To sing music by dead people. And alive.

As a classical singer I perform lots and lots of music by dead people. One disadvantage though of singing the music by composers who stopped living is that you can’t ask them what they really meant, how they wanted it sound, who they wrote it for or just simple things like tempo or dynamics. We can only guess.
The Early Music Movement has from when it began in the 50’s been incredibly important to our understanding of the fantastic music of the baroque and the pre baroque era, but it has grown into a kind of mainstream genre where some theories have become truths we don’t even talk about any more. A lot of people don’t ask questions any more, but take for granted that they Know.
Yes, there are books and treatises, paintings and other clues, but they are still just clues. Good clues, but, I say it again, clues, hints. We know things like how trills were supposed to be played and sung, there are written down improvisations so we know about that. We know many of the technical things, but we have no idea how it actually sounded!
Especially the sound of singers is something of a mystery. Again, a lot of people preach the ”truth” but, again, we have no idea (In some cases, like with the castrato singers, i think it’s just as good). And maybe we wouldn’t like what we heard anyway? Maybe the singers would be overly sentimental in their interpretation, too harsh in their tone? Maybe their timing too free? Maybe they improvise just a little too extravagant?
For me, I believe that the only correct way is to be humble for the time passed and with all our love and gratefulness respect to the people, who lived and worked before us, perform the music of their time in the best way we possibly can, with the knowledge we have and not be too sure about the rest… How we perform ”authentically” today is more of mirror of our own time than we want to think. (Don’t misunderstand me- of course we should learn as much as we can and of course we should be as respectful as we can to the collected knowledge. And of course! Know the rules before you break them and all that. I can say this because I’ve worked with and studied early music for more than 20 years.)
One good thing about not knowing for sure, is that it gives us lots of opportunity to use our brains and figure out for our selves what we think is right for us, here and now. When we do that, the music comes alive and it’s just wonderful, wunderbar!
But sometimes the music I sing is by someones who is not only unquestionably very alive, but also someone close by, someone I can work with. Like now. I have for the last week worked on ”Places of Sounds and Words” a piece by my dear friend Henrik Hellstenius. He wrote this for me and the glorious Cikada (if you haven’t had a 35 minutes long piece written for you, DO IT! It’s GREAT!) and we’ll perform it for the third time this Saturday, in Copenhagen. Here.
”Places…” is a kind of urban cantata. We experience the sounds of the city. The sounds we hear all the time and the sounds no one should have to hear. We hear the scattered modern human, our ideas of the world, the echo from the past and, even, some birds and animals. It’s a fantastic piece and I love doing it.
And as Händel wrote and adapted his music to fit his singers, Henrik does that for me. When I can’t ask G F (yes, I call him that) if he really meant ”that” or if ”this” is a misprint, I can ask Henrik! I can even ask him to rewrite it for me if my soprano mood requires so. Like Händel’s singers/musician could (and did).
With him, and his living colleagues, I can discuss colours, tempo and the over all idea and intention of the work, so I know for sure what he or she wants.
Händel might be clenching his fists in frustration over hos misinterpreted his music has become. Maybe we are "too" good?  Or maybe, I chose to think this, he likes it a lot.
Of course it can be intimidating to perform and carry the work of someone who sits right in front of you, but if it’s one thing I’ve learned by doing just that, is that most of them they want the music they have written to come genuinely alive and to be sung and played with the unique voice and temper of that one performer or ensemble.
And to end this in a pretentious way, It’s only music, but music and the music we make together, musicians and composers, should be bigger that ourselves, and discussions of Dos and Don’ts.

Ophelia - or (re)Fin(d)ing my voice

In the Autumn 2004 I was a very tired mother of a two-year old, and I had also just received my Konzertexamen-diploma. Twenty-eight years old with a long education behind me and a future I didn't know anything about. Lost and a bit sad.

The musical training I'd obtained was purely classical, with an emphasis on early and contemporary music. I loved classical and romantic music with all my heart, but didn't feel I really belonged in that tradition or that way of singing.

I think my problem was that I always considered myself being a musician first – a musician who happens to use the voice as her instrument- and in the world into which I was raised a singer is a singer and a soprano even more so.

"Please don't think too much! Please don't raise your (own) voice! Please just do what we ask you to."* - is what I felt that world said to me. "Just be perfect enough".

Perfection was and is in demand. Yes, I always aim to refine  my technique, work with the little details, improve my tone, making it soft, pure and strong, but I've never aspired to be perfect. There is no such thing as pure perfection, apart from, maybe a newborn baby and a rosebud.


So, back to the Autumn 2004. I had just completed my studies with a successful Debut concert and I felt lost.

In my concert program I included "Drei Lieder der Ophelia" by Richard Strauss. Genius music, perfect if you will, that captures Ophelia's state of complete despair, just before she meets her death in the river. Even though I've lived a quite happy and normal life, I felt that I could easily sympathize with her.

In the process of learning and interpreting the songs, I went to Anne-Lise Berntsen (R.I.P.), a singer who looked for more than what you could see and who always stood up for herself, doing her thing. She opened up new doors in the Ophelia/Elisabeth house, making it bigger and giving me some keys to understand the complexity of her distress. Or, not so complex- she was simply very, very sad, lonely and lost.

Anne Lise also encouraged me to sing the way I felt I had to sing, with the voice I needed to use, even if it wasn't the most beautiful one and that was very liberating for me (to be fair, Barbro Marklund-Petersone, my teacher at the State Academy of Music never tried to oppress that side of me- she always lets me just sing)


A few days before Christmas that same year I saw an announcement for an audition for a new opera- Ophelia. That's about what it said, not much information, but I felt my heart beat fast and my whole body, maybe even the universe, saying: This is it.

Next thing I remember, the big studio at the radio house in Oslo, my nerves on the outside of my body and the floor under my feet very unstable. The blood left my head (I think it went to my heart) and the sheet of music left my hands and landed on the wobbly floor.

And that was it. I went home, thinking it was all over. Of course it was all over. If you sing like that in an audition… Well, it wasn't exactly perfect.

But, of course I got the part! That's what this post is all about. And what happened next is that people started to ask me to sing, scream or whisper from my heart and soul, to dig out all the darkness and ugliness and, by all means, vulnerability. They demanded it! Suddenly there was no perfect way of doing it. Perfection gone. Beautiful opera voice out.

The composer, wonderful Henrik Hellstenius, and I had meetings where he asked me what I could do and we went from there. A lot of the material was written (even with other singers in mind) when I got it, but for me it was my part.

The whole idea with the opera (with libretto by Cecilie Løveid) is to give Ophelia the strong voice. The other characters are Hamlet, Gertrude and three Woodmaidens and they all characterize loneliness, how extremely lonely it can be to be human, and how fragile we all are (maybe not the Woodmaidens…they characterize…other things).

The key word from stage director Jon Tombre: "honesty". In this production I had nowhere to hide. No perfect tone or warm timbre to sing from within. It was an eye opener for me. Or a voice opener. For what happened in the process was that all kinds of singing became easier for me, Bach, Händel, Schönberg… Not that I always "scream" or sing with a strained voice, but once I had found my true, honest voice I felt that this was where I should always start from.

I will always be very, very grateful to Jon and Henrik (and the others around me at that time) for forcing me to open my voice and be honest, no matter what.

I have sung the part of Ophelia three times now. Two on stage and one for a recording. I find new colours in us, in her and in me everytime.


I can see, when I read my own words now, that it's not very easy to follow and it becomes sentimental and "wow, you just have to be true to yourself and everything will go your way"- it's not what I mean. I just mean… Some of us really have to do it our way or we'll get miserable, depressed and awful human beings.