Interview with Maestro Hugh Keelan

Interview with Maestro Hugh Keelan

Hugh Keelan, the music director of Tundi Productions in Brattleboro, Vermont, conducts a fully staged, fully orchestrated performance of Tristan und Isolde. Performance dates are August 23 and 25, 2019.

  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I have conducted throughout the world, from the Residentie Orchestra (conducted by Toscanini) in The Hague, to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (in pioneering recordings of seminal American symphonies), to the Saint Louis Symphony (with a world premiere) and the Windham Orchestra (art created in, with, and for a community). I have collaborated with the great artists of our times, including Solti, Haitink, Sir Colin Davis, Shura Cherkassky, Maurice Sendak, and Tom Stoppard. In the future are Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and Boudica, composed and cowritten with Jenna Rae at our company, Tundi. During Boudica, audiences will learn Celtic war cries, and from their seats participate in battle scenes with the Roman occupiers. Currently, in August 2019, performers from around the world and close by assemble for Tristan und Isolde. For me, life and art are not distinct, just different words for a committed exploration of beauty and transcendence.

Jenna [Rae] (Isolde) and I have built our production company Tundi so that we and others have satisfactions and fulfillments not provided by standard career paths.

  1. Will you be conducting Wagner for the first time on August 23? And how did you arrive at Wagner?

It is not the first time I have conducted Wagner, though never a complete opera; plenty of excerpts. My mentors include Davis, Solti, Goodall, and a set of figures at Covent Garden. For a period, I would accompany Alessandra Marc with orchestra, performing the Liebestod, the Wesendonck Lieder, and Strauss’s Four Last Songs

I arrived at Wagner through a transformation while attending the Boulez/Chéreau Ring when I was 19. My experience now is certainly not what it was then. Though I consider Wagner to be an endlessly modern genius who hands us our humanity to deal with over and again, what currently overwhelms me is the tension (quite likely not the best word) between improvisation (an earlier flowering of Strauss’s capacity to “compose out loud”) and architecture. And currently I am bewildered by Wagner’s capacity to break the space-time continuum (as the man himself wrote [in Parsifal], “Du siehst . . . zum Raum wird hier die Zeit” [You see, here space and time become one]). Often in Tristan und Isolde the reexamined narrative or the simple hearing-again of words––

  • “Tristan” 
  • “Isolde”
  •  “zu König Markes Land [to King Mark’s Land]”
  •  “Befehlen liess dem Eigenholde [Let my command teach the vainglorious one]”
  •  “Tantris”
  •  “Frisch weht der Wind [Fresh the wind blows]”
  •  “Die alte Weise [That old tune]

––takes us to places where layers of time appear to overlap; we are simultaneously back at the beginning, yet reexploring in a new direction.

  1. What made you choose to perform Tristan und Isolde among Wagner’s operas?

Well, they are all impossible, so the flip answer is to start with one of them (rather than, for example, four of them). A more serious answer is that it is the Wagner work least hungry for controversy in its social, political, dramaturgical themes and ramifications; also it creates a world both of accessibility and mystery around love. We’ll take the case that love is a matter of consuming and pervasive human interest, so we are handed a theme that is very hard to exhaust. I am currently awestruck at the work as an examination of a theme subset inside love, “nontoxic masculinity.” The subtlety and care with which the male characters treat one another is beyond exemplary. Even with violent actions perpetrated, the men act from places of principle and commitment, rather than reaction, programming, and impulse. This is easy to miss in its richness, as there is a relatively clearly placed villain (Melot) and some openly expressed ill will from the men to the women in some places. Finally, the casting has been easy (not many productions can say that), and my own love for the work renders me helpless.

  1. How do you teach your orchestra a work that is so difficult to perform?

The answer is to not view the work contextually from concepts such as “teach” or “difficult.” Tristan is nothing more nor less than the greatest, richest expression of love ever penned. People, including players, want to participate and tend to solve problems as they come up in their stride. I know that might be a mystifying nonresponse; so here is my next unhelpful answer: By honoring them.

  1.  What is your take on Regietheater productions, especially in Europe?

I am a performer and listener, not a theorist. I have a commitment to extract value from, or give value to, any artistic experience I encounter or am involved in. I am a little bit certain, but not completely, that mostly what I want from any performance is to be engaged thoroughly and deeply. I have a dislike of taxonomy and “boxes” in the arts, similar to disliking “-isms.” I don’t even like Fach [area of expertise] talk about singers! I love the occasional suggestions from Wagner that any artistic venture should be destroyed once completed (pretty wild paraphrasing, I’m afraid), never to be revived. I love Mahler’s “Tradition ist Schlamperei” (laziness).

