Mention the name “Christine Goerke” to anyone in the opera world and the response is always the same: overwhelmingly positive. The words that keep coming up to describe the fast-rising soprano include “down to earth,” “funny,” “warm,” and “unpretentious.” They’re qualities not always associated with opera singers, a world many perceive, despite great strides, to be stuffy and stiffly formal. Yet Goerke has won over critics, collaborators, and colleagues alike, with a combination of earthy likability and robust vocal talent. Her rich vocal tone has won praise from a litany of critics, with The Guardian’s Fiona Maddocks saying of her 2013 performance in the title role of Strauss’ Elektra, “(i)t’s hard to imagine better.” Her 2013 performance at the Metropolitan Opera in Strauss’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” (“The Woman Without a Shadow”) as the Dyer Maker’s wife garnered widespread acclaim, with her voice, as The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini wrote, moving easily between “steely and penetrating” and “rich and textured.” He added that that Goerke is “a dramatic soprano of exciting potential.”
The Long Island native began her career in the 1990s focusing on classical masters like Handel, Gluck and Mozart, and was the recipient of the esteemed Richard Tucker Award in 2001. She moved into dramatic soprano territory following a vocal crisis in 2003 that forced her to change her singing style. As she told Opera News in 2012, “(s)omething about the technique I had been using was no longer working on my body, and I had to find someone who could help me figure it out or I was going to quit.”
Soprano Diana Soviero, another former Tucker Award recipient and now an esteemed teacher, was key in helping Goerke unleash the larger voice that was sitting inside of her. “Basically, my voice had gotten so much bigger so much sooner than I’d expected,” she told Opera News. “I was singing almost entirely from my throat because my chest felt so awful. The minute I went back down there with Diana and restored the connection, my voice grew to twice its size, and in three months it was bigger than that. It all just happened far sooner than I expected.”
Her first “new” voice performance was in Japan in 2005, where she sang the role of Chrysothemis in Elektra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. More opportunities would follow, with a debut at Milan’s La Scala in 2006, in the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos, as well as a number of roles in Wagner operas, singing the lead in Elektra in 2011 for Madrid’s Teatro Real, and a French-language production of Verdi’s Don Carlos for Houston Grand Opera in 2012.
The opening of Wagner’s epic Die Walkure this coming Saturday marks Goerke’s role debut as Brünnhilde, the oldest of Norse god Wotan’s nine daughters — all Valkries, or female figures in Norse mythology who decide which soldiers live and die in battle. Brünnhilde is Wotan’s favorite, but she defies her father and, as punishment, loses her own immortality. Goerke has only sung the part once before, in a concert production with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2012, where, even then, the New Zealand Herald proclaimed that the soprano “moving from a devoted, almost kittenish daughter to a tragic, broken spirit; a great journey undertaken in full and glorious voice.”
Christine Goerke will be going on to sing the role at Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Met in New York. She’ll be returning to Toronto in the 2015-2016 season, however, again singing the role of Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company’s remount of its 2005 production of Siegfried, directed by the acclaimed Francois Girard.
First up for Goerke, however, is Die Walkure. Many will recognize the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” piece from the 1870 opera, while others may associate the work with the horned helmets and metal corsets of opera cliche. The production opening Saturday, a revival of the company’s 2004 production directed by Atom Egoyan, is part of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”); together with next season’s Siegfried, it’s something of a celebration, considering the company inaugurated its permanent home, the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts, with a three-week run of all four operas in the Ring Cycle at its opening in September 2006.
The pressure to get this Walkure just right may be coming from a number of sides, but Goerke doesn’t seem to be betraying nerves, only excitement and a boundless kind of joy at her work, and at sharing her talents with the wider public. I asked the plain-spoken singer what it was like to be singing her first Brünnhilde, how she likes working with film director Atom Egoyan, and why technology’s great for keeping in touch when you’re a traveling soprano. She also gives her thoughts on why size has nothing to do with sex appeal, and shares her essentials when she’s working abroad — her list delights as much as it reveals a woman who is, despite being at the height of her craft, still a down-to-earth, warm figure. Believe what people tell you about Christine Goerke; it’s all true, and then some.
You are tackling your first fully-staged Brünnhilde here in Toronto — how are you handling it?
