Christine Goerke Ascending

Interview by Erica MinerChristine Goerke portrait

Soprano Christine Goerke ( has rocked the opera world of late. A recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, she caused a sensation at the Metropolitan Opera with her portrayal of the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and elicited critical raves for her Brünnhilde in Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walküre.

Certainly Goerke is one of the most important singers of our time. A veteran of some of the world’s top opera houses and named this year’s Musical America Vocalist, she has worked with some of the most prominent directors on the planet, including film director Atom Egoyan. Here she chats about opera, directors, being a working mom, and finding your way.

EM: Christine, you are a shining light in the opera world. I totally know what it’s like to raise kids and work in opera simultaneously––except I was never a stage star.

CG: I think being a working mommy makes us all stars.

EM: Beautifully put. I read that your mentor Diana Soviero, one of my favorite sopranos of all time, helped you in your journey from singing Handel, Gluck, and Mozart to working through your crise de foi a few years ago. How did you transition to your present status as an operatic icon of Strauss and Wagner?

CG: She’s one of my favorite sopranos of all time too! Not just because she is a remarkable musician and an insanely fabulous technician, but because she’s my biggest cheerleader and manages to kick my butt if I’m not taking care of myself at the same time. I remember a master class I had done with Diana when I was in the Lindemann program at the Met and I was starting to look for a new teacher. People were wildly confused about my choice at the time. “But Diana didn’t sing any of the rep you are going into!” I stand by the fact that teachers are there to give you a technique. Once you have a solid technique that works with your instrument (because it is very individualized), then you can worry about your “rep,” whatever that may be. Diana insists on a firmly supported bel canto technique. As far as I’m concerned, that is the key to longevity in my current repertoire . . . in any repertoire, really!

EM: Your triumph as the Dyer’s Wife in the Met’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten rocked the opera world. What was that like for you?

CG: I will tell you that when I came out for my curtain call on opening night, nothing could have prepared me for the response. Truly. I still have friends giving me a hard time. “You cried. YOU CRIED.” Are you kidding me?!?! I totally cried. I came off stage, stunned, and went right into the arms of a long-time friend and staff member at the Met and said to her, “No one will ask me if I’m broken anymore.” It was an epic moment for me. I had worked so hard to convince people that this was the right repertoire for me after I made the change. Even though I’d had great success in other big roles already, this apparently was the thing that solidified my place in this repertoire. Phew.

EM: What would you say is the key to singing Strauss and Wagner?

CG: Now bear with me here . . . this is going to sound odd. Singing Strauss and Wagner doesn’t feel any more difficult to me than any other repertoire. Knowing your instrument is the most important thing that you will ever do for your career. The whole Fach thing. I think it works for some, and doesn’t work for others. Finding the roles and repertoire that work for your instrument, your technique, your body . . . this is what every singer needs to do. My voice was always headed in this direction. I just didn’t quite catch the transition in time, so it was a bit more of a bump in the road than perhaps it could have been. Diana was lightning quick to catch that I had just disconnected from my support because I was trying to sing with a light enough touch for Handel and Mozart––and that wasn’t how my voice needed to function at the time. Within three months of lessons and exercises, I had completely reconnected to my support, and spent the next year realizing just how much more sound was in there. From there, it just became a decision of which roles to begin with.

EM: Did you enjoy singing the role?

CG: I will be perfectly honest with you. I loved singing the Dyer’s Wife. I actually really love the character, and I know that might be difficult to understand. I love playing the bitches and baddies. When we get a role like that, we have an opportunity to show the audience just why they are the way that they are. My goal is always to have the audience seeing things from their side, if not being on their side, when they leave. The Dyer’s Wife is certainly not the most warm and fuzzy of ladies (understatement) . . . but if you look at her life, the disappointment, the fear of failure––both as a wife and a mother, the feeling of being trapped. If someone showed up and offered you a way out of everything that frightened or disappointed you, and you saw no other way out, wouldn’t you take it?

EM: How about its difficulty?

CG: Musically, the role is a beast in places, but it’s still always Strauss. The same man wrote “Allerseelen.” No matter how bombastic the orchestral writing, or how disjunctive the vocal writing seems, it must still have legato and line.

EM: Opera aficionados waited with bated breath for your stunning debut as Brünnhilde at Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. The New York Times raved about your command of the role (

-walkure.html?_r=3), saying that your voice penetrated the huge Wagner orchestra without a problem, that your high notes were astonishing, and that your approach to the role was meticulously thought out. What was it like to play this iconic role in the most iconic Ring opera, directed by Atom Egoyan, no less?

CG: Oh, it was fine. LOL! It was incredible. I have waited to sing this role . . . prayed that I would sing it, since I was a baby singer. I remember singing the Third Norn, busting the rope, and scooting off into the wings. The other two were in the dressing rooms, collecting their checks. I was in the wings thinking, “Please, God . . .  someday.” I have been thinking about Brünnhilde’s character since then. She’s so much like me. She’s fiercely loyal, she has so much love, she’s so brave, and at the same time so frightened. She is a leader, she is a fierce protector. She knows what is right, even at the risk of the severe punishment she received. All of this as a teen! Bringing all of these ideas to Atom Egoyan––especially since they’ve been formulated in my head for so long––was a bit scary, as you never know what a director will ask of you. Especially when it’s one that you’ve not worked with before. He heard everything I had to say and worked with me to find every aspect of the characterization. Penetrating the orchestra . . .The thing is? This is the music that now fits my voice. I am constantly laughed at when I ask, “How is the balance? Can you hear me?” People think I’m joking. But in my head? Things don’t sound the same way as they do to the folks in front of me. I just sing. Finding the pacing. That’s tricky. There were two performances of the seven that I found I didn’t have quite the amount of “oomph” I wanted by the end. The first time you do any role, it’s about finding your way with pacing, breathing, how much to give and in which places. I feel as though I have a real road map at this point.

EM: Tell me about Atom Egoyan. What is he like to work with?

