The otherness of the self - artistic research

Since 2016 I am a very proud artistic research fellow at the Norwegian academy of music.

In my research project I will look into the meaning of roles. What the role is and what it can become; what it does with me as a singer and performer when I go into different personalities and characters; what do I have to do with my body and my voice to be able to perform different types of roles; where do I look to find them?

What if I take on all the roles in an opera? What do ”I” become then?
The aim of this research project is to create a performance of the opera L’Orfeo (Claudio Monteverdi) where I sing all the parts myself. In addition Henrik Hellstenius and I will work on a new opera together where I mirror the experiences I make with L’Orfeo. The work with these operas are not only the aim and the goal, but a tool to work on what ”Roles” mean to me and how I can convey this to others.

The idea to the project came from reading about role casting in the operas in the early 17th century. We already know that they doubled roles for practical reasons but it’s possible that it was done for artistic reasons as well. If a specially gifted singer performed two or three different roles in an opera, she or he got to show their virtuosity, both as a singer and as an actor, by switching from one character to the other in the course of seconds. What might have happened in those seconds? What did that do to the drama? Many of the 17th century opera singers came from Commedia dell’arte and were actors who sang, more than singers who acted. What did it do to their singing performance when acting and improvised theatre was a strong foundation for the newly invented opera? This is an exiting new angle in the early opera research that needs more attention. In the contemporary music theatre tradition it’s an established form to work with and on the different aspects of the body and voice. How can I use this knowledge for singing baroque opera and vice versa?

It’s research project with many aspects, but in the end I humbly hope to shed new colours and light on the baroque opera field which has been somewhat locked in strong traditions by the large institutions where the sound of the voice has been more important than the acting. I wish to to bring alternativ ideas on how to cast and find voices for early operas and to create new tools on how to work on performance practice, both in early and contemporary music theatre. Being a performer in divers genres it’s sometimes easy to get lost and, in the end, I wish to find something for all my roles to hold on to and give them more space.

Hallelujah in Belgium…?

We are all humans of this world, we all desire the same things: love, happiness and to be understood for who we are. It shouldn’t be so difficult to understand one another, especially not between two countries very close to each other, like for example me from Sweden/Norway and someone from, let’s say Belgium.

Belgium has, for me, been a series of ”banging my head against the wall” experiences.

It all started very well when I sang in the Early Music Competition in picturesque Bruges and came in number three in the finals! Yay!

But then… I’ve be paralysed by fear and scared of singing even the smallest note wrong in a highly acclaimed vocal ensemble. I’ve been told it just was  ”not good enough” (and felt it too) after a horrible audition. I’ve been recovering from lost voice/illnes/tiredness, but forced myself into doing a very demanding concert resulting in THE WORST review EVER. A review that knocked down quite a lot of my confidence at the time.

It may sound like nothing, but I really like Belgium, I like the flemish language, the food, the beer, the cute houses and the music tradition and it’s almost like you fancy someone a lot and they just keep telling you to please, go away. Like a sad love story.

My experiences in Belgium have been the ones that I shouldn’t care about. You shouldn’t care about a bad review (even if it’s BAD). A review is something we all know we should stand above and not belittle ourselves with. But I did care. My fault.  You also shouldn’t care about a horrible audition. You should just move on to the next one and the next one, I know this. But, auditions bring forth the worst in me, not as a human, but as a singer and it stands for all of the things I don’t appreciate (being judged, being ”best” and so on). This particular one was also an example of how small we performers are and how easy it is for the powerful ones to just disclaim us, as if we really don’t mean anything. No, it might not be like that, but it felt like that. I also might have told them just that afterwards. Not the smartest thing, I agree, but it felt important at the time. Also, why does being smart mean ”keep your mouth shut, even if you feel badly treated” in classical music business?      As for the ensemble? I don’t know. It just wasn’t my thing. I wanted it to be my thing, but it wasn’t.

All of these things should be small arrows pointing me in the direction of where I should go and where I’ll find myself. And, maybe they are…

Anyway. On Sunday I have a chance of making amends with Belgium. On Sunday I will sing loud and clear with my own voice together with my favourite people. Maybe it’ll be a Hallelujah this time?

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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.

When music is scary

On the occasion of Sunday’s concert with Paulus Barokk.

I realise, when I write these posts, that many of them are about what I’ve learned and what I now have to re-learn in my own way. Always having been the good student, doing what the grown-ups told me to do, I think I now understand that I am one of the grown-ups myself, especially since I’m now the one who sometimes teaches and makes young people do what I tell them to do.