It’s incredible. You know, when you’re a child, people are always asking what you want to be when you “grow up”. Well, I wasn’t exactly a child, but I was still a “baby singer” when I heard this for the first time, and boy, did I ever want to be Brünnhilde when I grew up! What did I call on musically or otherwise… the thing is, I always think of every style of music the same way. All singing has to stem from bel canto. Wagner was a huge fan of bel canto. It can’t be screamed, so that was a pretty lofty goal of mine when it came to preparing this.
What’s it like to work with Atom Egoyan?
It’s really amazing to work with Atom. I hadn’t seen any of his movies, and specifically made the decision not to watch them before I came here, because I didn’t want any preconceived notion of what he might ask of me. Though he is obviously a decorated film director, after having a lovely conversation with him, I found that he always wanted to direct for the theater. He has an incredible perspective because he looks at a scene through both the eyes of the theater director and the eyes of the film director. I find that it means that he is very in tuned to seeing what things look like from every angle. Details that we might normally not think about come to the forefront when discussing our work. He challenges us to think about things in a very different way. I have found him to be one of the most genuine and lovely directors I have had the opportunity to work with, and I certainly hope that this is not the last time it happens!
Why do you think Wagner’s Ring Cycle is so enduring?
It’s an epic journey through a magical land with Gods and Dragons and Magic! Or… if you take that all away, it’s a most remarkable personal story about family, and greed, and love, and loss, and learning. What is more timeless and relevant than that?
What’s the most challenging thing about singing Wagner?
Stamina, and that’s only something that can be learned as you begin to sing a piece. Also, not actually crying on stage. This music kills me. Thank God that the big “hug” moment in the final scene happens after my singing for the evening is finished. I’ve not made it through the scene without crying yet.
I’ve read you don’t listen to yourself — why not?
Ah. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. I give the singers who listen full credit, but the thing is, my ears are behind the sound that I’m making. I don’t hear what you do when I’m singing, and so I wouldn’t necessarily recognize the sound that I’m hearing on a recording. I have to go by what I feel in my head, throat, and body and what I hear with my ears being behind the sound. If I can’t know what those feelings are consistently, I can’t make the same sounds consistently.
Also, I’m that ridiculous thing that is a perfectionist. I find fault in everything I hear myself sing, even if no one else does.
How difficult has it been to balance the demands of family with your career?
It’s incredibly difficult, but I explain it to people in a simple way. It’s never easy for a household with two working parents, no matter what their profession. Yes, we have to add in travel, and that’s not fun for me or my family as far as separation goes. I try to plan carefully so that I have my time away during the school year, so that it’s not quite so painful for my girls… they have a schedule and their friends to keep them busy… but I will tell you that without FaceTime and Skype, life would be miserable.
What has your Twitter account brought in terms of being a singer and mom?
I WISH I was better at tweeting regularly… I’m more of a Facebook girl. Mostly because I blabber too much to keep it to a certain amount of characters! I like social media. It’s amazing to be able to keep in touch with everyone with a few clicks of the keyboard. I belong to a group for Mommy performers, and can post questions, silly things that happened, problems (etc.) there, and can have coffee with colleagues and friends all over the world from my keyboard. It has made this life a lot less lonely, for certain.
In a recent interview, you stated that you’d like to see “less folks listening with their eyes and more listening with their ears.” What some of the things people can do both at the opera house and away from it?
This is a loaded question. My commentary was directed at the fact that we are now in a world of HD opera. While it’s a great thing to be able to bring opera to places that don’t necessarily have live performances, it doesn’t replace the real thing. There is a visceral experience when the orchestra starts and singers let loose. Your entire body vibrates with the music… unamplified, and amazing. I just want to be sure that the singing is at the forefront of all of this. That is what opera is about. I think it’d be interesting if we could all look like Angelina Jolie and do this for a living… interesting, but a bit boring. I don’t want to see Baywatch when I go to the opera. I want a story. I want to believe it. I want to be moved. Just because I am not a size 6 doesn’t mean I’m not sexy. Gorgeous and exciting actors and actresses come in all shapes and sizes. As long as they have the vocal goods, they’ve got me at the curtain.
Your favorite post-show ritual is…
Beer with the cast!
If you want to be an opera singer, you should definitely travel with…
– spices (those are expensive if you’re constantly stocking a kitchen!)
– Apple TV (gotta have my Netflix)
– iPad (so you can keep in touch with folks at home and download all the scores you’re studying.. )
– a good sense of humor and lots and lots of patience!
If Brünnhilde could tweet, she’d say…
“You know I’m right, Dad. #ZZZZZZZZZzzzzz”