CG: He’s amazing. He’s actually very quiet, very intense, and very sweet. It was hard for me, because he was very big on stillness, and taking the physical emotion out. He insisted on letting the music do the work. I am really frenetic, so that was work for me, but I am really amazed at what he’s gotten out of me. He looks at things through very different eyes for the stage, he notices every angle, everything that is happening. I suppose that is the filmmaker watching. I will also say that Atom truly listened to and saw the people in front of him. He saw their personalities and their takes on things, and watched the interactions between all of us in rehearsals. It helped the character development immensely. It’s been an absolute joy and I can’t wait for the next opportunity to work with him.

EM: Very astute observation! Yes, a filmmaker does see everything with different eyes. How lucky are you to get this view from both film and non-filmmaker directors. What are your future plans?

CG: Trying to balance career and motherhood, like all the other working moms out there!

EM: What is your wish list of roles you haven’t yet done that you would like to sing?

CG: Isolde has been sitting on my piano for three years. It’s definitely my next learn. I want to sing Santuzza. I want to do Minnie at some point! I would like to sing Marie in Wozzeck. Possibly Senta. I know that at some point I will likely head south into some of the high mezzo roles, and before this is all done I am definitely singing Klytemnestra!

EM: I would kill to hear you in any of those. Is there anything you’d like to add?

CG: Just that I am often asked by young women who are studying to perform, “When is a good time to have children in this business? Can it really be done?” Yes. It can. You will need a support system, but yes absolutely. And there is no good time. So, if it’s something that you want, something that calls to you, something that you can’t be without? Just do it. I wouldn’t trade the insanity in my life for anything. My girls . . . I feel like a failure every day in some way, but I love them fiercely and they’re the things I am the most proud of in my life. Just like there is no such thing as a “storybook love,” there is no such thing as “storybook motherhood.” Find your way, and love your children . . . oh, also sing.

This interview first appeared at



–Erica Miner, a former violinist at the Metropolitan Opera, is a writer, reviewer, and lecturer. She has presented three events for the Boston Wagner Society in the last three years and will present again in the spring.


Wagner in the US & Canada (2015-2016)

Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen

National Philharmonic (Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda, MD): 10/3/2015

Piotr Gajewski (c): Jennifer Wilson, Mary Ann Stewart; Issachah Savage, Robert Baker, Jason Stearns, Stephen Bryant, Kevin Thompson

(Concert Performance)

Der fliegende Holländer

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Ravinia Festival: 8/15/2015

James Conlon (c): Amber Wagner, Ronnita Miller; Simon O’Neill, Matthew Plenk, Greer Grimsley, Kristinn Sigmundsson

(Concert Performance)

Virginia Opera: 4/8, 10, 13/2016 (Norfolk); 4/15, 17/2016 (Richmond); 4/23, 24/2016 (Fairfax) Adam Turner (c):

Francesca Zambello (p)

Seattle Opera: 5/7, 8 (m), 11, 14, 18, 20, 21/2016

Sebastian Lang-Lessing (c): Alwyn Mellor/Wendy Bryn Harmer, Luretta Bybee; Colin Ainsworth, Nikolai

Schukoff/David Danholt, Greer Grimsley/Alfred Walker, Daniel Sumegi Christopher Alden (p); Allen Moyer (d and cost.), Anne Militello (l)


Apotheosis Opera (NYC): 7/31, 8/2 (m)/2015

Matthew Jaroszewicz (c): Amber Smoke, Jodi Karem; Nicholas Simpson, Jacob Lasseter, Joseph Beckwith, Hans Tashjian, Ethan Fran, John Dominick

Sam Bartlett and Zach Blumenstein (p)

Metropolitan Opera: 10/8, 12, 15, 19, 24, 27, 31 (m)/2015

James Levine (c): Eva-Maria Westbroek, Michelle DeYoung; Johan Botha, Peter Mattei, Günther Groissböck Otto Schenk (p); Günther Schneider-Siemssen (d); Patricia Zipprodt (cost.); Gil Wechsler (l); Norbert Vesak (choreography)

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

San Francisco Opera: 11/18, 21, 24, 27, 12/2, 6 (m)/2015

Mark Elder (c): Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Sasha Cooke; Brandon Jovanovich, Alek Shrader, Greer Grimsley,

Martin Gantner, Ain Anger, Philip Horst, Joel Sorensen, Andrea Silvestrelli

David McVicar/Marie Lambert (p), Vicki Mortimer (d), Paule Constable (l), Ian Robertson (chorus.); Andrew George (choreography)


Canadian Opera Company: 1/23, 27, 30; 2/2, 5, 11, 14 (m)/2016

Johannes Debus (c): Christine Goerke; Stefan Vinke, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Alan Held, Christopher

Purves, Phillip Ens

François Girard (p); Michael Levine (d); David Finn (l); Donna Feore (choreography)

Houston Grand Opera: 4/16, 20, 23, 28, 5/1 (m)/2016

Patrick Summers (c): Christine Goerke, Meredith Arwady; Jay Hunter Morris, Rodell Rosel, Iain Paterson,

Christopher Purves, Andrea Silvestrelli

La Fura Dels Baus/ Carlus Padrissa (p); Roland Olbeter (d); Chu Uroz (cost.); Peter van Praet (l); Franc Aleu (projections)


Union Avenue Opera Theatre (St. Louis): 8/21, 22, 28, 29/2015

Scott Schoonover (c): Alexandra LoBianco, Rebecca Wilson, Melissa Kornacki, Lindsey Anderson, Johanna Nordhorn, Lauren Wright; Clay Hilley, David Dillard, Timothy Lafontaine, Patrick Blackwell Karen Coe Miller (p) (Reduced and Adapted by Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove)

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Washington National Opera: 4/30, 5/2, 4, 6; 5/10, 11, 13, 15; 5/17, 18, 20, 22/2016

Philippe Auguin (c): Catherine Foster/Nina Stemme, Megan Miller, Melody Moore, Melissa Citro, Jacqueline

Echols, Catherine Martin, Renée Tatum, Jamie Barton, Elizabeth Bishop, Lindsay Ammann, Marcy Stonikas,

Lori Phillips, Eve Gigliotti, Daryl Freedman; Daniel Brenna, Christopher Ventris, William Burden, David

Cangelosi, Richard Cox, Alan Held, Gordon Hawkins, Richard Cox, Julian Close, Solomon Howard, Raymond

Aceto, Eric Halfvarson

Francesca Zambello (p); Michael Yeargan (d); Catherine Zuber (cost.); Mark McCullough (l), Denni Sayers (choreo.); S. Katy Tucker, Jan Hartley (projections)

Deborah Humble: An Interview

Deborah Humble

Deborah Humble

Here is an introduction to Deborah Humble, who will sing Erda in Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s concert of Act 3 of  Siegfried, conducted by Benjamin Zander, Sunday, April 26, 2015, 3 p.m., Symphony Hall. The other singers are Alwyn Mellor, Stefan Vinke, and Mark Delavan.

