The great American Wagnerian soprano gives a free-ranging and candid interview on her life and art.
It was January 15th, 2014. Place? The Four Seasons Centre, home of the Canadian Opera Company. The occasion? The 2014-15 season launch. These events always begin with a video of the artists to appear next season. When I saw Christine Goerke on the big screen, my heart skipped a beat. Then it was official — the COC would revive its production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in February 2015, albeit minus Das Rheingold and spread over three seasons. The Wagnerites in attendance at the launch were overjoyed to have the chance to see the COC Ring again after nearly a decade, especially with such a stellar cast. It was quite a coup, to have American soprano Christine Goerke sing her first-ever Brunnhilde here, in good old TO, before anywhere else, not even the Met!
The opening of the last of the tetralogy, Götterdammerung on Feb. 2 marks the beginning of the end of Goerke’s first Ring journey. Through it all, the American soprano has been the only “constant” in the casting. Her two previous warrior maidens were nothing short of amazing, vocally resplendent and dramatically deeply moving. It has been an epic vocal journey, considering that she started out as a Baroque and Mozart singer, a repertoire as distant from the Wagnerian heavyweights as one can imagine.
I’ve never forgotten my first encounter with the Goerke voice. It was the summer of 1997 at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, in Iphigenie en Tauride. While her performance was impressive, it gave no indication that twenty years later, she would be a Brunnhilde of one’s dreams. In an interview she gave to Opera News in 2012, Goerke spoke at length about reworking her voice and moving to the dramatic soprano repertoire. It was a scary time for her, as it meant giving up her Baroque roots and facing the unknown. It turned out to be the right decision. Now at the conclusion of her first cycle, the time is ripe to get her thoughts on singing this most daunting of dramatic soprano roles.
Having been writing artist profiles for nearly twenty-five years and having interviewed hundreds of singers, Georke ranks right up there as among the most enjoyable interview subject. Friendly, warm, completely down-to-earth, and blessed with a great sense of humour, Goerke is spontaneous and disarmingly candid in her answers, often laced with gales of a very infectious laughter. Here’s one — when we were discussing the demands of Götterdammerung, her quip that “Brunnhilde in Act Two is like Fiordiligi on crack” totally cracked me up — pun intended! To be sure, Goerke is a serious artist, her answers and comments always insightful and well-considered. The interview was just under an hour, but it went by in a flash:
JS: First of all, welcome back to Toronto! What a luxury to have you here, three seasons in a row.
CG: I love it here! It’s like coming home. I look forward to it. I love the city. I love the company and the people I work with here.
JS: Now that our Ring Cycle is almost over, we’ll will miss your annual appearance.
GC: Well, you might see me again…
JS: Now that would be fantastic! Tell us your thoughts on singing the complete Brunnhilde for the first time.
GC: I am so lucky! It has been a learning experience since Day 1. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about since I was 27 when I sang Third Norn at the Met. I remember getting off stage after the Norn Scene. I stood in the wings. It was Jane Eaglen. I thought to myself – ‘someday, please, please, please…’ Now, I have to pinch myself that day is finally here!
JS: I heard you for the first time in 1997, in the Glimmerglass Iphigenie. I still remember that gigantic shower head with water coming down on all the women singers….
GC: (Big laughs) Here’s a funny story. They told us on the first day: “Everybody, come in your bathing suits!” Uh, okay… At the time I wore contacts. I got up there, and immediately washed my contacts right out of my eyes! I thought – this isn’t going to work! It was also cold, so there was a bunch of screaming wet women on stage!
“I AM INCREDIBLY GRATEFUL TO ALEXANDER [NEEF] FOR GIVING ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO LIVE WITH BRUNNHILDE FOR SO LONG, AND TO FIND MY WAY WITH HER.”
JS: Now twenty years later, you’ve gone from that icy water to the Immolation Scene….
GC: Hahaha, full circle! To be able to do it here, to be in the atmosphere afforded me here, has been not just a gift, but a luxury. The cast I have been able to work with, the music staff, every one of my colleagues have been remarkable, supportive, and provide such strength in everything they do, to allow me to be strong with them. Being able to find my way in a good rehearsal period – which is not always the case as you know. If you had two weeks, that’s considered a long rehearsal period. I am incredibly grateful to Alexander [Neef] for giving me the opportunity to live with Brunnhilde for so long, and to find my way with her.
JS: You have a new Siegfried this season. Have you worked with Andreas Schager before?
GC: Nope. He is the best. A great colleague, and a wonderful actor. The kind of colleague I love to work with. He doesn’t necessarily do the same thing twice, and he’s funny as hell. When he opened his mouth the first day, I joked – “don’t you sing me off the stage – this is mine!” (Big laughs)
JS: You know I saw him thirteen years ago as Tamino, right here in Toronto?
