Two in a Million
True dramatic sopranos who can do justice to Wagner’s and Strauss’s most powerful heroines are among the rarest commodities in opera. In Strauss’s Elektra this month, Met audiences have the rare opportunity to experience two of them at the same time, as Nina Stemme reprises her overpowering portrayal in the title role and Lise Davidsen makes her eagerly anticipated role debut as Chrysothemis. On their first day of rehearsal together (pictured above), the two sat down with the Met’s Jay Goodwin to discuss their onstage partnership, Strauss’s twisted sisters, and Patrice Chéreau’s uncommonly insightful staging.
Jay Goodwin: I know that the two of you sang together in a Walküre in Berlin in 2020. But is that the only time you’ve worked together so far?
Nina Stemme: No, there was also a Götterdämmerung at Covent Garden three and a half years ago.
Lise Davidsen: Oh yeah, that’s true, I was doing the Third Norn. And I also sang one of the Valkyries.
NS: Oh, of course! So we’ve actually been in three different productions together.
LD: But Sieglinde and Brünnhilde in Berlin was our first close collaboration.
JG: What memories stand out from those first performances together?
LD: Well, of course I knew everything about Nina. And when you know you want to do the same repertoire one day, you listen in a different way because you learn a lot from seeing someone do it. It was also special for me because it was my first Sieglinde. It will be the same here, doing my first Chrysothemis. But I’ve watched Nina as Elektra on video. She’s so amazing, and people should just know how extremely hard the role is at all levels.
NS: This opera is so tricky the first time you do it. And even when you revive it—it’s been three years since I sang Elektra.
LD: Oh, so you might need to run it once or twice. [Laughter]
NS: For me, I remember the first time we sang out in the London Walküre, and I heard your voice. I’d heard about you and read about you, but when I finally heard you sing, I just thought—finally, here is a real singer coming through. I also wanted to know what kind of colleague you would be, and it’s been wonderful to see how hardworking you are, and what a grounded and straightforward, nice person. I just wish we’d had more time to get to know each other.
LD: Me too. People think we all know each other very well, but in Berlin, we were amid Covid and between two lockdowns. So it was very strict—rehearsals, testing, and that’s it. No after-party, no socializing, nothing.
NS: But I could tell right away that you knew, even though you’d have people trying to push you, that you have to take it slow in order to develop naturally and to find as many colors as possible in your fantastic instrument.
JG: Earlier in your career, Nina, did you feel that same pressure to move onto other roles before you were ready?
NS: I was lucky there because I started out as a lyric or maybe a big lyric soprano, singing Madama Butterfly, so nobody would have guessed that I would eventually sing the roles I’m doing now. But then with every big role I took on, my voice grew, so I was constantly studying new repertoire. That gave me a chance to be the dark horse. I made an impression because people didn’t know where I came from.
LD: Or where you were going. Yeah, I didn’t have that. I mean, I remember going to auditions with Mozart roles and being told that I was born ten years too late because everyone was casting Mozart so light—nobody was using a Contessa or a Fiordiligi of my type. But then, when you sing Elisabeth [in Tannhäuser], people think that tomorrow is Brünnhilde.
NS: It’s a wonderful thing you have ahead of you, but people have to know that an instrument like yours needs time.
JG: Lise, it’s obvious that you really admire Nina as an artist. Does that go back to before you met her? Did you see her perform or listen to her recordings?
LD: I remember when I was studying Agathe in Der Freischütz, I watched a video on YouTube of Nina doing the big aria. And I said to my boyfriend at the time, well, I’m not doing this. There’s no point, I can’t do it like that. The legato, everything, was just so perfect.
JG: Coming back to Elektra, Nina, did you ever sing Chrysothemis?
NS: No, I skipped that. I actually had an offer to sing it for a revival at Covent Garden, but I would only have had two weeks of rehearsals. And having sung the Fifth Maid as the very first role I did on my contract in Cologne in 1995, I realized that Chrysothemis is not very easy, and I would need more time. Also, if you are just thrown into this role, it’s easy to make her less important than she really is. She’s really not the hausfrau that you think at first.
JG: How have you found learning the role, Lise? What has been most rewarding?
LD: I think the most rewarding thing is to be part of this production. It’s very thought-through—I mean, Chéreau would never do otherwise—and I think it will be nice to do a very close-to-reality production.
NS: It means we can make our characters closer to ourselves. And the Chrysothemis in this version is one I can relate to as an artist. I know it will be perfect for you, and a challenge for me, with such a strong singer in the role.
LD: There’s so much hope in her, and so much love for Elektra. There’s fear, but fear for her, not of her. It’s a way of portraying the other side of Elektra, the other side of her nature. They’ve been dealt different cards and gone different ways, but they’re still sisters.
NS: Exactly. I really think they’re two sides of the same coin.
JG: Nina, how would you describe your Elektra in this production?
NS: Well, it has been six years since the last time, so of course I’m going to try other ways of reacting with different colleagues on stage. But in this production, I can show the love that Elektra bears within. And also, that she has chosen to stay here and not to run away. Nobody really keeps her there, so why does she stay? She’s waiting for revenge to be taken, but she doesn’t have the guts to do it herself. Maybe I can put some more edge to her this time. But I’m staying open, and we will see.
Jay Goodwin is the Met’s Editorial Director.