How long have you been singing Wagner, and what got you interested in his music in the first place?

Although I had sung and understudied various smaller mezzo roles in the Ring Cycle, my first important Wagner role was Erda in the Hamburg Ring Cycle in 2007. This Ring, a new production by Claus Guth and conducted by Simone Young, was staged over four years and then presented in complete cycles in 2011 and 2012. I ended up singing five roles in these cycles: Erda, Schwertleite, Erda, Waltraute, and the First Norn. The operas were recorded and released commercially on CD for Oehms. It was a first-class initiation into the world of Wagner, and I found myself onstage with the likes of world-class Wagner singers such as Deborah Polaski, Sir John Tomlinson, and Falk Struckmann. It was a real thrill for a young singer from Australia. Since then I have participated in many Ring Cycles and Ring operas: in Halle and Ludwigshafen in Germany, in Melbourne for Opera Australia, at the Teatro Petruzelli in Bari, Italy, for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Auckland Philharmonic in New Zealand, and Scottish Opera, to name a few. To be honest, I never really “chose” to be a Wagner singer, but I seemed to have a big voice and the kind of sound suited to Germanic music, so after the initial success it was just a matter of following the opportunities that arose.

When you sing Wagner, do you find yourself having to sing it in a different way from other composers’ music? Is there special preparation you have to make to sing Wagner?

I believe that the basics of singing stay the same whatever repertoire you undertake; a good technique is the basis for everything. Having said that, there are certainly special considerations when approaching and performing Wagner’s music. The first consideration, especially for a foreigner, is a total understanding of the text and of Wagner’s special use of language. The textual nuances such as alliteration, use of consonants, subtexts, and presence of musical leitmotifs to underscore meaning and characterization all need to explored and interpreted to best effect. If a singer wants to take the exploration further, then there are philosophical, historical, and political aspects to learn about. All this takes years of study, and the more one repeats a role, the more depth of understanding one usually gets about the characterization, relationships, and musical delivery. Of course, every director and conductor also adds a different perspective, and this means that no interpretation or production is ever the same. The singing of Wagner needs a big, well-focused voice of great stamina to get over the often massive orchestral forces, but also a singer who intelligently and instinctively knows when to hold back and how to express the delicate moments of music.

When you sing Erda in the Ring Cycle, do you have to put yourself in a special frame of mind to convey the uniqueness and otherworldliness of the character?

The challenge of singing Erda lies in the brevity of the appearances, especially in Das Rheingold. There is no time to warm up on stage or get comfortable, and one must convey the importance of the much-anticipated “Warnung” and something of the character of Erda in a very short time. It is five minutes where Wagner basically stops the action and everyone on stage and in the theater is focused on her and what she is saying. Her music, personality, and prophecies do indeed cast a long shadow over the rest of the proceedings and, when well done and well staged, this brief appearance can often be one of the most memorable moments in the entire cycle.

Erda obviously is a very wise woman who saves Wotan from disaster in Das Rheingold. Why does she not help him in Siegfried when he makes a final attempt to save the gods? Has she given up? Has she fallen out of love with him and no longer cares?

The difference between Erda in Das Rheingold and later in Siegfried is very marked. In the first opera she appears to Wotan entirely of her own volition. One has the impression of power, strength, and knowledge as both goddess and earth-mother. Erda dominates proceedings in the scene, and Wotan’s behavior can be seen as rather submissive. In Siegfried she arrives only because she is summoned by Wotan, and the impression changes to one of tiredness, age, and diminishing power. World events have significantly changed, and her exchange with Wotan is much more equal; indeed, Wotan seems to know more than the all-seeing goddess. Part of this change is heard in the music announcing Erda’s reappearance, which, cleverly, contains only one chord per bar and conveys immediately the idea of fatigue and diminished capability.

Have you ever sung in the U.S. before? Boston?

I sang in Seattle in 2008 in the finals of the International Wagner Competition after competing in the semi-finals in New York. It was a wonderful experience and a chance to work with the Seattle Symphony and conductor Asher Fisch and meet other young, aspiring Wagnerians from around the world. Although I didn’t win, this opportunity was a very important one and contributed to my growth as a Wagner singer, as well as giving me the all-important contacts and international exposure that such an event brings. I have never performed in Boston before, although I visited in 1998 after studying in New York with Elena Doria, who was working and teaching at the Metropolitan Opera.  I imagine the city has changed quite a lot since then. The concert in Symphony Hall on April 26th is something I am looking forward to very much. And yes, I will be singing the role of Erda somewhere in the US in 2016, but for the moment I am obliged to remain mysterious and not to reveal where.

What non-Wagnerian roles are your specialties, if any?

In addition to Wagner I have quite a wide-ranging repertoire. Indeed, I just performed my 50th operatic role in February this year. My professional life has been dominated by the Ring operas and by German composers Strauss, Mahler, and Brahms in recent years. I love to sing Carmen, of course, like any mezzo, and the Verdi roles are personal favorites. I particularly like to interpret Amneris in Aida. I also very much enjoy roles such as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly and Olga in Eugene Onegin. Although not large roles, they offer an opportunity for interesting characterizations and also leave strong impressions when well done. I have never sung in Samson and Delilah, but that is certainly a dream role, and I hope to have the chance to do it one day. I would also love to sing Charlotte in Werther. People are often surprised that I do quite a lot of Handel, as they think it is so different from Wagner, but it keeps the voice fresh and flexible, which is important. Concert works and song recitals play an important role in my career, and I sang my first Wesendonck Lieder with orchestra last year, the Henze version, which was a career highlight.

Can you tell us what is coming up for you? Which roles will you sing in the immediate future and where?