To help us all just a little bit more, Tundi’s Isolde will wear green (for Ireland), Marke will wear a crown, and potions will be drunk. There will be imagery of the sea for Act 1, of a love garden for Act 2, and . . .

  1.  Do you plan to conduct other Wagner operas in the near or far future?

Walkūre this time next year, fully produced with orchestra; the other three with piano, though my dream is also to do the final act of Götterdämmerung with orchestra . . . so we are doing noticeably better than one out of four in a Ring Festival.

Dalia Geffen

Interview with Mezzo-Soprano Janice Edwards

Janice Edwards head shotMezzo-Soprano Janice Edwards will perform the roles of Sieglinde and Fricka at the Boston Wagner Society’s all-Wagner concert on November 11 at Old South Church.

You have a wide-ranging repertoire, from oratorios to song recitals to operas and from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi to Wagner. How did you train for such different styles of music, and how did you develop so much versatility? 

I have loved all genres of classical vocal music all of my life, and started trying to imitate operatic voices when I purchased my first LP (highlights of La bohème) at about the age of 12. I started voice training with a local teacher at about age 14, and we both knew that I had a––let’s call it––strong voice even at that age. I knew in my heart that I was destined to become a singer of “serious” music. My earliest operatic singing experience was in undergraduate school, where I sang Baba in Menotti’s The Medium and Dinah in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. It was then that I was thoroughly infected with the stage bug. 

When I attended graduate school at Indiana University, I was immediately assigned (cast in) two oratorio alto parts – Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s St. John Passion. Frankly, to me this was just beautiful music and I didn’t give much thought to whether my “opera voice” would be suitable. For most of my professional career, I have sung oratorio roles that require a darker, rich sound. But this timbre has, of course, served me well in opera, too. 

In the late 1970s you studied with famed soprano Eileen Farrell for two years. Tell us what your experiences with her were. 

It was a great honor to be a member of Miss Farrell’s studio––at that time, Indiana University [IU] had one of the best opera schools in the world. The voice department alone had over 900 students, and Miss Farrell only chose 20 for her studio. Even though I had had two voice teachers prior to attending IU, I hadn’t picked up much about vocal technique. I just opened my mouth and out came a rich, mature sound. I was fortunate that I started piano lessons at the age of about seven, so I have always been a good musician and able to teach myself roles. But vocal technique was fairly foreign. 

I learned so much from Miss Farrell, especially about how to be a singer––how to protect yourself vocally, say, if offered a role that is not right for you; how to handle yourself with agents and other professionals in the business who could take advantage [of you]. Everyone in her studio benefited from her distinguished career as one of the greatest American sopranos of her time––if not of all time. She also emphasized the importance of text––of learning what every word means and communicating the intent of the composer and how he or she wrote for a character. She showed me some of her piano/vocal scores where she had carefully penciled in word-for-word translations, and made sure I did the same for every single piece we worked on––song or opera or oratorio (whatever was not in English, such as the Verdi Requiem or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or a Bach Passion).

Did you touch on Wagner at all with Eileen Farrell? 

Studying Wagner’s Wesendonk-Lieder with Miss Farrell was one of her greatest gifts to me and my first exposure to Wagner, aside from an LP of overtures that I listened to in my early teens. She had already released two definitive commercial recordings, and must have recognized that they would suit me. We worked on them for nearly two semesters, and I sang them on my first graduate recital at IU. Her sense of style, phrasing, respect for diction and inflection were invaluable. I will never forget that experience.

Which roles did you perform in your early career? 

Aside from two fairly minor roles at IU, I made my professional debut with Kentucky Opera as the Page in Strauss’s Salome, which was truly a thrill. The following season I was engaged by Kentucky Opera to sing Suzuki in Madama Butterfly (the first of many; I’ve sung that role with six different opera companies over the years). I moved to New York City in the early 1980s and, like most newbies to the city, auditioned for Amato Opera, a great training ground for young singers, though Tony Amato did not pay his artists. But his experience and knowledge of Italian opera style were invaluable. I sang Amneris, Carmen, and Preziosilla.