GC: He just sang Tamino. I thought, good for you! I can’t get anybody to let me sing Donna Elvira. I’ll do it in a heartbeat!
JS: Mixing Tamino and Tristan…Really?
GC: Why not? It keeps the voice healthy. For big voices, if you have an ensemble that matches, then why not. But if you have just one big voice, it unbalances the ensemble. I would pay good money to hear his Tamino.
“FOR ME, LEGATO IS THE ENTIRE CRUX OF SINGING THE SIEGFRIED BRUNNHILDE. I HAVE COMPLETELY FALLEN IN LOVE WITH IT!”
JS: Give us your thoughts on singing Brunnhilde. Vocally do you have a favourite among the three?
GC: They are all so different! Coming into it, I thought my least favourite would be the Siegfried Brunnhilde, because of the tessitura. But you know what? I find that there are so many opportunities to show different colours and different dynamics. The most difficult thing is to stay calm enough to take deep low breaths, to sustain bars and bars of legato. For me, legato is the entire crux of singing the Siegfried Brunnhilde. I have completely fallen in love with it! But this one (Götterdammerung Brunnhilde), I’m sure I’ll feel differently about it after a while. The vocal writing is – I don’t want to say choppy, that’s the wrong word. It’s beautiful in the Prologue, and in the Immolation Scene, it gets lyrical again. But Act 2 is a beast!!!
JS: It’s a difficult act for the audience too. She’s so angry all the time.
GC: I tell people she’s a bit like Fiordiligi on Crack (Laughs)! It has the same kind of angular vocal line as the end of Act l. The trick is to find the line even in things that are written angularly. I can let myself go in the Prologue and in the Immolation Scene, but the rest of it I have to think very hard. I don’t think that will ever go away.
JS: As a woman, how do you feel about Brunnhilde as a character?
GC: OMG, she is amazing! She experiences everything from the beginning. When she started (in Die Walküre), she’s this exuberant teen. All she knows is that she loves her father and wants his approval. Then she finds out the people she loves, people she puts on a pedestal – humans, gods, anyone, are all fallible. She learns she can only trust herself. Then she finds the kind of love that she sees for the first time between Sieglinde and Siegmund, and that becomes everything to her. Like her father, she has the same rage in her.
JS: You know, as an audience member, I’ve always struggled with her, with her anger, her feeling of betrayal. She brought on Siegfried’s demise…
GC: Did she?
JS: Well, she squealed…
GC: She did squeal – that’s fair. She’s a squealer. The thing is, at the moment before she squeals, she’s bragging about how remarkable he is – “who do you think you are! I don’t care how big and scary you are; you’ll never be able to beat him!” At that moment, she’s still in love with him. It’s almost like it comes out without her thinking. The moment it comes out – oh my god what did I just say, how can I do this! But I saw him with her (Gutrune)! Woman scorned… run away! It’s not just a woman scorned – she’s half Wotan. This is that rage he has that’s in her. It comes out, and she can’t control it. We all have these moments as human beings. Sometimes we get so angry we can’t control what comes out of our mouth. We regret it two seconds later. In the end, as heartbroken as she is, she understands everything, why everything comes about the way it did, and what she has to do to make it right.
[bctt tweet=”I don’t think I’ll love another Wagner character as much as Brunnhilde.” via=”no”]
JS: Would you say, at this point, that she is your number one Wagner role? You’ve done many now – Elisabeth, Ortrud, Sieglinde, Senta… Have you done Elsa?
GC: No, I haven’t – I covered it for two years at the Met when it was new. There was a plan to bring Lohengrin back, but it was scrapped. I was sad as I would have gotten to do Ortrud. I’d be a fool if I said Brunnhilde isn’t my favourite. I don’t think I’ll love another Wagner character as much as Brunnhilde. She’s amazing. What she experiences – the emotions, the text, the relationships she has. I know it’s a story about gods, but it’s the most human thing I sing.
JS: What about the Marschallin?
GC: I haven’t sung it yet. They usually hire very lyric soprano voices for that. I just had a conversation with my manager. She said she’s on it! We’ll see!
JS: Speaking of the Marschallin – you also sing lots of Strauss: Dyer’s Wife, Ariadne, Chrysothemis, Elektra. Any more on the horizon?
GC: There’s nothing left for me, maybe Die Aegyptische Helena.
JS: Absolutely! Helena is a great role for your voice. I saw Christine Brewer did it in Santa Fe…
GC: She’s amazing! She’s been my role model. She has everything. She has a family. She’s doing it the right way.
JS: Speaking of family, I want to ask how do you balance family and career?
GC: Got me! Everyday I ask myself that question. No matter where I am in the world, my alarm is set to go off at 7:25 am eastern time so that I can talk with my girls for 25 minutes on their way to school.
JS: Will they come up to see you?