In the next four months I have quite a variety of performances coming up.  I will sing my first Sea Pictures by Edward Elgar at the inaugural Festival of British Music in Bamberg, Germany. I make my role debut as Brangaene in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Mexico City under the baton of Jan Latham Konig, immediately followed by a Flower Maiden in Parsifal with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the United Kingdom, conducted by Andris Nelsons. Following that I have performances of the Verdi Requiem in London, a concert with the Minsk Radio Symphony in Belarus, my first Mahler Eighth Symphony at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore, and I will interpret Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok in Melbourne, Australia.

–Dalia Geffen

The Wagner Experience, Review by Dame Gwyneth Jones

The Perfect Gift, The Perfect Possession

Review by Dame Gwyneth Jones

The Wagner Experience and Its Meaning to Us, by Paul Downes-Bowling, with a foreword by Sir Donald McIntyre (London: Old Street Publishing, 2014), 2 vols.

This review came to us directly from Dame Gwyneth Jones, Soprano and President of the Wagner Society of England. We are grateful to Dame Gwyneth for her contribution.

downes-book-coverChristmas is just around the corner, someone very special is having an occasion to celebrate, or you just feel like spoiling yourself! This set of two wonderful books, beautifully presented, truly makes the ideal gift. But not only that! They are a “must” have, a reference to Wagner’s life and his incredible compositions, and are ideal for placing in the living room or bedroom for visiting guests to browse through or for refreshing one’s memory of the stories, the sources, and the lessons of Wagner’s great dramas before attending a performance.

Paul Dawson-Bowling is a retired physician, from an era when this meant “family doctor,” and he takes us gently by the hand and guides us lovingly through this enormous undertaking of relating the tempestuous life of Wagner with great enthusiasm, wisdom, humanity, and psychological understanding.

There have been hundreds of books written about Wagner, but there is no other book quite like this. It is written in a language that is elegant, beautiful, and understandable to all.

One feels that a very dear friend is guiding you through this journey of Wagner’s life, with a desire to share his own love and admiration for the composer in order that you may also share his incredible Wagner experience.

Dawson-Bowling has done tremendous research and delves into every aspect of Wagner’s life and music dramas. One constantly discovers things that one may somehow have missed in the past, like the fact that Wagner had originally intended the scene in Das Rheingold between Wotan and Erda to be with the three Norns. Also, his descriptions of the wildly intense, sensuous relationship with Minna are a revelation. The two met when he was just 21 years old. She was three years older than him, an extremely beautiful woman and a very talented actress. She went through heaven and hell with him on his various escapades, fleeing because of their debts, being shot at by border guards, causing their carriage to overturn and resulting in Minna’s miscarriage, which was probably the reason for her childlessness. She also endured the near shipwreck on the flight from Riga to London, which was the inspiration for Der fliegende Holländer. She was so terrified that she begged Richard to lash her to him so that they could drown and perish together. No wonder that she became the source and inspiration for all the heroines in Wagner’s dramas! She was his muse, and in her he saw his archetype, his ideal, the perfect example for Elisabeth, Venus, Elsa, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, Senta, Eva, and Gutrune. Mathilde Wesendonck became his muse for Isolde when the love between Wagner and Minna began to fade, but he continued to hope and believe that each new attraction would bring him that same heightened state of mind and being that Minna had brought him.

The first Isolde was sung by Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who, after the death of her husband, Ludwig, three weeks after singing the première of Tristan, believed that the ghost of her husband said that she was destined to marry Wagner. She wrote incensed letters to King Ludwig, complaining about Wagner’s liaison with Cosima after discovering that Cosima was pregnant, and was banished by both Wagner and the king. While in Dresden to perform “O Malvina,” I went to visit the family grave of Malvina and Ludwig and discovered to my astonishment that Minna is buried directly next to it.

Richard and Minna were married for over thirty years but were together for only twenty, partly because Mathilde Wesendonck and Cosima entered his life. One tends to think of these two women as being the main loves of Wagner’s life, but this was because Minna was somewhat banished into oblivion by Cosima, who successfully destroyed many of Wagner’s letters and made cuts in others.

The Wagner Experience is unique because not only does it give a brief biography of Richard Wagner, an extensive account of his tumultuous life, and excellent, detailed explanations of the sources and lessons of his great dramas, but it also includes an abundant wealth of glorious illustrations, which are largely determined by the archetypes inherent in Wagner’s operas. There are some very unusual sets of cards: “Liebig’s Fleisch-Extract,” from a sort of Oxo/Marmite company that shows us how Wagner was popularly presented in Germany 100 years ago, and some beautiful pictures showing the style of Wieland Wagner’s productions, which were prominent in the years after the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival after the war. I was fortunate to sing very often in these productions, especially Der fliegender Holländer, Die Walküre, and Parsifal. There are eight of the twelve incredibly beautiful Richard Wagner illustrations from the original oil paintings by Ferdinand Leeke (1859–1923), which were painted circa 1900–1910, a very interesting self-portrait as Lohengrin by Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, which illustrates to us that he not only sang these heavy Wagnerian roles in his 20s (he sang Tristan at the age of 29 and died shortly after from a lung disease, not from the strain of singing the role as is often said) but also inherited his father’s talent for painting. Another surprise picture shows the author’s mother-in-law, Betsy de la Porte, as Waltraute in Die Walküre at Covent Garden in 1935, which conjures up visions of “Ho-jo-to-hos” ringing through the family home and the mutual enjoyment of sharing Wagner’s music, which makes it even clearer why this wonderful book has been written.

However, my favourite pictures are those of Arthur Rackham (1867–1939). These are incredibly beautiful, highly imaginative scenes from the mythology of The Ring, which were my inspiration to all the various roles that I sang: Wellgunde, Ortlinde, Sieglinde, Gutrune, and Brünnhilde. I would have given anything to have been able to perform these roles in these costumes and surroundings and am convinced that many of us would love to see a production in this style again. I would certainly try to create similar visions with the aid of modern techniques if I ever had the chance to produce a Ring myself.

