Princess of Persistence : Lise Lindstrom

Princess of Persistence : Lise Lindstrom

In act two of Puccini’s Turandot, the Princess poses a riddle to Prince Calaf: “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” After brief deliberation, he submits his correct response: “Hope.”

Many singers have known the frustrating parallel with this riddle and their efforts to build a performance career. If engagements do not come in steady succession or the anticipated “big break” has not been quick to arrive, it is easy to see hope die a little more, as the riddle suggests, with each passing day.

Dramatic soprano Lise Lindstrom found herself in a similar situation—taking odd jobs to pay the bills while waiting for her voice to mature and slowly working toward her goals. Tenacity, dedication, and the willingness to follow her own path became her tools of the trade every bit as much as talent and musicianship.

Now, looking back on more than 10 years of singing in some of the world’s most significant opera houses, Lindstrom can see that besides her tremendous self-motivation, there were many other people and circumstances that helped lead her to eventual success.

The foundation was established early on, as she was born into a family in which both parents were singers. Though neither pursued singing professionally, her mother’s life as an educator and “cultivator of young talent” inspired her own pursuits. “My father and my stepmother continue to be incredibly involved in the opera community as fans and as supporters,” she says. “So it’s a family business.”

Despite this background, Lindstrom says she was “absolutely not” a classical music enthusiast growing up. “The fan part came really late,” she says. “I think what actually bit me first was just how challenging it was because it was such a stylized technique of singing. It just was sort of this uncrackable nut.”

Later in her education, when she started to see the interdisciplinary nature of opera, it began to take hold for her. “I would say it took some time, well into my studies in university, before I started to really think, ‘Ah, music, drama, history . . . cool! I really like this!’”
While earning a bachelor of arts degree at San Francisco State University, Lindstrom could not have predicted how her young, dramatic voice would develop. “I don’t know that any of my teachers ever suspected that I’d be singing Turandot for 10 years. I don’t think that anybody ever thought that that would be the path that I would take.”

Her first voice teacher, former Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom, at least had an inkling that big repertoire was in Lindstrom’s future, though. From early on, she steered the young soprano toward dramatic literature. “The first aria I ever learned was from Lohengrin,” she says. “And I sang it terribly. It was a big struggle.”

A foray into Donna Anna proved a better fit but still gave little indication of where her voice may be headed or where she should focus her repertoire choices.
Meanwhile, as she was taking the necessary early steps that would position her for later success, the financial reality of student life set in and sent her looking for a job. Late hours as a nighttime hotel desk clerk kept her afloat for most of her undergraduate years. After that, her next series of jobs included waiting tables, watering plants in office buildings, walking dogs, and even a stint working for a woman as her personal assistant, a job for which she now admits she was not at all suited. “I’d be better at it now but, oh my, the poor woman!” she laments.

While earning her master of music degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she spent three seasons in the extra chorus of the San Francisco Opera. But outside of that, singing jobs were scarce.

After completing her graduate degree, Lindstrom moved to New York City and started working for a temp agency in order to sufficiently cover the higher cost of living while she pursued her singing career. “The problem with waiting tables is it just was exhausting—physically exhausting—and I could never sing,” she says. As many singers must do, she was trying to find the balance between keeping up with auditions, voice lessons, and coachings while also working a job that was not her first love.

She eventually became a production assistant for an investment bank, clocking in at 5 p.m. and out at 2 a.m., which she called “the best job ever.” The schedule fit the lifestyle of a budding performer. After each shift ended, she would sleep until approximately 11:00 a.m. and then get to work on the business of being a singer before heading back to her job. “It was the first time I made enough money to not keep sliding into debt,” she says. “I just remember the feeling of by the 15th of the month knowing that I could then pay rent. I just thought, ‘Wow! That means I can actually pay some of my bills this month!’”

Finally, in 2003, she was asked to sing Princess Turandot for the first time by Jerome Shannon, then general director and principal conductor of Mobile Opera in Alabama. “Jerry Shannon, God bless him, changed my life and gave me a chance when nobody else would,” she says.

The challenge of putting a demanding role like Princess Turandot into her voice alongside the mounting pressure of simultaneously cobbling together a singing career was significant. “I was just terrified,” she says. “I had the sense that it was my last chance at having a career and I was terrified that I was going to screw it up—not because I was intentionally going to do so, but because I just didn’t have the technical wherewithal to sing it properly.”
However, as she got into the role, she found that Turandot had more to offer than simply a kick start to her career. “It really taught me how to sing,” she says. “I really found my placement there.”
The technical challenges of navigating the passaggio and transitioning from the middle voice to the high voice while maintaining connection was initially a struggle. “That pretty much went away once I got on stage and was rehearsing with orchestra and got into performances,” she says.

Now, 11 years later, she still finds the role formidable, both technically and dramatically. “I think the technical evolution of it has been to just continue to find more and more warmth in the sound. I’m constantly trying to find that. I’m just naturally a steely-sounding voice, and my challenge is just always to find more and more warmth without darkening, without over-opening, without all the things we know we can’t do.”