Getting back to oratorio for a moment. I lived in New York City for 15 years and was mostly hired to sing oratorio (as well as paid church gigs)––Bach Passions, Beethoven’s Ninth (I’ve lost count!), Mozart Requiem, Verdi Requiem, and lots of Mahler over the years in New York and Europe (Kindertotenlieder, Symphony No. 2, Das Lied von der Erde). This bears out the versatility of a lot of professional singers: we can “adapt” our voice to the repertoire and the style required without doing any vocal harm. At least, that is what a smart singer does.

In the 1990s you sang Fricka in Arizona Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the first performance of this work in the American Southwest, to great acclaim. You were then asked back to perform Fricka there a few more times. Had you sung a Wagner role before? And if not, how did you make the switch to this dramatic repertoire? 

I am deeply grateful that my voice teacher in New York at the time, Elizabeth Cole, convinced Henry Holt to hear me for Arizona Opera’s planned Ring Cycle, to begin in 1993 with Die Walküre. Maestro Holt and Glynn Ross, formerly of Seattle Opera, decided that a “southwest” Ring Cycle would be a novelty and attract a wide audience. They were certainly correct. Henry and Glynn were intent on consistency within the casting, so I was engaged to sing both Frickas. We had the same Wotan/Wanderer for all three operas (Edward Crafts), the same Brünnhilde (Karen Bureau), and so on.

Arizona Opera [AZOP], like many opera companies, will mount one opera per season, then present a complete cycle. I sang five performances of the Walküre Fricka in 1993, but Rheingold was not mounted until January 1996 (again, five performances). AZOP’s first complete Ring (presented in two consecutive weeks) was performed in June 1996 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. It was immensely popular, and international “Ring Nuts” attended with enthusiasm. It was so successful that AZOP repeated their Ring Cycle in June 1998. Needless to say, this was an unforgettable experience. A few of us cast members were hoping that more Wagner would be scheduled by the company, but that was not to be.

You have also sung Sieglinde with Longwood Opera. As a mezzo-soprano, was it easy for you to sing in the higher soprano range? Or is this role equally adapted for sopranos and mezzo-sopranos? 

When Jeffrey Brody and Scott Brumit made the astonishing decision to present “Tales from the Ring” as Longwood Opera’s spring 2010 concert, many roles were double and triple cast. I can’t recall if Jeffrey or I decided to have me sing a very abbreviated Sieglinde. However, this is the same version of Die Walküre, Act 1, Scene 3, that we will sing at the Boston Wagner Society’s concert this November. I was relieved, both in 2010 and currently, that most of Sieglinde’s music in this scene is cut––I am looking forward to singing “Du bist der Lenz” with tenor Peter Furlong, as well as a few high, important interjections (such as “Siegmund, so nenn’ ich dich!”).

Sieglinde is one of Wagner’s . . . well . . . middle-range soprano roles, and I do not find this portion of the role to be at all taxing. While I certainly have the richness and weight of a true mezzo-soprano voice, I am able to access my upper (soprano) range easily without incurring any vocal fatigue.

How do you prepare to sing Wagner? Is the preparation different from preparing for, say, oratorios? 

Not really that different. As I said, for me, singing is singing. It’s just a matter of adapting to the style required of the repertoire. Due to my many years of working diligently on my vocal technique (I work with a wonderful teacher in New York, Jack Livigni, every other month), as well as daily practice, I feel that my voice is in better shape than ever. Like anything requiring a high degree of muscle training (playing an instrument, athletics), working at it daily is key.

Is singing Wagner different from performing Verdi? Do the techniques overlap, or are they totally different? 

I feel the technique for the two composers are very similar; just the style of singing differs mainly due to the difference in languages. 

Wagner and Verdi are certainly similar in that they require vocal stamina, controlled resonance, highly dramatic acting, and a VERY strong voice! Interestingly, both composers were born in 1813, and Verdi outlived Wagner by about 20 years. But their styles could not be more different.

Do you think you might sing other Wagnerian roles in the future? 

The two Wagner roles on my “bucket list” are Brangäne and Venus. However, given the state of the arts these days, where staging an entire Wagner opera is a daunting prospect, I am not holding out much hope for that. 

But this is why presentations by the Boston Wagner Society, such as the upcoming November concert, and last seasons’ Siegfried, Act 1, are so important for the genre, and to give local artists an opportunity to sing this glorious music, as well as local Wagner lovers to hear his music sung live by professional artists.

You teach vocal technique and operatic singing in New Hampshire. What is your philosophy in training your students?

​My students represent a wide range of age and experience. Many people “of a certain age” want to feel confident auditioning for local community theater productions or community choirs. I love working with these motivated singers to help them achieve their goals. 