I have become weary of many of today’s opera productions. If I buy a ticket to see Der fliegende Holländer, I want to see the sea, ships, sailors, and spinning wheels, not an office full of secretaries sitting at their typewriters; and I do not want to see Elisabeth going to the gas chambers in Tannhaüser or any of the other annoyances that simply ignore the directions in the score, changing the subject of the piece entirely and suggesting that the producer is superior to the composer.

The public is insulted and treated like idiots who are incapable of forming their own interpretation of the composer and librettist’s work and its effects on their daily lives and morals. It is not because I am old fashioned. To the contrary. I am simply sick of the disgraceful way that precious works of art are being abused by many of today’s producers who often admit that they have no knowledge of the art of opera and are unable to read music. It would seem that their main aim is to create something that is going to arouse protests and scandals and has nothing to do with the contents of the score, which makes them “the talk of the town” and enhances their careers.

Many avid opera-goers have given up trying to show their disagreement by booing and are simply not going to such performances any longer, which is made clear by the empty seats in many opera houses nowadays. In Bayreuth tickets are now easy to obtain on the Internet and sometimes even on the day of the premiere at the box office. This I find very worrying, because if the public is lost, it is not so easy to get them back again!

After decades of placing operas into “our time” with blue jeans, ugliness, and the desecration of sex, these have become outdated, and I feel that it is necessary to return to the truth of the score. This applies, of course, not only to Wagner’s dramas but to opera staging in general. It would also help the new generation to gain knowledge of the various epochs, such as medieval, rococo, and Biedermeier. One only has to look at the popularity of The Lord of the Rings to know that they would also welcome this transition.

The Wagner Experience reminds us of the original didactic aspects of the dramas, which encourage and inspire us to seek our own understanding and morals through the wise lessons and advice in the text and action, enable us to have life more abundantly enriched by the enormous power and beauty of the music, and often transport us to heavenly spheres.

I hope that Paul Dawson-Bowling’s The Wagner Experience will reach and inspire new audiences, as well as reviving the enthusiasm of mature Wagner lovers. This is like having three books in one because it places Wagner’s life, his work, and a fabulous array of exquisite illustrations before us in a nutshell. We must be grateful that the author has so generously shared his “Wagner Experience” with us, and I am sure that everyone who reads it will be filled with renewed admiration and understanding for this great composer and his works.

The Wagner Experience is available on Amazon for $32.88 (hardcover) and $14.49 (Kindle).

Jane Eaglen Speaks About Wagner and Brünnhilde

On December 10, New England Conservatory will reunite three of the artists from the Seattle Opera’s critically praised 2005 Ring cycle in An Evening in Valhalla, a concert performance of Act 3 of Die Walküre. Soprano Jane Eaglen, a member of the NEC voice faculty, will sing the role of Brünnhilde; Greer Grimsley, Wotan; and Robert Spano will conduct the NEC Philharmonia. Additional roles will be sung by NEC opera students. This gala performance will benefit NEC’s Student Life and Performance Center, scheduled for groundbreaking in the summer of 2015 and opening in 2017 to coincide with the Conservatory’s 150th anniversary. In anticipation of the event, Ms. Eaglen chatted about performing Brünnhilde, working with her two much admired colleagues, and teaching voice students who may dream of growing up and singing Wagner.

Q: How did this Wagner evening come about? It was your idea, wasn’t it?

A: I think I sort of mentioned it, half joking, thinking it would never happen. It would be a big project to pull off. I mentioned it to Tony [NEC President Tony Woodcock]. The next thing I knew he said, “We have a date for the concert.”

Q: Did you persuade Greer Grimsley to perform it with you?

A: Well, we both thought it would be great—if Greer was free to do it. He’s performing a lot these days. He and I have known each other for 30 years, for longer than we’ve been singing together. We got to know each other at Scottish Opera when we were both kids. I was singing in Così. He was doing his first Jochanaan in Salome. And then we toured together as well. So it probably helped that we knew each other so well.

Q: And with Robert Spano, this is a reprise of the 2005 Seattle Opera Ring that the three of you did together. What was that like?

A: It was great, wonderful. It was Spano’s first Ring, and he’s such a wonderful conductor. He understands so clearly. A cycle is a big undertaking for a Brünnhilde or a Wotan. But for a conductor to have to do his first Ring, to do all the operas at the same time! It has to be stressful—not in a bad way, but I can imagine that for any conductor, it puts a certain pressure on you. Fortunately, there was a lot of rehearsal time in Seattle, which certainly helped. However, it seemed as if it was very instinctive for him, that he really understood the music from the word “go.” And Greer had been in the Seattle Ring in 2001 but doing different roles—Gunther and Donner. I believe he had done Wotan in Die Walküre before, but this was his first full cycle. Having known him [for] so long, I think that really helped us in creating the relationship between father and daughter, which is key to the whole thing as well.

The musical direction of conductor Robert Spano, consistently imaginative and dramatic, attends to the singers while unleashing the power of a mighty orchestra in top form. — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third Ring” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: How many Brünnhildes have you done?

A: That’s a good question. Someone asked me how many Walküres I’ve sung. And my husband, who is very good with record keeping, said, it was somewhere in the region of 85. I’ve certainly done it more than the other two operas, but not by much. I’ve probably done an extra 10 or so Walküres. I’ve done probably five or six different Ring cycle productions. So I’ve certainly done quite a lot of Rings.

Q: Those cycles must have been quite different in style and approach. How do you feel about auteur directors?

A: I don’t mind a director updating an opera in any way as long as he still tells the story. My issue is that sometimes directors think [that] with Wagner they can go completely crazy. I’m not really sure why people think that, because Wagner was very clear about what he wanted. He had even done stage designs for the first Ring that he did. I do prefer a cycle that kind of looks like where it’s supposed to be set. So I kind of like trees. Mountains. I like being surrounded by fire rather than having to imagine it. Sometimes I’ve had real fire, sometime red candles. The Seattle Ring had really an extraordinary design. I really was surrounded by fire. It was very close! They dialed it down a bit because you have to lie there for 20 minutes before you sing in Siegfried. But I do think the Seattle production was my favorite one. I also liked the old Met Ring production. It really told the story well. But within whatever production or design you’re given, you still have to create the same character that you believe Brünnhilde to be.

