Scandinavia’s Christmas superstar sings in the season
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
“Ingen jul uten Sissel!”—“No Christmas without Sissel!” it’s been said, and for many of us, that’s been true for many years now. Ever since the release of her first Christmas album, “Glade Jul,” in 1987, Sissel Kyrkjebø has set the mood for the holiday season for Norwegians, far and wide. With over 1 million CDs sold, it is the most successful Norwegian Christmas album ever. It has always been my favorite, only to be surpassed by her fourth Christmas album, “Strålande jul,” released in 2009, together with legendary Norwegian folk singer Odd Nordstoga. Jul is somehow synonymous with Sissel, as she sings in the season each year.
During an interview in Salt Lake City this past summer, Sissel told me that she loves the Christmas season, even though it is one of the busiest times of the year for her. With performances throughout Scandinavia, she is often on the road already in late November up until a feways before Christmas. The Nordic “queen of Christmas” is in high demand, often performing two concerts in one day
Lucky person that I am, I’ve twice had the chance to see Sissel in action for jul, the first time in Drammen, Norway, in 2011, and more recently a few weeks ago, in Växjö, Sweden, together with my Swedish relatives, who live nearby in the Småland countryside. It was my cousin Elisabeth’s dream to hear Sissel live, and we decided it was something we had to experience together.
This year, November was a very gray month throughout southern Sweden: the city of Växjö did not see more than three hours of sunshine the entire month. When it is damp and dark outside, it is easy to hole up in front of the TV, reports of unrest around the globe streaming in. With the dreary weather and unsettling news, anticipation for the Advent season is great. There is a reason why Swedes celebrate Christmas with such enthusiasm and style: it is needed. And for us this year, Sissels jul came as a bright ray of warmth and light.
From the minute we entered the theater at Växjö’s Konserthus on, Nov. 24, I knew we were in for something special. The stage was lit with red and blue floodlights, with a background of snow-covered woods, much like a winter landscape in Småland. In front of this, was a chaise longue and old-fashioned lamps, as if she had come home to grandmother’s house for jul, comfortable and comforting: the world of Sissel.
And when Sissel came on stage, this feeling of familiarity and warmth intensified. Her stage presence is not to be underestimated: first there is her natural beauty, her stunning evening gowns, and then there is—of course—her incomparable, glorious voice. But while Sissel is a superstar in every sense of the word, she is able to connect with her audience on a very personal level. At every moment, you feel like she is there just for you.
And on that gray and overcast Sunday afternoon, Sissel struck the right tone in every sense of the word. With a program encompassing an array of musical genres and themes, there was a unifying thread in the program: peace and reconciliation, hope and love for humankind. At one point, the singer invoked the famous words of Norwegian poet Arnulf Øverland: “Du må ikke sove”—“You must not sleep.” Drawing a parallel between the threat looming over Europe in 1937, we were reminded of what is important during the Advent season: humanity and peace.
Singing to a Swedish audience, Sissel naturally chose a selection of popular Swedish Christmas songs, including a hit she made popular in recording about decade ago with Sweden’s Tommy Körberg, “Julen är här”—“Christmas is here.” With her new Christmas program, Sissel was performing it on stage for the first time. It is a song about Christmas “i hela Norden”—in all the North—which reminded us of Sissel’s popularity as a Scandinavian performer, known just as well in Sweden and Denmark as in Norway.
Her rendition of another famous Swedish Christmas song later on in the program, “Jul, jul, strålande jul” (known in English as “Wonderful Peace”), felt both nostalgic and heartwarming. My thoughts wandered back to a Christmas I spent with my cousin Elisabeth 43 years ago, when we woke up early in the morning to attend the early morning services, the lights flickering on the glistening snow. I am quite certain many others had similar flashbacks to Christmases of days gone by.
The program also included music not necessarily associated with Christmas—ABBA, gospel, sacred music, and even the Disney favorite, “When You Wish upon a Star”—all held together by the underlying theme of a vision for a better world.
Sissel spoke to this theme in her narrative, weaving the songs together in a coherent collage, speaking in her charming Bergen dialect. Her spoken diction is just a clear as when she is singing: one understands every word. She is a magnificent storyteller, with the ability to make you feel that she is speaking directly to you: it is a unique gift.
We learned from Sissel that, despite her years living in Copenhagen and traveling the world, her heart is always in Norway—especially at Christmastime. And when all is said and done, her concert in Växjö was in its essence a Norwegian Christmas concert, delivered from a Norwegian perspective.
We could hum along to the hymn “Deilig er jorden” (“Beautiful Savior”), and we were introduced to less familiar songs, such as troubadour Erik Bye’s “Vår Herres klinkekule” (“God’s Little Marble”) and “Alt det som skinner” (“All that Shines”) by Anne Grete Preus. The latter was a tribute to the singer and songwriter lost too soon to Norwegians this year. For me, the moment brought home memories of those who have left us and yet remain with us in our hearts during the holiday season.
But there were also many light, even humorous moments in the concert that only the versatile Sissel could make possible. Recognized as one of the most talented crossover sopranos on the planet, she showed off her abilities to their full extent at the Växjö concert. It is always thrilling to hear the clear dramatic notes of her upper range, but her voice also has enormous appeal in lower ranges—and in any register, she sounds completely natural.
As she belted out the pop hits “Reach out and touch” or “Feliz Navidad,” one had the feeling of being inside a holiday cabaret. There were stories to share from her 50th birthday, and at one point, much to everyone’s surprise, Sissel picked up a tuba to help out the band.
The singer took the time to introduce the six-member ensemble backing her up. Throughout, one sensed a strong synergy among all the musicians. Sissel has shared with me that a strong bonding takes place when going on the road, that a family-like feeling takes hold, something that could be sensed in the performance. Notably, her 20-year-old daughter, Sarah Kyrkjebø Skoller, joined the ensemble last year, and we got to hear how daughter, like mother, is a gifted singer.
But the crowning moment came at the very end of the concert. Revved up by Sissel’s lively finale “Se ilden lyse” (“Fire in your Heart”), which she performed at the Lillehammer Olympics 25 years ago, the audience brought her back to the stage with a standing ovation and thunderous applause.
First, the Norwegian Christmas queen brought us back to a contemplative mood with one of her newest songs, “Slow Down,” by American gospel songwriter Chuck Girard. Silence filled the concert hall, and the audience was ready for what it had been waiting for.
The opening arpeggios were heard from perhaps the most beloved Swedish Christmas songs of all, “O helga natt” (“O Holy Night”). Composed by Adophe Adam in France in 1847, and made famous by Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, it is so well known in Sweden that many Swedes actually think it was a Swedish song from the beginning.
With a moment’s pause, you could hear a pin drop in the hall, and then Sissel took us straight to heaven with her lilting soprano tones. To my mind and senses, her interpretation of “O helga natt” cannot be surpassed. It not only showcases her unique abilities as a singer but also her extraordinary ability to reach out and touch her audience.
For me and for my cousin Elisabeth, it was a moment that will live in our hearts during the holiday season and throughout the New Year, a moment of warmth and kindness, the peace and joy that are the true meaning of Christmas.
Visit Sissel’s website at www.sisselmusic.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.