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Soprano Sissel sings for the love of singing

Norwegian soprano Sissel has worked with a diverse collection of artists, from tenor Plácido Domingo to rapper Warren G. Norwegian soprano Sissel has worked with a diverse collection of artists, from tenor Plácido Domingo to rapper Warren G.
Email|Print| Text size + By Linda Laban
Globe Correspondent / February 9, 2008

For more than two decades, Sissel's career has taken some interesting turns. The 37-year-old Norwegian soprano's considerable resumé includes performances with classical tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, who appears on her recent album, "Northern Lights." She reunited with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the Christmas collection "The Spirit of the Season," which is nominated for two Grammy Awards tomorrow. And Irish folk legends the Chieftains are old touring pals. More incongruously perhaps, Sissel has recorded duets with Los Angeles rapper Warren G and Danish punk band Sort Sol.

But there's one project that Sissel holds particularly dear: Working with James Horner on the Oscar-winning "Titanic" soundtrack.

"I remember when I came to LA to record my parts and there was all these rumors this was going to be a flop and a disaster because it was not done and James Cameron had used so much money," Sissel says from her home in Copenhagen, just a week before a US tour that brings her to Berklee Performance Center tomorrow night with a six-piece band.

"People from the outside were spreading all these rumors," she continues, which explains director Cameron's legendarily arrogant acceptance speech at the Oscars: triumph over naysayers!. "I had to watch the pictures while I was singing so I could express the emotions, and I was like ooh-ah." Sissel makes a noise of pure overwhelming delight. Her speaking voice is a warm purr and deeper than her strong, shimmering soprano. She says she was so hungry to see more of the film that she requested extra viewings. "I would say, 'James, can we watch this a bit more before I do this take?' "

Sissel's work on the score was overshadowed by Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," which won an Oscar for best original song. But awards don't seem to concern Sissel. Clearly, the date of this year's Grammy ceremony isn't etched in bold on her calendar. "When is it?" she asks.

Born Sissel Kyrkjebo, she won the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy when she was 17 and became a major star in Scandinavia. Don't Google her in the hope of finding Britney-style antics. Even as a child, Sissel was remarkably grounded.

"Before I started professionally, I remember looking at magazines and seeing stars inviting [the press] into their home - showing their home, their private life," she says, appalled. "I was very strict on that from the start. My private life is mine."

Growing up in Bergen, Norway, was elemental in building a strong, realistic sense of self, she says. "Norway is a very peaceful little place," she says. "Everybody in the music business, one way or another, you know each other."

In the late 1990s, as her name became better known in the United States, she knew that she would have to be based in New York or Los Angeles to repeat her success here. The decision was a no contest: Her two daughters with her former husband, Danish star Eddie Skoller, took priority and she stayed put. Still, she has a considerable fan base that's growing. "It just goes slower since I don't live there," she says. "I knew that was the result, the consequence of such a decision."

Ambition doesn't drive Sissel, it seems.

"I always looked at what I did as something I did because I liked it, not to achieve something," she says. Rather than statuettes, she has amassed beautiful moments in her life and friendships with people such as Domingo. They met when Sissel sang the official Olympic hymn, "Se ilden lyse," at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway. Domingo was already a fan and sought Sissel out, and the pair recorded an English version of the anthem, "Fire in Your Heart."

"A couple of hours before the opening ceremony, we went into the canteen, where the crew eats. We put up two microphones and recorded the song. I remember there were coffee cups and food on the tables!" Sissel says with a laugh. "We thought it was great fun."

She was 24 years old at the time. She thinks out loud. "Was I?" It's been a long, winding road. "I didn't think much about it. I really got to do what I really wanted to do: sing."

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