Limelight’s Editor meets the American Turandot all set to be the next Aussie Brünnhilde.

Having recently seen Lise Lindstrom nail the title role of Puccini’s Turandot in Opera Australia’s excellent revival I’m anxious. We’re meeting at a Sydney restaurant but I have another interview scheduled just after and I’ve left no time to eat. Will she fix me with that icy stare, condemn me for a cheap date and demand my head? As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Like many of her operatic compatriots, the American soprano with the nerves of steel and the voice of silver turns out to be charming, enthusiastic, unpretentious and enormous fun.

A Californian by birth, it helps that she was exposed to music youngher mother was an Eastman school of music voice graduate who quit performing to marry and have children and went into education. “I was like having PT Barnum at home,” Lindstrom chuckles – the first of many laughs in a pleasantly humorous hour. “She was the ringleader for the entire high school. She would go to work early in the morning, teach all day, and then she would be there all night for rehearsals. I guess I grew up in the auditorium.”

As Turandot in Sydney

Back then, musical theatre was Lindstrom’s first love – a coincidence that helps us bond over coffee – and a career was seriously envisioned. “In high school I did Mame, Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, Rosie Alvarez in Bye, Bye Birdie, she tells me. “I took dance lessons, I took tap lessons, the whole ball of wax. I was going to be this great triple threat. When it came to going to university I said, ‘I want to go to Broadway,’ and my mum sort of laughed and said, ‘No, no, honey, you have to go and study something proper.’ And I’m glad I did, because as a singer I was a late bloomer.”

At university she tried business management – “I thought, oh yeah, there’s money there but I didn’t fit in at all” – then psychology, and finally ended up going into music history. Singing opera was a struggle and not necessarily a first choice. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to become an opera singer, it’s that I couldn’t crack the code of how to sing classically,” she recounts with a refreshing frankness. “The technique just confounded me. So I got hooked on that instead – hooked on trying to figure it out.”

As Turandot at Covent Garden

Nevertheless, as it often does fate took a turn. While studying at San Francisco University she had the opportunity to take voice lessons off campus from the legendary Blanche Thebom (a Met Opera stalwart and Furtwängler’s Brangäne of choice in 1952). “She was 90-something when she passed away, but what a force of nature – and a beautiful woman, I mean, just stunning!” Lindstrom enthuses, though she admits Thebom could be a hard taskmaster: “The first aria she gave me to study was from Lohengrin. Even now I break out in a cold sweat thinking about it. The hours I spent in her studio trying to master it, and I never did, I never ever did.”

An early indication of an unusual talent came with the chance to play Donna Anna in a local production of Don Giovanni in which Lindstrom’s real life father played the Commendatore. “My dad was a good singer. He and my mother had split up so I didn’t really spend a lot of time with him, but when I was in university he was doing odd singing jobs in the San Francisco Bay area. I remember taking Non mi dir to the audition and the pianist, who was also the pianist at Blanche’s studio, said, ‘now this is a really hard aria, so don’t worry if you can’t get it right away. It’s going to be something that you’ll grow into.’ I thought, okay, and I listened to it a few times and then I just sang it. I said, ‘What’s hard about it?’ He said, ‘apparently nothing!’”

As Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera

Although her teacher clearly heard the Wagnerian in her, it had been Callas and Tebaldi who were listened to at home. It wasn’t until a production of Turandot at the San Francisco Opera with Éva Marton that Lindstrom became hooked on that ‘bigger’ sound. “When Éva started singing I thought, ‘Oh… oh boy… oh, I really like that. Oh, that sounds really good.”

Although the role of Turandot came to define a great deal of Lindstrom’s career up to this point – and anyone who needs convincing that she’s the real deal should catch one of her Sydney performances to hear that ideal combination of steel and romance – it wasn’t particularly the part that grabbed her at that point, it was the voice. “It was that sort of trumpet like sound that she had. From then on I started listening to Birgit Nilsson and others of that ilk.”

The sound was one thing, replicating it and building a career proved more difficult. “I sort of floundered because I realised I didn’t know how to duplicate it,” she admits. “It was just luck. I was good at it but I didn’t know why. I tried to deconstruct it and then I couldn’t really put it back together again.” Six years after graduation she found herself struggling to make a living. “I was in New York and auditioning for agents and artist programmes but I was getting nowhere. I still hadn’t cracked the code of how to sing.”