From a dramatic standpoint, Lindstrom focuses on continuing to bring spontaneity to the way she delivers text. “I just keep saying the words differently, finding something new, and I keep thinking to myself, ‘If I really were that woman, what would I be feeling in that moment?’”
She also finds it beneficial that the character is written in a way that tends not to allow for significant “reinterpretation” from director to director. “The only differences,” she says, “are how cold is she? How sympathetic can she be?” She points out that while some directors have little interest in trying to find any kind of sympathetic qualities in the Princess, Lindstrom enjoys exploring these options. “Because Puccini died [before completing the opera] . . . I think there would have been a lot more to her character should he have lived.”

She also feels more restricted when cuts are made to the role that is already limited to 20–25 minutes of music. “It really does turn into a ‘park and bark’ environment, and that I don’t really understand. I’m doing my job and I still do it with as much empathy as I can—but the less stage time she has, the less interesting she can be.”

Fortunately, there are enough elements within the opera that change from performance to performance that she never has a hard time keeping the role compelling. “Of course, I’m lucky because my cast is always different, [and] my conductor and orchestra are always different. So far, so good. I haven’t gotten bored yet!”

However, being established in this role—and, thus, in her career—does not mean she now has her pick of engagements. Lindstrom has sometimes found unexpected difficulty in convincing others to envision her beyond this particular role. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but when you’re good at one thing, many people don’t have the imagination to be able to stretch and think [beyond Princess Turandot].”

Ironically, this bias has manifested itself in an unexpected way. Besides her vocal capabilities and expressive delivery, critics often draw attention to Lindstrom’s physique, describing her as “a soprano with a model figure,” possessing “the glamor of a 30s film star” or “the panache of a runway model.” While that may work in her favor for roles like Salome, it has proven more difficult in landing other dramatic-voiced parts, which have traditionally been cast with women of larger stature. “I still love [Turandot]. I’m still challenged by the role—thank God. But I’m getting older, my voice is maturing, and I want to sing other things. And when I say, ‘I want to sing Brünnhilde,’ they say, ‘Well, I don’t know . . . ’”

While the visual aspect of opera has been emphasized differently in recent years regarding a singer’s size, Lindstrom feels this has not always been to the benefit of the art form. “In days gone by,” she says, “singers were judged on how they sounded. Singers were judged on their theatricality, their instinct on stage, their musicianship, the timbre of their instrument, and how that worked with the instrumentation of the piece. People were ‘Fached,’ basically, according to what the voice brought to the moment. Somewhere along the line, that has gotten to be so skewed that we’re all fighting for recognition—across the board, from the most talented and successful to all of us struggling in conservatories to just find what our right repertoire is. We’re all up against the public’s perception, or what we perceive as the public’s perception, versus what our instruments are actually tuned to do. And that’s very tricky.”

She relates the story of a young singer she recently met who is quite talented but also “thinks she’s fat.” Though this singer has enjoyed some success, she is struggling with how to best market herself professionally. “She’s completely confused about what she should be when she grows up,” she says, “because the information she’s getting is not based on her instrument. It’s based on how she looks
. . . it’s just really tricky. It’s tricky to find your identity.”

Regardless of how the opportunities arise, Lindstrom’s career is a prime example of perseverance and faith in the system, even if that system is not the most common path to success. Though many operatic performers launch their careers through participation in Young Artist Programs, that kind of training was not part of Lindstrom’s formation. “I didn’t come through the Lindemann or the Houston or Chicago or Merola program. My success was circumstantial, really―much more than plotted, if you will. I definitely was pursuing a singing career, [I] just didn’t have the good fortune to start earlier than I did.”

Since dramatic voices generally need more time to develop and settle, Lindstrom had to be patient while finding her own way. “I think it is harder for voices that sing bigger repertoire because people really don’t know what to do with them, and the singers certainly don’t know what to do with themselves. I didn’t know what to do with myself, either. So it was a matter of timing and repertoire, ultimately, that changed it for me.”

Throughout the process, Lindstrom has relied on a constant, demanding work ethic that keeps her grounded and ready to go. “That skill or attribute or cultivated working methodology is and continues to be the way that I support myself [and] stabilize myself,” she says. “You can only do what feels natural and intuitive to you in the moment.”

Sticking to a day-to-day plan that encourages as much stability and predictability as possible has also been a key for Lindstrom. “There isn’t any day when you open your mouth to sing that it’s the same thing it was yesterday, let alone 10 minutes ago,” she says. “It’s a consistently changing environment, and that’s not even speaking about the external changes that we experience when you’re on the road and going from job to job.”