What I’ve always found so fascinating about Brünn­hilde—obviously you have three operas to develop the character—but she’s such an interesting, three-dimensional and extreme character. There is so much you can do. Every single time I’ve done it, I’ve found something new or different, something I can rethink a little bit.

Jane Eaglen, in fine form as Brünnhilde, clearly understands the text, music and characterization so fully that it’s a pleasure to see her develop from an impetuous youngster into a wiser, sadder daughter who understands what she must pay for her disobedience. Her voice was splendid in its amplitude and also in its evenness throughout the entire register.” — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third Ring” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: I read an interview with you in which you said you thought of Brünnhilde as a 15-year-old girl. Can you elaborate on that? And how does she develop over time?

A: Well, I think of her as a big, fun girl—a bit like me. Which is why I think I’m drawn to her. The whole job, if you like, of being a Valkyrie—that is, bringing the dead heroes to Valhalla—is such great fun. You can hear that in the “Ride of the Valkyries” until the Valkyries realize something is wrong and Brünnhilde’s not there. Brünnhilde may be a little older than 15, but definitely in her teens. She’s very enthusiastic. She loves what she does. I think people sometimes get bogged down by the fact that the Ring is all about these gods and goddesses, but it’s really not. It’s all about relationships between people—between father and daughter, husband and wife. That some of them are gods is not really the point. The relationships between them are very personal, very human. People sometimes miss that or are surprised by that when they actually go to see the Ring. So I think Brünnhilde has a real enthusiasm for life. I think she is Wotan’s favorite daughter, perhaps because she is really smart. All the Valkyries are Erda’s daughters, but Brünnhilde definitely is her mother’s daughter, and I think she gets her intelligence and intuitiveness through her. So what I find interesting about the character is that . . . she listen[s] to people and learn[s] from them and make[s] decisions based on what she’s heard. So the reason she can go on at the end of Götterdämmerung and say, “Now I know everything,” is because of what she’s learned from Wotan, from Siegmund, from Siegfried, and she becomes such a hugely developed character. She’s started as this young, innocent, fun kid, and then she gets to be the woman who saves the world. So when Wotan asks in Act 2 where he can find a free hero who can give the ring back [to the Rhinemaidens] and save the world, she says, “I don’t know.” But then, later on, 15 hours later, she can say, “Oh, that was me.”

Q: Tell me about working with Greer and establishing the father/daughter relationship.

A: We know each other so well that I think we have a chemistry together, and we didn’t have to work on that. Obviously, father and daughter, the age thing is kind of an issue. But I’ve always thought of myself as about 12 years old. And he also has a daughter. I think the relationship between us was very well developed in that first cycle.

I think the third act of Die Walküre is wonderful. It’s my favorite act in the whole Ring. You have the excitement of the ride, and then the emotions in the second half are just amazing.

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan, making a sure-footed way through his first “Walküre,” is unflagging in his intensity and power: terrifying in his wrath, tender in his affection for his wayward daughter Brünnhilde. He already sings with the seasoned nuances of a longtime master of this role. — Melinda Bargreen, “Seattle Opera Strikes Gold with Brilliant Third ‘Ring’” (Seattle Times, August 12, 2005)

Q: What about the chemistry between the three of you? You and Greer and Spano?

A: I just felt it was a very cohesive situation. There was never any problem with what we all wanted to do. I always find the best music making is collaborative rather than when a conductor says, “Do this,” which never works. And I’ve always found that the greatest conductors are like that. They discuss with you how you conceive of a role or scene, and also they understand that every singer is different and sometimes needs something specific, perhaps vocally but also emotionally or dramatically. It just felt very easy working with him and finding the Ring that we all wanted to do.

Q: What sort of training do you put yourself through to get through a whole Ring? It’s got to be an enormous physical feat.

A: It is. Some research was done at some point that found that singing a major role in a regular opera, apart from a Wagner opera, is the equivalent of running a marathon. Physically that’s what your body goes through. I think that people who sing Wagner tend to be strong, to have that kind of stamina. I’ve always been lucky that way; I’m a big strong girl. But you’re careful. You do a performance and go right home and go to bed. And the day in between you pretty much don’t get dressed. You just lie there. If you feel like doing something, fine. I’ve always . . . been careful because you don’t want to get tired or get sick. And also you have to keep looking at your scores. When you’re singing Brünnhilde, you’re singing three different operas every other day. You just have to keep refreshing yourself, thinking through it on your day off.

I did my first Ring in Chicago. I had done Die Walküre quite a bit before, and I’d done Siegfried the year before. But my first cycle was also my first ever Götterdämmerung. And I was covering the middle cycle of three and conductor Zubin Mehta said to me, “It’s fine. It’s a good way to do your first Ring. Nobody will know about it.” But in the interim, I had done some things and people were coming to hear me. So quite a lot was riding on it. And I was nervous. I didn’t really get much rehearsal. I didn’t ever do the whole of Götterdämmerung staged with orchestra. The first time I did it was in the performance. But I’d worked hard and I’d had staging rehearsals. And I felt prepared. But when I got through the second act, I heaved a sigh of relief and thought, “I can actually do this thing.”

Q: You studied with one teacher, Joseph Ward, your entire life. Was it always clear to the two of you where you were headed vocally?

A: It was to him. But I had no idea when I went to study with him at age 17. I kind of sounded like a boy soprano, a choral voice. At my audition, he had uncovered notes in my voice that he thought were going to grow into a bigger voice. And after two weeks of lessons with him, he said, “Well one day you are going to sing Norma and Brünnhilde.” And my response to him, because I had grown up as a pianist and didn’t know much about the operatic literature, was “Is that good?” He said, “Yes, you should go and listen to these recordings right now.” So he sent me off to the library to listen to the Solti-Nilsson Ring, and I was hooked. He could obviously tell something in my voice at a very early age. Now, having had the experience of hearing many young voices and having a career, I can hear in some voices the direction I think they will take. Mr. Ward would absolutely have no doubt in his mind. What was so great about him is that whatever came up at whatever stage of my career, he always gave me the right advice. When I was young, I was offered several projects that were really premature for me. He would say, “Well, I won’t say you can’t do this because I think you can. But whether you should do it, I don’t think you should.” So I would say, “Then I won’t do it,” because I trusted him.

