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The Joy of Singing

All-American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke conquers Wagner in Chicago and Strauss at the Met this season.
By F. Paul Driscoll
Photographs by Dario Acosta 

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Photographs by Dario Acosta
Hair & makeup by Affan Graber Malik
© Dario Acosta
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© Dario Acosta

CHRISTINE GOERKE sings Brünnhilde this month in a new Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago, starting off her third Ring cycle as Wotan’s warrior daughter; previous outings as Brünnhilde were triumphs for Goerke in Toronto and Houston. When she visited the offices of opera newson a beautiful morning in June, Goerke had just finished Götterdämmerung at Houston Grand Opera and was about to spend the summer in Great Britain, as Turandot at Covent Garden in July and the Walküre Brünnhilde at the Edinburgh Festival in August. Her 2017–18 schedule started off with Strauss’s Elektra at San Francisco Opera; she follows her Chicago Walküres with more Elektras at HGO and the Met and a June run as Ortrud in Lohengrin at Covent Garden. Right around the corner are her first Brünnhildes for the Met, in a revival of Robert Lepage’s production scheduled for 2018–19.

At forty-eight, Goerke has arrived at a place of rare professional and personal happiness. A decade after enduring and surviving a well-documented vocal crisis when she was in her mid-thirties, Goerke is now opera’s top dramatic soprano, dominating the repertoire that she seems destined to sing. She looks like an opera star: six feet tall, with strong, handsome features and uncommonly expressive eyes, Goerke inhabits her roles with the hungry ferocity of a born diva, her voice filling the auditorium with unstoppable torrents of sound. Goerke offstage is a different matter: she is warm and funny, her conversation charged with rapid-fire wisecracks and a wry sense of humor that she can seldom deploy in the operas she sings now, a circumstance she calls “sooooooo frustrating. My gosh! Can’t we write I Love Lucy: The Opera, please? Imagine! The ‘Waaaaaah’ aria would be great. Right now, the only one of the ladies I sing who is funny is Ariadne. That’s kind of it. I’ve been asked to sing [Rosalinde in] Fledermaus again, but that watch duet makes me itchy at this point. I’m out. The one role that I haven’t done in a long time that I not only still can do but am dying to do is Alice in Falstaff. I’ve done it a bunch, but it’s been quite a long time—but nobody hires Brünnhilde to sing Alice. Well, why not?”

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© Dario Acosta 

GOERKE SAYS that she was always drawn to Wagner, although at the beginning of her career she had no dreams of taking on the roles that are in her repertoire now.

 “My first Ring cycle was a revival of the old Otto Schenk production at the Met, in 2000. I was Third Norn, which is the best gig in Wagner—twenty minutes and you are offstage with a paycheck in your hand. But I would stand on the side of the stage just drooling over that prologue. At the time, I had no idea what was ahead for me.

“When I was switching rep and working on my voice, I was blessed to be given a lot of understudying work at the Met—I actually understudied Sieglinde twice, though I never sang it. The first time Brünnhilde was mentioned to me was by [assistant manager] Sally Billinghurst at the Met—she told me to look at it after I had done an onstage audition of some of the new rep I had been learning, and it was a complete shock to me. The actual first offer to do this was from Patrick Summers in Houston. Patrick has known me since I was twenty-four, twenty-five, and always heard this trajectory for me, from Mozart to Wagner. We met when we were at Wolf Trap together. I sang Nireno in Giulio Cesare,and I was costumed as a eunuch. Patrick likes to taunt me every once in a while by just sending me the picture of me as a eunuch and no message. Yes, Patrick, I know you still have it. Yes, I’ll come sing whatever you want. Just don’t print that picture, please!”

Now that she is a Ring veteran, Goerke cites the Siegfried Brünnhilde as “the hardest of the three for me. I don’t care how short it is—it’s the tessitura. It sits constantly just under the top of the staff—up, up, UP, Christine! I’ll take an hour and forty minutes of Elektra over hanging out above the staff for half an hour.