She makes this work by maintaining a critical routine of healthy habits, including rest (“I think sleep is the most magical thing ever”), hydration (“I drink a ton of water”), and the right amount of exercise. “On performance days,” she says, “it depends on the role. If it’s Turandot, I can pretty much do whatever I want and not feel like I’m going to waste my energy on the exercise that I should be saving for the stage. If it’s something like Salome, I will probably do yoga or some sort of stretching or maybe a walk.”

The other crucial aspect is the mental preparation that she learned from her first teacher. “The thing that Blanche taught me in the very, very beginning that was so priceless was being quiet, sitting with your score, reading through it, thinking about the words, thinking about the staging—or not looking at the score but closing your eyes and just sort of mentally going through the evening ahead,” she says. “I find that type of preparation to be absolutely priceless because it’s like the pre-show, so that when I get to the theater when I’ve got the bag full of makeup and clothes and everything on my shoulder and I’ve got the water and I’ve had my little snack or dinner, whatever, then I know there aren’t going to be any surprises—and if there are, I’m prepared for them.”

She credits her current voice teacher, Fred Carama of New York, for keeping her technically grounded as well. When travel prohibits regular appointments, they have lessons through Skype and communicate via e-mail. She also records rehearsals on occasion to send to him for feedback.
Of course, something else Lindstrom has relied upon is trusting herself as her own best guide. “I certainly surround myself with people that I trust and that I rely on for their feedback. But the ultimate arbiter of whether something is appropriate for me or not is me and how it suits my instrument. One of the good things, perhaps, that came out of not having been sort of cultivated by any exterior energies is that I had to rely on myself.”

This proved invaluable when she did finally have her first opportunity to begin putting the role of Princess Turandot into her voice. “When the first Turandot came along—thank God it did—I had to learn how to sing it, and it was in that sort of woodshedding of trial and error, and finding that there was more success than failure in the trial and error, that really formed my foundation for singing.”

Lindstrom had to draw on all of this experience—work ethic, routine, trusting herself—five years ago when she made her Met debut. Having been scheduled to sing four of the 15 performances of Turandot, she was also on call as the understudy for the remaining 11 performances. On the morning of opening night, the scheduled soprano, who had been fighting through an illness, decided she was able to perform that evening. But as the day progressed, the situation changed. At 6:15 p.m., Lindstrom received a call from the Met asking if she could step in and sing that evening. Two hours later she was on stage performing her Metropolitan Opera debut.

“In that instance, I would have loved to have known the night before,” she says, “but, of course, that wasn’t possible. But I still knew that regardless, no matter what happens, I’ll start here and I’m going to end there and I’ll be OK.”
She experienced similar circumstances in her debut at the Wiener Staatsoper a few years later. “I’d never been on that stage in that costume in front of that orchestra,” she says. “In these houses with these repeat performances, you don’t get that kind of rehearsal time. You rehearse in a small room upstairs in a corner somewhere and then the night of the performance, they come to your dressing room and say, ‘Would you like to see your stage?’”

Having been through these situations, Lindstrom is always prepared for the unknown or unexpected by, once again, working to ensure that everything that is within her control is accounted for. “I can’t imagine going on stage and not knowing whether I was vocally going to make it or not—the kind of anxiety that that must create. And then to have to manage the anxiety, which has such a higher charge and energy, distracting you from the actual job at hand, which is making music and communicating . . . it’s a hard enough job,” she says, “but that would make it impossible.”

The further removed she is from her student days, the more she admits that she is out of touch with the specific challenges the current generation of singers may be facing. When pressed for advice, though, she identifies several guideposts that never go out of style: “Be smart, be kind, be organized. Don’t be lazy; no one’s going to do it for you, nor should they.”

Reflecting further on her own path, she recognizes that persistence was a key factor in her eventual success. “I’ve been sort of the poster child for perseverance,” she says, “and I think it was only because it was right for me. It isn’t right for everybody—not everything is. So I guess I would just say, persevere if you want to. If it’s not working and you don’t want to keep going, there’s no great failure in choosing something else to do with your life, because it’s not an easy job and it isn’t for everybody. It’s hard on your personal life, it’s hard on your family life, it’s hard on everything. So there actually isn’t any failure if you choose something else.”

Lindstrom’s determination and resolve have clearly paid off, however, as her busy schedule attests. This season she has already performed in Denmark, Vienna, and St. Louis and has upcoming engagements in Hamburg, Naples, San Diego, and Sydney. In 2015, she adds Elektra to her list of roles and can readily name several others that are on her wish list, like Minnie in La fanciulla del West and, “obviously, Brünnhilde.” She can even envision returning to previous roles from Tosca and Un ballo in maschera.

In the meantime, she is happy to continue singing Turandot, the role that started it all, whenever she can—even if it is at a moment’s notice. She recalls that, though she performed the Princess professionally for the first time in 2003, she did not quit her temp job until 2008 when she was finally able to completely support herself financially as a singer. “You never know what tomorrow brings,” she says.

“God forbid . . . ” she adds with a laugh. “I keep my typing skills up pretty well!”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /