmas songs in the Nordic repertory with its beautiful imagery of the winter landscape with snow and light. The latter, with it text written by the Swedish-Finnish poet Zacharius Topelius and music by Jean Sibelius, is perfectly suited to the opera star’s voice.
“Sweden and Norway have taken each other’s songs,” said Lise. “We have a similar approach to Christmas.” The languages are also mutually intelligible.
But for a Norwegian American, the songs that Lise sings in Norwegian are the ones that go straight to the heart—and here she shows her great versatility as a singer.
“Mitt hjerte alltid vanker”—”My Heart Always Wanders”—is an old Norwegian hymn based on an old folk melody written in a minor key. The crystal clear tones of Lise’s voice take on a hauntingly mesmerizing quality as they are juxtaposed against the sounds of Norwegian folk instruments in a minimalist orchestration.
Every Norwegian American will also relate to her moving rendition of “Deilig er jorden,” known in the English-speaking world as
“It is the most Norwegian Christmas song of all,” said Lise. She leads in as a soloist and is then backed up by a choir, as the sound swells and the atmosphere heightens. This hymn is heard in every Norwegian church on Christmas Eve, and as you listen to Lise’s rendition, she takes you back to Norway.
On Christmas From Norway, the Norwegian soprano also includes selections from the German-speaking world that may be lesser known to her audience—songs by Hugo Wolf, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Max Reger, all perfectly suited to her voice and delivered flawlessly. Again, training as an opera singer is required to perform these songs, but Lise makes it sound effortless and natural.
The songs sung in English—“Silent Night,” “O, Come All Ye Faithful,” “The First Noël”—are familiar to all but beautifully fresh. The new arrangements have a very full but soothing sound, as Lise’s voice soars above the orchestration.
Each of the 14 tracks on Christmas From Norway is mesmerizing in its own way. It is hard to pinpoint a favorite before the album closes with “O Holy Night” sung in English.
But if I had to pick out one song that speaks to me in particular, it would be Charles-François Gonoud’s art song “Ave Maria” after J.S. Bach. Lise has the range and the power to sing this song to its fullest, with unsurpassed grace and finesse. To my ears, it is a transcendental experience to listen to her rich, heavenly tones against the harp arpeggios—simply divine.
With Christmas From Norway, Lise has extraordinary backup throughout, with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Christian Eggen, the Norwegian Soloists Choir, and National Opera Children’s Choir—all adding to what sums up to be a perfect yuletide musical collaboration. This is definitely not just another Christmas album.
An opera star worth traveling for
So, what do you do if you can’t get enough of all of this? Why not make a pilgrimage to hear this sensational Norwegian soprano in person? The release of the album is being followed by a major concert tour in venues throughout Norway and Scandinavia, and a TV special will be aired on NRK.
There are also many opportunities to hear Lise right here in the United States. She regularly appears at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In February, she will open as Leonora in a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.
Recently, around the time of my interview, Lise was performing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa. In this production, she appeared with veteran Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, an experience for the entire Nordic community in Chicago. The two opera stars were welcomed by them open arms at a receptions following one of the afternoon matinee performances.
“It was really lovely, so nice of them to take time,” Lise said of this warm reception.
But more exciting was the performance itself. The artist showed her willingness to branch out into new ventures to soar to new heights. Jenůfa is an opera that you would be less likely to see on the stage in New York, and for the first time, Lise took on the challenge of singing in the Czech language.
When she was asked to take on the role a few years ago, she was very intrigued by it.
“Jenůfa is one of the few roles that is part of a proper drama,” she said. “The story moves forward in a different way than what I was used to. The story was written for a smaller Czech village in a different time, but the drama survives because the emotion and the conflict is timeless.”
Once again, Lise received rave reviews. Reporting from Chicago, New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe wrote: “So for those of us who hear in Davidsen’s rich, free tone the kind of golden-age instrument we otherwise know mostly through glimpses on old recordings, it was a privilege to be in Chicago.” Woolfe maintains, “Lise Davidsen is worth traveling for.”
With her home base in Norway, Lise has been on the road for 10 years, and the roles keep coming. Of course, she misses friends and family when she is traveling, but there is always the excitement of being on stage.
“It was so wonderful to come back to opera houses full of people after the pandemic,” she said. “Videos are not the same; there’s nothing to connect to.”
Most of all, Lise, who saw her first opera at age 20, believes it can be something for everyone: “Give it a chance, put your phone away, and you will enjoy it,” she said.
This enthusiasm comes through in everything Lise does. There will be much more to come from this Norwegian superstar, and I, for one, can’t wait to follow along on her amazing musical journey.
To learn more about Lise Davidsen and how to order or stream her new album, visit her website at lisedavidsen.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.