GC: They will come up but they’ll never make it through this! They have short attention span, and my little one has no interest in opera. My big one only like the short operas (Laughs)! You know what, that’s totally fine. They’ve got music in their lives. My big girl just had her band concert — 4th-grade school band. She comes home and says ‘I’m going to play the trombone!’ My big girl is going to be 10 on the 2nd, my little one will be eight in May.
JS: Did you sing throughout your pregnancies?
GC: I sang six months with my first. I was on stage as Foreign Princess in Rusalka almost eight months pregnant at the Met. No corsets for me! I remember they were terrified as I had to run up this flight of stairs – “You can’t run up those stairs… you are pregnant!” I said “people had babies in potato fields! Besides the hospital is right next door.” They said to me “You have to give us a signal if there’s a problem.” If you see water coming down the stairs, take me to the hospital (Big laughs)! I laugh because I really liked singing pregnant.
JS: I noticed your Twitter handle is ‘HeldenMommy’ – your kids must be very dear to you.
GC: Yeah, I had to come up with something! It’s completely incorrect, but it makes me laugh.
“MY KIDS CALL ME “MOMMA-TIGER.” IT’S AMAZING HOW FIERCE ONE BECOMES WHEN YOU HAVE CHILDREN.”
JS: You are ‘Helden’ for your kids – I think that’s very sweet.
GC: My kids call me “Momma-Tiger.” It’s amazing how fierce one becomes when you have children. You don’t know what’s in you until you protect your children.
JS: What advice would you give for young women singers who want to balance career and family?
GC: Be gentle with yourself. It’s hard! There’s no magic way to do this. You’ll have tears. You have to decide when it is more important to do something career-wise, and when it’s more important to be home. I had to say ‘no’ to some important things for the sake of my family. I knew it was the right choice for my kids. The thing is — they aren’t going to want me forever; I’m going to be ‘stupid’ very soon! Right now they want me, and I don’t want to miss that time. I try to schedule all my big travels, my big time away during the school year. They have something else to do. I spend easily an hour on Skype or Facetime with them every day. Sometimes they ‘d say — ‘I don’t have anything to say…’ I tell them that’s okay; I just want to see your face. Sometimes it’s just five minutes, but I’ve made a connection with them that day. It takes a village (to raise a child) — make sure you have help, whether it’s family, or friend, or someone else. You need to have someone who can help you as it’s not the kind of thing you can do by yourself when you have a career.
JS: Let’s go back to earlier in your career. I saw your Iphigenie (1997) in Glimmerglass and your Agrippina (2004) in Santa Fe. A few years ago, I read your Opera News article about the change in your voice. That sounds harrowing. Can you tell us about that?
GC: It was scary. You mention Agrippina. I remember when the lights went down in the final performance, and I was backstage waiting for bows, I just sobbed. I was completely inconsolable. I knew it was my last Handel. I knew it was the end of something. I already had my last Mozart. I was mourning something, mostly because of the unknown that was coming.
JS: Had you started studying with Diana Soviero at that time? Did she advise you to switch fach?
GC: I knew it was time. I trusted what Diana was saying. She’s all about bel canto technique. People wonder why in the world did I go to her; people say “she doesn’t know anything about your repertoire.” She doesn’t need to know anything about my rep — she knows how to sing. If I sing this like Puccini, I’m doing my job right! Wagner loved bel canto. He wrote these unbelievable lines; you can’t sing this by screaming — you’ll bore your audience within 30 seconds. But if you do what he wrote, sing it with dynamics… Diana understood that. For me, it was the right choice. Besides she has the right personality. You wouldn’t want to be in same room with us during a lesson, we just yell at each other for three hours! (Big laughs). We are both stage creatures. It was the right choice for me. It might have been unconventional, but it was the right choice.
JS: I read somewhere that Isolde is on the horizon?
GC: She’s coming! That’s all I can say right now. She’s on the books. Dramatically I have a hard time with her, not vocally. For three years, the score has been sitting on my piano. I opened it; I closed it. I thought — I don’t like her! The whole Act 1, she’s angry, angry, angry. Then in Act 2 something happened and it’s all pretense. It’s beautiful, but it’s fake, the whole relationship. I kept thinking I can’t do this, I don’t understand her. Then I got an offer — I thought I’d be an idiot if I don’t take this one! I said — ‘can you wait a week?’ I sat down, read through the entire thing. What I came away with was that it’s not really about the characters. It’s more about the feeling we have when we perceive that we are in love. Whether it’s real or not, it changes us. I thought — you know what, I’m going to do this! I’ve made a complete 180 on this one, and I’m really looking forward to it! It might be in three seasons — gives me a chance to learn it (Laughs). It takes that long to learn something like that, to get it in your psyche and your body.
JS: Who do you coach with?
