Soprano Christine Goerke (http://www.christinegoerke.com) 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 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/arts/music/christine-goerke-as-brunnhilde-inwagners-die
-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 http://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwopera/article/BWW-Interviews-
–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.