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As Elektra to Michaela Schuster’s Klytämnestra at Covent Garden, 2013
© Clive Barda/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

"I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a soprano, but I will tell you that I am the happiest when I live in the middle of my range and go up for my high notes and spend some time there and have a visit. Then, like I am the aunt to someone else’s children, I hand them back, and then I get to come back down. I find Strauss is the same way for me—my Strauss roles. Most of the time I kind of feel like a mezzo with some good top notes. I like to live in the middle. I can pull out Cs, and on a good day I can still pull out Ds, and I don’t worry that they’re ever not going to be there. I just don’t like to stay up there. It’s why all of the high Verdi soprano roles don’t suit me. That’s why I much prefer to sing Eboli rather than Elisabetta. It’s just not what my voice does. Amneris is on the table right now. Some people have suggested Abigaille in Nabucco, but there is no way Nabucco is ever happening. I applaud the poor soprano that’s willing to sing that role, but for me—hell, no! Oh hell, no. There’s just no way.

“But Wagner works for me. When it was suggested that I start looking at Brünnhilde, I was terrified, because what if these people who believed in me were wrong? I really love the character so much, and I really love the music so much—I didn’t want them to be disappointed. I went about it the only way I knew how to sing it with my voice—as lyrically as possible. Thank God they turned out to be right. It not only isn’t damaging for me—I finally feel like I’m home, and I took a really long time to get there.

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As Brünnhilde at Houston Grand Opera, in the Fura dels Baus production of Götterdämmerung, directed by Carlus Padrissa
© Lynn Lane

"THIS IS GOING to sound very strange—I never expected any of this, and I never wanted anything this big. I was always really happy just to be paying my bills. I was super-happy to be Donna Elvira and take the second dressing room. I’m not the girl that shows up with the furs and the diamonds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, God bless! I’m just not that person. I’ve got a wonderful husband and two beautiful daughters, and being away from them for really long periods of time is very difficult. When I’m not on the road, I’m at home driving a minivan in my sneakers, and I love that.

“But when I got to the end of the run of the Götterdämmerung that we finished in Houston in May, I knew it was the last one I’d sing for two years or so, and I was really sad. Götterdämmerung is the Ring opera that felt the best, and the one that I loved the most. I don’t just have ideas about Brünnhilde, I really feel now as if she is part of me. 

“To me, Brünnhilde is the most human character in the piece—that is what makes her so strong. She is a warrior, but it has nothing to do with her being a Valkyrie. She has an inner strength that even she doesn’t understand at first. Nobody can see it, but it’s in her. I’ve met challenges in my own life, and they have made me stronger. Working out the changes in my voice in front of the world, when everyone could hear me, was awful—but it made me stronger. Brünnhilde is everything strong about women—she believes in what is right, she loves fiercely, she protects fiercely, she is willing to sacrifice herself for what is right and the people she loves. Even in the end, when she knows that the things she must do will cause suffering, but will also cause justice and also cause rebirth—even then, she has the inner strength to do all of these things. I don’t think that comes from a spear and a magic helmet. That comes from her soul.

“Brünnhilde grows with every mountain she climbs—she takes knowledge with her and moves on. Every single thing that happens to Brünnhilde makes her stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and stronger—which is perhaps why, in the beginning, Wotan does not realize that she is the hero, and she’s right in front of him. And she’s her mother’s daughter as well. Erda’s strength and knowledge live in her. That’s why for me Götterdämmerung is so remarkable. You see both sides of Brünnhilde’s heritage. You see the anger and the wrath that comes from her father, and you also see the calm and the understanding and the wisdom that she’s finally been able to unlock that has come from her mother. 

“At the end of that Götterdämmerung run in Houston, I was sad to let go of her, even though I knew I would be singing it again. At that moment, I felt really, really proud of being part of this—not only being part of it but being allowed to be part of it. There’s only a handful of women who get to sing Brünnhilde. I prayed I was going to be one of them. I feel honored to be a part of that world for a while, and for as long as I’m able to, it will be an honor. I am truly proud of that.” spacer 

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