As Senta in San Francisco

By 2003 Lise Lindstrom had pretty much decided to give it all up, moving to Indiana and getting married. But then she got a call from Jerome Shannon, General Director of Mobile’s opera company for whom she had auditioned way back in 1999. “He gave me a call out of the blue,” she remembers, “He said, ‘Hi, I’m Jerry Shannon, do you remember me? I’m doing Turandot next fall, would you come and sing Turandot for us?’ ‘I can’t sing Turandot,’ I said, ‘I love it, but no – thank you so much.’ He said, ‘no, no, I really think you should just give it a shot. Think about it and give me a call tomorrow.’ So I talked about it with my husband at the time and he said, ‘you have nothing to lose so why not make it your last hurrah.’ Well, it turned out to be the right thing for me, and everything I am experiencing now has been built on that decision. I found a really good teacher, I found an excellent coach and I had Jerry – people who have been really crucial and who still help me choose what’s right for me.”

From that point on, there was no stopping Lindstrom whose career skyrocketed. She took her Turandot to acclaim around the globe from the Metropolitan Opera to Covent Garden. Other meaty roles have seen her conquer San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Vienna Staatsoper. Still essentially a young singer, how does she manage the pitfalls involved in taking on the kind of repertoire for which she has become one of the most in demand singers on the circuit today – parts like Brünnhilde, Turandot and Elektra? Career longevity often depends on making the right choices, sometimes years in advance, plus with a limited number of people who can sing those kinds of roles there must be lucrative offers and the temptation to bite off more than you can chew.

As Salome in San Diego

“Probably the last person in the room to believe I’m right for this repertoire is me,” Lindstrom laughs. “I still can’t believe it. I really don’t mean to sound silly, but I really still can’t. Honestly though, I believe that if the repertoire’s not right for you, it will kill you. If it’s right for you, it doesn’t kill you. I think if Elektra were really out of my reach it would have killed me. Now that I’ve done it and it didn’t kill me, I feel more secure. There’s such a fine line between being challenged by something and rising to that challenge, and being challenged by something and have it be out of your grasp.”

Lindstrom prides herself on a healthy dose of caution before simply saying yes. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have a nervous breakdown about two weeks before rehearsals start,” she confesses, “because I almost always do! Everyone around me reminds me of it: ‘Remember last time you had a nervous breakdown before the rehearsals?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ I say. ‘This is different, this is worse.’ I’m pretty consistent in that.”

With concert performances of Salome, another string of Turandots at the Met, and her second outing as Richard Strauss’s Elektra coming up later this year in Montreal for Yannick Nézet-Séguin (the first was with Simone Young in Hamburg this February) Lindstrom’s is a packed diary. In 2016 she will be returning to Australia to lead the cast as Brünnhilde in the Melbourne Ring – her first complete assumption of the full three-opera role. She began that journey in Die Walküre, the first part of a planned Palermo Ring cycle, the abandonment of which freed up Pietari Inkinen (who Lindstrom describes as ‘an amazing shepherd’) to step in and assume the musical helm of the 2013 OA Ring.

As Turandot in Sydney

So, has career management got any easier as the profile has got higher? “The trick is to make sure that I have the right balance of roles one after the other,” she explains. “I used to not really have a choice; I would have to take Turandot upon Turandot upon Turandot. That’s not so great because my voice really needs to be used in a multitude of ways in order to stay fully healthy. I’m lucky now to be able to say I can’t really do another Turandot – but if you were to offer me a Salome, or an Elektra, or a Brünnhilde or a Tosca… I need horizontal as well as vertical.”

“There are certain things that I know I just don’t want to do yet,” Lindstrom admits. “I don’t want to do an Isolde – I really don’t. I don’t feel like it’s where my talents really lie right now. I’m still young enough and I have so much vibrancy in the top of my voice. I want to use that as long as I possibly can.”

No Ice Princess then, but ask her about the state of the art form and she gets a steely glint in the eye. The temptation for arts marketers to reduce everything to an ad slogan is, she believe, one of opera’s biggest problems. “There’s a little bit of a chip on my shoulder in an opera like Turandot because it can be all about Nessun Dorma,” she declares. “In fact it can be all about the last phrase of Nessun Dorma! Here’s this impassioned man saying, ‘look I’ve put my life on the line for this woman who doesn’t seem to have a heart – but I’m pretty sure she does and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win it.’ It doesn’t talk about that passion, the sacrifice and these stories that are so rich. I really do think it’s time to start speaking to the intelligence of the public rather than dumbing down an art form and trying to market it as a sound byte. Opera is not a sound byte!”

Lise Lindstrom is in Opera Australia’s Turandot at the Sydney Opera House until July 31.