One of the things that quite strongly affect my students is Fear. Fear of doing wrong (whatever that is), fear of being wrong, fear of giving away too much, fear of sounding unfamiliar and strange etc etc. I totally sympathise with them, even though my own fear in this area didn’t start to show its ugly face until I was older.  Before that, I just opened my mouth and my heart and sang magical music.

The first composer that made me realise that music can be truly magical was Johan Sebastian Bach. I think a lot of musicians' first love is Bach and his open, yet so clear and distinct music. The music is so strong that you can fill it with yourself and it is still Bach. I liked that and for years I just enjoyed the music.

And then I started hearing rumours about how strict he was and how strict the conductors that work with his music are and I kind of began to understand that there was more to it than I thought- it was not good enough to just sing as well as you possibly could. No, there was a whole universe of mathematical rules, of non vibrato rules, of tempo rules, of clear as crystal rules, and some day I must have felt it too, because suddenly I didn’t find the pleasure in his wonderful music any more. I just had to get through it. I felt fear! My throat constricted and my musicality disappeared. I was never as nervous as when I sang in one of the Bach Passions.

Of course, this was a conflict I had created by myself in my own head. No one is to be blamed. But isn’t it strange how some composers, or the tradition following them, trigger these thoughts? That we are not good enough for them? Even if, according  to the sources, the singers Bach had in hand weren’t good enough for it either.

And then I sang the Coffee Cantata! Yay!

Kaffeekantata is a secular kantata that Bach wrote together with a man who called himself Picander (his real name was Christian Friedrich Henrici and I agree, Picander is a lot cooler) and is a cute little story about Liesgen who, much to her father, Herr Schlendriand’s, dismay, prefers coffee to…anything. A bit like myself actually. Ask anyone who has to live and/or work with me.

Now, the habit of drinking coffee today is not as looked down upon as it was during the days of Bach. Then coffee was bad. Today coffee is just everywhere. Literally. In our times of superabundance, the only one who can control our cravings is ourselves and if you can’t control it you are a person without integrity and the only one to be blamed.  And not being able to control our sugar and caffein cravings today are considered almost as bad as... I don't don't, swearing in church?

When singing Kaffeekantata, it’s impossible to be afraid of Johan Sebastian Bach. It’s impossible to not enjoy it very much. Even though the humour is way out of date, it’s very funny in a strange way (”Give me coffee, or else I’ll be just like a dry old goat's bleating” is very to the point). And since we’re doing it in Swedish, a language I am very familiar with, it’s, for me, very down to earth and reachable. I know that the audience will meet the Johan Sebastian who could laugh at silly things. A man who writes, even though he didn’t do it much, music to silly texts can’t be that scary.

(I think I have to take this thought with me to the next St. John's Passion.)

Here is the lovely Elly Ameling singing the first soprano aria from Kaffeekantata. Ei, wie schmeckt der Coffee... "Coffee, coffee I have to have coffee, and, if someone wants to pamper me, ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!"

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It's not you. It's me. Really.

I’ve just read ”The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s the kind of book that I don’t usually read (just because…), but someone read a quote from it which really provoked me, so I had to read it. ”Never take anything personal”… Well, if that’s not provoking I don’t know what is.

Ruiz writes about the problems that may occur as long as we don’t understand that we all live in our own lives, our own unique worlds and in and with our own dreams. There is no way we can really and truly understand someone else because we have no idea what is going on in their dreams and what happened in their lives.

The four agreements, according to Ruiz, are:

  1. Be impeccable with your words (words do hurt)
  2. Never take anything personal (it’s not you, it’s me.)
  3. Never make assumptions (again, we can never really know why or what. Ask.)
  4. Always do your best (Yes, your best, but not more than that. Your best is also different if you’re, for example, sick or if you’re in love)

I encourage you to read the book, since the book is clearer on what it’s about than what I am.

Sometimes I work as a model in an art school. I started doing it because I needed the money and I’ve continued doing it because I like the different perspectives it gives me. Just by doing something we normally don’t do, it does just that: gives us a new platform from where our perspectives change. We can leave it right away and observe our familiar surroundings, now a little bit different.

Well. What strikes me most is that when I look at the paintings and sketches that these students have done, it’s clearly a picture of me, but it’s also not. I am the model and they have used my forms and measurements, but it is not a painting of me, it’s themselves. Suddenly it’s very obvious. Their pictures of me depend on where in the room they stand, or if they sit. It depends on their personal taste in colours. And it depends on their life experience and on their level of knowledge. Every picture of ”me” is very different and tells a whole new story. It’s The Four Agreements in pictures.

When I feel too judged or, even, too praised, I try to remember that we see ourselves in others and others see themselves in me. And ”me” could be ”you”. Is You.







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.