GC: I coach everything with Kathleen Kelly. She’s been my go-to person forever. She was at the Wiener Staatsoper and in New York. She now teaches at the University of Michigan.
JS: I once heard a singer say “I want to coach with the most famous Isolde in history.”
GC: Why would I do that? That’s hers. Every singer has to find her own way. There are no two paths that are the same for Isolde. When I learn something like Brunnhilde, I went out-of-the-way to find the voice that is the least like mine. I listen to Hildegard Behrens. She’s so clear – the text, the rhythm, everything is right on, and her gorgeous acting and beautiful singing. She’s so human. I learned Elektra listening to her. Her Elektra is child-like and heartbreaking. Not like my instrument at all, so I cannot copy her, as I am a parrot! Once I have something under my belt, then I’ll go find (Astrid) Varnay who’s someone I listen to all the time.
JS: Do you know she sang Elektra at the COC? Did you ever meet her? She lived in Munich for many years.
GC: I wished I had! Any interview I’ve seen of her, I felt like I just want to know her as a person. She looked like a remarkable human being.
“IT’S VERY DIFFICULT FOR ME. I WANT EVERYTHING IMMEDIATELY.”
JS: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
GC: (Without hesitation) Patience! It’s very difficult for me. I want everything immediately. I walked into the first day of rehearsals here, and I was angry with myself because I forgot a few words. I wanted it to be performance-ready when we started rehearsals. I want everything yesterday, I always have! I don’t care what kind of music you sing and what kind of voice you have, your voice, your craft, your art, your heart, your soul, your brain, will go on a journey from the first day you start doing this for a living until the day you stop. Patience is required because everything changes. What you didn’t understand yesterday you might understand tomorrow. What you weren’t able to do yesterday, you might be able to do tomorrow.
JS: In one of the interviews you gave, you said you are a bit OCD…
GC: Oh, I am so OCD!
JS: Don’t you think to be a bit OCD is good for an artist?
GC: Some do, but some thrive on discord. That’s how they find their way. My family makes fun of me. I can’t practice until I’ve cleaned house and put things where they belong because when I see clutter, it makes me crazy and I can’t concentrate. People come over, and I say ‘I’m sorry the house is a mess.’
JS: Interesting! Probably that means you are very hard on yourself…
GC: Oh, I’m so hard on myself! I’ve been doing this since I was 24, but I can’t listen to myself. I have no idea why people hire me. I hate everything I hear when I listen to myself.
GC: Really! I can only listen with such a critical ear. I am happy I’m working, and I’m paying bills and putting money aside for college, and that’s good.
JS: When you were a teenager, was your voice big?
GC: I wasn’t a singer. I played the bass clarinet!
JS: How about when you were singing Handel and Mozart, was there any sign that your voice was big?
GC: Oh yeah! When I was 24, people were talking that I was going to be a dramatic soprano. My teacher said to me “I want you to stick your fingers in your ears and not listen because right now you sing Mozart.”
JS: I’ve noticed that voice teachers don’t want students who have naturally big voices to sing big.
GC: There’s a reason for that. It depends on the voice. I made a mistake — it was my fear that did it. I am sure it was also driven by the fact that so many people said, ‘be careful.’ I probably should have switched over to the rep I am in now when I was 37, 38 at the latest. I didn’t get into the hoch dramatischer sopran fach until I was 42. It requires having unbelievably long breath. It’s not necessarily about being louder, and more about focus. [She demonstrates the placement of the sound by changing the shape of the vocal tract] If you don’t have the support when you were younger, for the amount of sound you have to make, then you’ll wear yourself out. Deborah Polaski said to me, “don’t let anyone give you a number when you have to start this repertoire. Everybody is different. If your support is ready, then do it.” She was absolutely right. We just started last year a Wagner Fest in Miami for training young Wagnerian voices. My coach, Kathleen Kelly, is involved. It’s amazing to see people getting excited, realizing it’s not as scary as they had thought.
JS: Do you do some teaching?
GC: Yes, I do, masterclasses.
JS: Do you have your own students?
GC: I can’t do that right now, it’s a huge responsibility to say ‘I am her teacher.’ That means I have to be there when they need me. I am happy to coach people, I love working with people, but I can’t have a studio yet.
JS: When you give masterclasses, do you deal mostly with interpretations, or do you also deal with technique?
GC: Ah you are not supposed to deal with technique. I have a line I try not to cross. If I see something that I feel I can help with, I always say – “I’m going to say something here, and if your teacher disagrees with me, or you disagree with me, throw it out. But I am going to give this to you, and you play with it. If it helps, and your teacher feels it’s safe, then go ahead, give it a try.” The game of working with anybody new, is you take what makes sense for you and what works, and throw out what doesn’t.
JS: On that note, I want to thank you for the great interview, and Toi toi toi for the opening!