Q: You have been teaching for several years now. Some of your students must be dramatic sopranos in the making. How do you approach training voices like that? Kirsten Flagstad famously said young singers should stay away from the repertory. Others have said a steady diet of Mozart is not the answer either.

A: It’s a very fine line. Every case is different. Almost the first aria my teacher gave me was “Du bist der Lenz” from Die Walküre, when I was 18. He said, “This is what you’re ultimately going to sing, and so you might as well learn the style now.” And also with bigger voices, one of the most important things [you can do] is to let them sing. You can’t take away from the sound that a young voice makes. Young singers need to learn to sing at the natural level of their voice. If that happens to be bigger than some, that’s how it is. In teaching these students, it’s all about finding the right pieces. I’m all for doing some Mozart if that’s appropriate. But that can really get people into trouble too. It’s like that saying: Mozart is too difficult for professionals and too easy for amateurs.

One of the issues these bigger voices often come in with is [that] they have been told since age 18 that they need to sing quietly. So then they get tight and don’t support properly and develop all sorts of issues you then have to fix. But people will say, “They need to be able to sing quietly.” And they will be able to. But until you can sing at the natural level of the voice, it’s very hard to do so. I’m not necessarily advocating giving 18-year-olds Wagner to sing, but sometimes it makes sense. Singing “Du bist der Lenz” is much less damaging for the voice than doing, say, “Dove sono” [Le nozze di Figaro]. That’s because Wagner writes long lines,and a bigger voice takes longer to get into the breath, to get into the line. And Wagner never requires that you absolutely have to do it until you feel the stretch of the breath. So you never have to slam the cords, you never have to slam the voice. If you sing Wagner properly, it can actually be much healthier than lots of other composers. The reason some people get into a tizzy about it is if you don’t have the right voice for it, people try to make the right voice, so they push because they think they have to sing loud.

If there’s one thing my students come away with it’s that Wagner is not loud. If you have the voice to sing it, then you can do it. If you don’t, don’t sing it. When I was about 22, I did a concert with Sir Reginald Goodall, who was a wonderful coach and conductor. We did the Liebes­tod[Tristan und Isolde] in a concert for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and [when] we got to the big climax, he stopped me and said, “My dear, it’s only marked with two f’s.” And I held that in my mind for the whole of my career. In fact, Wagner almost never wrote [anything] louder than two f’s. That should tell you something. He also required a Brünnhilde who could trill; all three Brünnhildes have a trill. So, if he expected a voice that could trill, he didn’t want a voice that was pushed because then you couldn’t trill. It’s more to do with whether the quality of the voice is the right sound for the repertory rather than trying to make it big and heavy, which is never how it should be.

For bigger voices, indeed for any voices, it’s important to do some florid music. Coloratura is good to study. It’s just that it’s harder for big voices. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve sung the eight bars of coloratura in Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” [Don Giovanni], I could probably retire to Jamaica. I think I’ve literally sung it a million times. My teacher gave me a Handel piece after the first few weeks I had studied with him, and he told me this is how you practice this piece, these runs. Now you have to go and figure it out. So I locked myself away for two or three weeks, and eventually I was able to do it.

I remember being kind of shocked the first time a student said to me he didn’t know how to practice. Practice is what you do to get something perfect. Of course, we’re all human, and perfection isn’t possible, but you keep trying. So you don’t stop until you get it right. That to me just seems common sense. That tenacity was not something I had with my piano playing, but somehow with the singing I felt I have to get this right. I try to instill this determination in my students, but sometimes when I tell my students that I’ve done something a million times, they think I’m kidding. No, I’m not. Over the years, it’s that!

I’ve always wanted to teach, and I absolutely love it. And I’m really lucky to have some wonderful students. But not only do I teach them how to practice, it’s also about how to approach the career. I’ve had experience that not everyone has had, and it’s always felt important to me to pass these things on.


For information about NEC’s An Evening in Valhalla, December 10, at 7 pm, in NEC’s Jordan Hall, go to NEC’s website at or call 617-585-1260.

Ellen Pfeifer

Ellen Pfeifer is Senior Communications Specialist at the New England Conservatory

Jonas Kaufmann Is “Pure Magic”

Review of BSO Concert

Andris Nelsons conducts Wagner, Mascagni, Puccini, and Respighi; September 29, 2014, with Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Soprano Kristine Opolais

Without a doubt, the single hottest ticket of the season was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s recent gala concert, which featured two high-profile guest artists, Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais, along with our resident orchestra and its breathlessly awaited music director, 35-year-old Andris Nelsons. The opening-night program of the previous week played the usual three performances and, in retrospect, was a carefully planned prelude (Mozart, Villa-Lobos, and Beethoven) to the following week’s main event. For whatever reasons, the superlative guest artists were available for only one concert, and so the previous week’s fine but ho-hum program did not steal the spotlight from this special and keenly awaited gala. There were only a few remaining tickets for this one-time event, a regular Saturday evening subscription concert at gala prices; they were quickly snapped up within the first two days they were made available to donors and subscribers.

This concert will long be remembered by those fortunate to have attended. Those who were less fortunate can listen to the concert on demand the entire year on There will also be an opportunity to see the concert on PBS sometime this season.

For once, your reviewer is at a loss for words to adequately comment on the superb music making. Where to begin? Despite three years in the wilderness without a music director, the extraordinary instrument that was totally retooled by the previous music director remains a sonic wonder. Maestro Nelsons has inherited quite a machine. What remains to be seen is how he drives it and where he will take it and us. Only time and the next few seasons will tell. Meanwhile, I can happily report that the overall musical health of this extraordinary collection of superb instrumentalists is good. We in Boston have long been spoiled by this orchestra, which is simply incapable of producing an ugly sound. No matter who stands in front of it, we are assured of tonal beauty at all times. When one hears excellence such as this day in and day out, one is really spoiled.

The concert began with a tremendous ovation of seldom-heard quality as soon as Maestro Nelsons entered. The TV cameras made for an even more palpable sense of occasion. (Unfortunately, a few seats on the floor had to be removed to accommodate the camera on a boom. Those of a certain age will remember a program called Evening at Symphony, as well as regularly telecast concerts from Sanders Theatre when the BSO had a Cambridge Series. How come those fine TV tapings were made with fewer seats having to be removed?) Maestro Nelsons, the youngest music director of the BSO, officially inaugurated his tenure with a stirring and deeply felt Tannhäuser Overture. To some ears, his opening tempo might have seemed stodgy, despite gorgeous playing by the winds and horns. I enjoyed his tempo of the Pilgrims’ Chorus, and I quickly thought, probably prematurely, of Celibidache, Knappertsbusch, and, even more prematurely, Furtwängler. The proper gravitas was certainly there. Things picked up with the Venusberg music, and here Nelsons captured all the inherent sensuality and virtuosity built into the score. It is impossible to sufficiently praise the exemplary work of the solo winds, or the unforced power of the brass section and the creamy playing of the strings throughout.

And then there was Jonas Kaufmann! This listener stands in awe of this artist, the world’s greatest tenor today (at least in certain roles). I had been to Carnegie Hall last February (and I was fortunate to greet him one-on-one afterward when he autographed my Parsifal vocal and piano score), and so I already knew what to expect. And, indeed, all the trademarks of this unbelievably gifted artist were there. Soft and beautifully floated high notes, plus power and strength, were abundant. But even more, Kaufmann seemed, in his all-too-brief “In fernem Land” [Lohengrin], to conjure up an entirely foreign and faraway world. Unworldly sounds emanated from his throat, and during those brief minutes Lohengrin himself was onstage. Pure magic from start to finish. The perfect intonation of the massed BSO strings provided a plush cushion of sound with faultless harmonics throughout. One did not want it to end.

The concert continued with the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod. Maestro Nelsons built up a carefully controlled prelude that had one true climax, as it should, but which does not always happen. Again, it is impossible to adequately praise the playing of this orchestra. It was such a pleasure to hear and experience all the harmonic tension that Wagner had built into the score.

As for Ms. Opolais, all I can say is that this music is simply not for her. She was almost inaudible at the climax, and even at the beginning one really had to strain to hear her. She might have found a Wagnerian role more appropriate for her somewhat slender sound. And to add insult to injury, the final note, the F# on “Lust,” was no match for the Flagstad/Furtwängler version, which is still the “Lust” of reference. To be fair, subsequently I heard rumors that she was indisposed.

After the intermission, the vocal works included a powerhouse selection from Cavalleria rusticana, delivered to perfection by Mr. Kaufmann. This was followed by a competent but by no means stellar, festival-quality “Un bel di, [Madama Butterfly] (which replaced the aria from La Wally). Ms. Opolais could be heard here with virtually no problems. The orchestra gave the singers a brief rest while they proceeded to knock out of the ballpark a gorgeously played Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. How nice to hear the recently renovated organ blend so subtly with the strings. And how beautiful was the string playing!

The dramatic duet from the second act of Manon Lescaut followed. Here, both artists seemed to sing as one, perhaps because they reprised these roles from their Vienna concert a few months earlier. This is a fine duet, but it gives the tenor little to do. Mr. Kaufmann was exceedingly modest and generous to his colleague and let the spotlight fall on Ms. Opolais. She was clearly in her element at last and did a splendid job. Perhaps the best duet of the evening was the surprise encore, the end of Act 1 of La bohème. Mr. Kaufmann graciously let Ms. Opolais take the high C at the end while he sang what Puccini had written. Instead of walking slowly offstage, the two simply turned around and faced the orchestra. This listener, for the first and probably only time, heard the closing orchestral postlude as written by Puccini, which is almost never done except in studio recordings.

After innumerable bows and no further encores, the concert closed with the always-reliable orchestral blockbuster, Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Offstage brass on both sides of the upper balcony added special excitement, as did the organ. This provided a suitably high-powered close to a high-profile musical event, the concert of the season.

Jeffrey Brody

Jeffrey Brody, the Music Advisor of the Boston Wagner Society, is a composer, pianist, and coach and the Music Director of Longwood Opera.

The View from the Rim

The View from the Rim: Tristan, the Grand Canyon, and the Beauty of the Abyss

Presented by
James Holman, Chairman of the Wagner Society of Washington DC

The quarter century from 1857 to 1883, from the composition of Tristan und Isolde to the composer’s death, marked a period of unprecedented and revolutionary change, change in the way we look at the world and the way we look at ourselves. The “discovery” of the Grand Canyon, and the beauty of looking “downward,” is an apt metaphor, both for Wagner’s masterpiece and for a civilization coming to terms with the modern world.

Please join us for another superb presentation by James Holman, Chairman of the Wagner Society of Washington DC and author/editor of several books on Wagner. The book Quo Vadis, Wagner: Approaching the Bicentennial will be distributed for free and signed by Chairman James K. Holman, who is the editor. The book includes essays by luminaries such as Leon Botstein, Jeffrey Buller, Maureen Dowd, Evelyn Lear, Saul Lilienstein, Barry Millington, John J. Pohanka, Alex Ross, Nicholas Vazsony, Simon Williams, and Francesca Zambello

Sunday, Nov. 9, 3 p.m.
The College Club
44 Commonwealth Ave.

Tickets: $15; Members $10

For tickets, click HERE.

For more information: ∙ 617-323-6088

Concert with Baritone Marcelo Guzzo and Pianist Rainer Armbrust

Wagner, Verdi, Donizetti & Bellini: A Medley

Art Songs, Arias, and Piano Solos
With Marcelo Guzzo, baritone, and Rainer Armbrust, piano

Date: Friday, May 2, 2014
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Place: Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, 27 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

For tickets, click here.
There are no fees for online ticket ordering.

Marcelo Guzzo in the Bacchanal of Act 1 of Tannhäuser in Colombia

Baritone Marcelo Guzzo as Wolfram in the Bacchanal ofTannhäuser, the first Wagner opera to be performed in Colombia, conducted by Maestro Gustavo Dudamel


Baritone Marcelo Guzzo as Wolfram in Colombia's Tannhäuser, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel

Marcelo Guzzo as the minstrel Wolfram in Colombia’s Tannhäuser

To learn more, click below:

 About the Artists and Program
Tickets: $10, $25, $30
For tickets, click here,
or call 617-323-6088