I currently have one, and have had in the past, very talented younger singers who are on a “professional track” and aspire to sing opera in regional or national opera companies. For them, we work on preparing for auditions, YAPs (Young Artist Programs), or competitions. 

I do not accept a student based on his or her talent. I accept a student if I think I can help him or her achieve a worthy goal. The human voice is a miracle, and the desire to sing––the most enhanced form of communication––is overpowering for many people. Every singer who enters my studio has a goal, and it is my honor to try to help them achieve that goal.

Interview with Heldentenor Peter Furlong

Furlong (colour) Headshot 2017 verticalWe are delighted that you will sing Siegmund for the Boston Wagner Society on November 11 at Old South Church. 

Thank you, Dalia. I am delighted to have the opportunity to sing with the Boston Wagner Society. It is always such a treat to come back to my home, where my music career started as a young boy in Framingham. 

Where have you sung this role before? 

This will be my first time performing Siegmund, and I will also sing the whole role in April 2019 in Berlin. The wonderful thing about doing this concert with the Boston Wagner Society is that it allows me to work out the role (or at least Act 1, Scene 3) in a performance with wonderful colleagues, and that is such a beneficial thing. 

Given the difficulties of singing the Wagnerian repertoire, how and when did you make the switch from lyric tenor to heldentenor? 

The progression to Wagnerian repertoire was rather slow. I started out as a lyric tenor and slowly grew into a lyric spinto tenor (progressing from Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Rodolfo in La bohème to Cavaradossi in Tosca). However, the switch to Wagner was a bit slower. I never thought I would be a Heldentenor. After about 10–15 years of singing the spinto repertoire, I found that I was getting good feedback from auditions, but not getting the jobs. I eventually grew so frustrated that I flew back to New York City to work again with the great coach Kathy Olsen Simpson (with whom I used to work extensively when I lived there) and asked her what was going on. She heard me sing just a few bars of “La fleur” from Carmen, and she said (in her wonderful mid-Western accent), “Peter, your voice has grown!” and from her advice this wonderful journey began. I can only say that singing Wagner is like a balsam for my voice. It’s wonderful. 

Which roles did you sing as a lyric tenor? 

The roles I sang were (on the lighter side) Don Ottavio and Rinuccio (Gianni Schicchi); at that time my signature aria was Tonio’s “Pour mon âme” from Daughter of the Regiment (the “nine high Cs” aria). On the heavier side (as my voice matured) my roles were Rodolfo, Pinkerton, and Cavaradossi, with a healthy dose of contemporary music in the mix. The beginning of my Helden career started with Max in Der Freischütz 

Which Wagnerian roles have you sung and plan to sing? 

Lohengrin was my first full foray into Wagner and, boy, was that a heck of a lot of fun. I really enjoyed singing Lohengrin, as he gave me the chance to open up, be free, and sing more powerful passages along with one of the loveliest duets ever (Act 3). Up next is Siegmund (as mentioned), then Parsifal for late 2019 and Siegfried for 2020. I also have Tristan on a “slow burn,” which is a role I cannot wait to sing! 

What do you like about the character Siegmund? 

What do I like about the character Siegmund? Hmm . . . an interesting question. The relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde poses some awkward questions, to say the least! However, there are beautiful and tragic moments to be treasured. For example, I find Siegmund is a bit of a lost soul, defeated, alone, in the wilderness. It is Sieglinde who shows Siegmund that he has the potential to be a hero, and it is their love that changes the course of the Ring. His determination, strength in the face of certain defeat, his love, and his courage are all qualities to admire, no matter how misplaced they may seem. 

How do you prepare to sing a role that is so arduous? What do you do in the days leading up to the performance? 

Preparation for a main Wagner role is similar to how one prepares to run a marathon. It takes the same time, dedication, strength, and understanding of how to pace one’s self, except in this case it’s in order to sing at one’s best throughout. In short, it is a full regimen that any athlete must adhere to. In the days leading up to a performance, the most important thing I do is to keep well rested and well hydrated. I usually try to keep my singing to a minimum and mark when I need to (which is very hard to do when you’re in final rehearsals). 

Tell us a little about your background. Was it a long road from your childhood in Framingham to Berlin? 

It has been a rather long road, but one that has been quite fulfilling. I started really singing in high school (at Framingham South High) under the guidance of my music teacher, George Perrone, and took private voice lessons with Joan Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, I was advised to avoid taking too many music classes and was only allowed to be in the after-school “elite” choir (I also played clarinet and took music theory classes, so to add singing was deemed “too much”). I managed to be in the All State Choir with an almost perfect score in my senior year of high school. From there I went to University of Lowell for a bachelor of music (where I studied with the wonderful Eunice Alberts) and then onward to my master of music at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut (where I studied with Jerome Pruitt and Sherry Overholt). Afterward I was an apprentice for two wonderful years with the Santa Fe Opera, and then three great years as a Young Artist at Opera Colorado under Nat and Louise Merrill. I then moved to New York, where I got my first big break singing Rodolfo with Dicapo Opera (whose general director, Michael Capasso, is now general director of New York City Opera). 

After three years in New York, I was hired by Theater Dortmund [Germany] for a one-year Fest contract. I then went freelance and moved to Italy, where I mostly worked abroad singing Italian and contemporary repertoire. Then it was back in Berlin and eventually . . . Wagner! 

How do you handle all the traveling you need to do as a singer? Does it affect the way you perform? 

Traveling is so difficult in some ways. Although it is wonderful that you can cross an ocean in about seven to eight hours, the effects of A/C, the stress of trying to make connections, and the lack of sleep from jet lag wear on the voice. I’m (sort of) lucky that I traveled a lot as a child (I was nine months old when I took my first flight), and so I am somewhat used to it. However, when one adds the demands of being a professional singer to the decline in comfort of the flying experience, it does take some practice to come through unscathed. As I mentioned, lack of sleep is the most difficult aspect. I try to sleep as much as I can the day before a flight and the day after (I tend not to sleep on planes, unfortunately). I also drink a LOT of water while traveling. This usually requires a chat with the cabin crew to allow me to just fill up my ever-present water bottle at my discretion. I also make sure I am seated in an aisle seat so I have the freedom to do just that. Exercise is the third step in the mix I use to keep the ill effects of travel away. It helps get the blood and oxygen flowing, the muscles moving, and the brain engaged. 

What was the worst thing you had to do on stage? 

Unfortunately, in this day and age, singers are low in the pecking order when it comes to opera productions. When we sign a contract, often we have no idea who the director is, and we won’t find that out until some time later. The director is the big boss, and we have to follow the vision laid out, no matter what. So, depending on the definition of “willingly,” of course I do, because it’s my job and I want to get paid. From my own theatric and directorial point of view, I usually reserve judgment until I can find a way to understand the director’s vision. Sometimes that happens, other times it does not. When it does, it’s wonderful. I may not like it, but I can understand it and from there I can build my character and perform with confidence. However, when I cannot understand the vision, it is very difficult and makes the process rather painful and frustrating.  

The worst thing I had to do was probably be on stage nude, in an orgy scene (I will protect both the innocent and the guilty by not naming names). I refused to be nude, which caused all sorts of problems, with the director pressuring me to change my mind (I didn’t), and so I got to wear a body stocking. The orgy scene was rather tame and involved much more laughter from us (under our breath) than sexual tension, which annoyed the director.  ;

Tell us about your upcoming performances for those who might want to hear you again. 

My upcoming performances are

In the US

  • Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” Sunday, October 28, 2018, at 4 pm,‬‬ at CedarHouse Sound and Mastering in North Sutton, NH. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬
  •  ”Das Lied von der Erde,” Thursday, November 1, 2018, at 7:30 pm, at the National Opera Studio, New York City.‬‬‬‬
  • ”Wagner: Mythology, Mystery, and Masters,” Sunday, November 11, 2018, at 3 pm‬‬ at Gordon Chapel, Old South Church, Boston‬‬‬.‬‬‬‬‬‬
    • ‬Join me and a fantastic group of Wagnerian singers as they perform an all-Wagner concert presented by the Boston Wagner Society.  I will be singing Siegmund in Act 1, Scene 3 of Die Walküre, with mezzo-soprano Janice Edwards as Sieglinde. ‬‬‬‬

‬‬‬ In Europe

  • Siegmund, Die Walküre, April 2019, with Berlin Wagner Gruppe.
  • Parsifal, Parsifal, June 2019, with Berlin Wagner Gruppe.
  • Siegfried, Siegfried, 2020, with Berlin Wagner Gruppe.


Interview with Heldentenor Adam Russell

Adam Russell

Heldentenor Adam Russell will perform Siegfried and Parsifal at the Boston Wagner Society’s concert on November 11 at Old South Church. In November 2017 he sang a selection of Wagner roles at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, including Lohengrin, Siegmund, and Parsifal.

You have sung quite a bit in the bel canto and dramatic tenor repertoires. At what age and in what way did you realize that you had an operatic voice?

In the beginning, I didn’t really know where I was heading. When I was in high school I remember having what I call a spiritual experience when hearing Pavarotti sing “Nessun dorma.” I started listening to aria collections in my teens. In college, I was in the opera chorus for Carmen and that led to my interest in studying classical voice. I wasn’t an opera fan back then, but it seemed to be the right venue for my abilities and temperament. I couldn’t listen to an opera all the way through without being exhausted by it, but that changed. Eventually, I moved to New York to work on a music career.

Did you grow up in a musical family?

I would answer no to this question. My mother played the organ in church and accompanied a volunteer congregational choir, but I feel it had little to do with my interest in pursuing an operatic career.

When you began your operatic career, which roles did you sing? And how did those develop into the more dramatic roles that you perform today?

I’ve sung mostly standard tenor roles like Rodolfo and Pinkerton and Alfredo in a number of productions. Even though there were signs that all the lyric repertoire wasn’t going to fit my voice, I didn’t realize until I matured that I was never intended to sing the Duke in Rigoletto or Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni—though I had tried for years, and was being encouraged in that direction. From the beginning I liked verismo arias the best, and relished stories of tragedy; give me Werther and Turiddu any day over The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus! Though I had sung Don Jose in Carmen, and Manrico in Il trovatore, my first real foray into the dramatic repertoire came when I sang Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos. It is a perilous and thankless role. I also had some limited success with Wagner’s “Prize Song.” Singing that aria is a little bit like playing Russian roulette. But my heart lies in the Italian verismo, in Verdi and the lesser-known works of Puccini like Manon Lescaut, Il tabarro, and La fanciulla del West.

When did it occur to you that you had a Wagnerian voice?

I can’t say if I definitively am a Wagnerian tenor. This repertoire is an experiment. For me, a definite answer as to whether I am a Heldentenor would require singing a whole role in a staged production and having it be a positive experience. I’d need to know if I have the stamina for Wagner.

Tell us where and with whom you trained and coached in the past.

I’ll spare you my vocal pedigree. That was a series of unlearning and relearning until eventually—and luckily—I emerged unscathed. I don’t claim to be the student of any teacher, though I have studied with many. I have been working on my own since 2011, though I most certainly coach and take advice from professional colleagues. I’m responsible for what I do. I do not have any degrees in music. The skills I have developed have been outside academic programs.

Is singing Wagner different from singing roles written by other composers?

In my limited experience, I would say singing Wagner is easier that singing Italian repertoire because it isn’t peppered with as many high notes. Because of that I feel less pressure during a Wagner performance. In Wagner, a tenor is singing more in his lower register. That gets tricky when you attempt to get back into the top of your range.

How do you prepare for getting on the stage and transforming yourself into an operatic character?

I prepare through blood, sweat, and tears. And by trying to find the “truth” of what I have to give in a respective performance. I basically try to find myself in the character. For me, study is a part of that, but even more so, it is using my intuition to investigate the personality of the individual in rehearsal, not really knowing what I will find. And for me the process is very personal. This is aided by working in a collaborative rehearsal environment.

I know you have sung around Boston a lot. Did you perform in other cities as well?

I have sung in Geffen Hall in New York, the former Avery Fisher Hall, but the remainder of my credits are with smaller regional opera companies. 

What do you like about Wagner’s music?

There may be the chance I can sing music well that I don’t like well. I have many misgivings about the composer. I feel Wagner is a mixed bag, the good and bad together: musically, theatrically, and morally.

What plans do you have for your future operatic career?

I would like to say I have big plans for the future of my operatic career, but singers are dependent on being offered the chance to sing rewarding music in the operatic repertoire. There are also more singers than there are opportunities, even in Boston. And we are faced with the reality of balancing our artistic passion with making a living. Those who can make a living solely with their art are extremely lucky. I have heard international opera stars make statements like this. They know how complicated a career is, how many factors impact their success, and nevertheless express gratitude for the luck that has come their way. It is my hope that I will continue to have opportunities to share the skills I have so painstakingly refined and maintained.

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.


Coming Events, Spring 2015


Saturday, May 9, 2015, 2 p.m.

Heath LeesWagner’s Ring: A Tale Told in Music
With new and interesting information

Presentation by Heath Lees
University professor, broadcaster, writer, and musicologist
Founder of the Wagner Society of New Zealand

The College Club
44 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston
Reception to follow
$20; members $15; students $10
For tickets, click here.