Eddie Pensier writes:
Few opera singers nowadays are making quite as many waves as American soprano Christine Goerke. Music critics are outdoing themselves with superlatives to describe her: “powerful and assertive” (Washington Post), “a beacon of brilliance” (New York, “The Top 10 Classical Performances Of The Year”), “sensational” (UK Telegraph) and “ a true heir to the daunting dramatic soprano repertory” (New York Times). Among her honors are the 2001 Richard Tucker Award and a 2003 Grammy Award for her recording of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Last month the Lyric Opera of Chicago announced that Goerke (“rhymes with turkey”) will be headlining a new production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, in the key role of Brünhilde, in 2016. She is currently in Sydney to perform Strauss’ Elektra with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and I was pleased to be able to ask her a few questions.
Eddie Pensier: You began your musical life as a clarinet player. How did your transition to singing come about? And why did you finally opt for vocals over instruments?
Christine Goerke: Well, I actually “began” as a viola player… well, kind of. In third grade, we had the option to start studying orchestral instruments. I was the only one to choose viola. My Dad was certain I wouldn’t stick with it, so he didn’t get me the instrument. I went every week. Learned how to “shake my own hand” (hold it in that position), and that’s how you hold the viola. (You’re trying this right now, aren’t you…)
EP: Er, no, not at all. *looks around nervously*
CG: I finally gave up… and the following year, band instruments were up for grabs. I ran home excited and begged for a flute. My Dad said, “Oh not flute… Artie Shaw is incredible. Here’s a clarinet.” Not quite as sexy (sorry fellow clarinet players), but it was a start. I taught myself woodwinds, and when it came time to think about college? I was so incredibly positively influenced by my high school music teacher that I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to make kids fall in love with music the way that he helped me fall in love with it.
I went to his alma mater (SUNY @ Fredonia), and as part of the placement tests, they insisted that all the instrumental majors take a sight singing test. I did the test, and the professors administering it happened to be the choral instructors. They told me that they wanted me to audition for the upper division choirs. I thought that was ridiculous, as I never really sang before. I had no plans to audition, but the new friends that I had made just happened to be vocal majors. They begged me to go with them. None of them got in, and I did. I then decided perhaps I’d be a choral instructor. The fact that I didn’t play piano clearly didn’t hinder me. As I started singing, I realized that I was really enjoying it, and that I wanted to be closer to home to be able to find a teacher to help me find out if I could really make it as a singer. I ended up at SUNY @ StonyBrook, and found mezzo Elaine Bonazzi. She was the first to tell me that I might have a shot at this. I decided to take that shot!
EP: You entered the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program in 1994. What was that environment like? How did that shape your view of singing and the music business? What was the biggest benefit of it?
CG: When I entered the YADP, I was as green as green could be. I had come in through the back door, as I didn’t do the National Council Auditions. The atmosphere was wildly supportive. I was terrified and cried nearly every night for the first six months or so, insisting that I didn’t “belong” there. I went to a state university, not one of the big music schools. I was just some kid from Long Island.
Little by little, however, I started to see the the things that did shape the way I think about what I do. I had access to amazing coaches, singers, conductors, and language specialists. I was able to watch the singers that I had put on pedestals rehearse.. and make mistakes! What!? They made mistakes?! I also saw them go on stage and throw everything they had and everything they were at their performance. Sometimes the vocals weren’t perfect. I didn’t care. It was exciting, it was thrilling, it was moving, and it was human. It was the biggest thing that I took away from that program. We have to take chances. We have to put our entire heart and soul into every performance. If one note goes awry, it doesn’t negate a performance. I will never forget this, and am so grateful that I had an opportunity to learn it around incredible artists who truly understood that.
EP: That risk-taking and spontaneity you describe isn’t something that many people would associate with the operatic art form. How do you fit that in with the very definite techniques and performance conventions that are part and parcel of your craft?
CG: I know that spontaneity isn’t necessarily something folks would associate with the opera. Often, I find that it’s missing. I think that’s a shame. I think that the “definite techniques” are changing. Opera isn’t about “park and bark” anymore. (I love that term!) We have to expand what we are giving on stage. There are productions that are very stylized, and that’s great. Even within those, we have the opportunity to use the colors in our instrument to “portray” a role, when we can’t match the physicality to the portrayal.
EP: You’ve spoken publicly about the vocal crisis you suffered between 2003 and 2005. How do you get your performing confidence back after a setback like that? What was the biggest challenge about moving forward?
CG: My confidence took a giant hit. It was more my confidence that was the problem than the actual technical aspects of the change. Going from singing all over the world, in some of the biggest houses in the world, to being so tied up in knots that I couldn’t get through Strauss’ “Zueignung” was completely terrifying. That, however, was in my head. It wasn’t a big fix. It was just something that I couldn’t do alone. That sent me for a loop. I work hard. I always have, but this wasn’t something I could manage on my own, and it was the first time I couldn’t figure out what was happening with my instrument. I realized that I had to just get back out there and start singing for folks. Problem was, I hadn’t auditioned in a few years. I used to be fabulous at auditions. I enjoyed them! I had fun! When I started up again, I felt as though the people hearing me just felt bad for me, and would put up with whatever came out for ten minutes. It wasn’t so, of course, but I had gone to that place in my head. Little by little, I began to gather my confidence in my new repertoire, and began singing for folks again. I could see that they were as excited about the repertoire change as I was, and that certainly helped. It’s a good question. No one has asked me that before.
EP: You’ve sung roles all over the vocal map: from Handel and Mozart to Verdi and Strauss, and now, Wagner. Clearly the vocal demands are different, but what sort of mental transitions do you need to make between different styles of role?
CG: Yes, the local demands are different, but the only thing that any singer needs to remember is that they have to sing whatever music is in front of them with their instrument. That said? In order for me to move between the two different styles? I think that I need to listen with a differently tuned ear to the orchestration. Usually whatever colors that you find in the orchestra, whether it is Strauss, Wagner, Handel, or Mozart? Those are the colors that you need to manage to do a duet with. (Or a trio, a quartet, etc.)
EP: What’s it like to retire a role that’s no longer right for you? What are your feelings when you look back on something you used to sing but no longer do? And who helps you make the decisions about what goes and what stays?
CG: I can always tell when it’s time to walk away from a role. I remember the last Handel role that I sang, and it was Agrippina (Siri heard “ugly Tina”. BAHAHAHA!) at Santa Fe Opera. I remember when the lights went down at the end of the last show of the run, I walked off stage and burst into tears. I felt like I was breaking up with an old comfortable boyfriend. I knew that there was something new and wonderful coming… but it didn’t make it any easier. For me, I generally want my “extra ears” when I am looking to take on a new role. I can usually tell when it’s time to stop singing one on my own. There have been some that I have tried, that were not quite right for me. We talked about Norma earlier. I can sing a lot of that role very well, but not all of it. I gave it a good ole college try twice, and realized it wasn’t for me. No regrets!
EP: As a wife and mother of two, how do you manage to balance family life with your hectic professional schedule? What do your girls think of opera? What kind of advice would you give to performers on how to achieve that elusive balance?
CG: Got me! I have a husband who puts up with me and my travel, (he does more than that, he’s incredibly supportive and proud of me), an amazing nanny who is as much a part of our family as anyone, and my girls are troopers. It’s so hard on all of us when I’m away. I feel very guilty when I’m not with them… but thank God for Skype and FaceTime or I’d have to quit. We are sure to have at least one “date” every day when I’m away, even if it’s for 10 minutes to hear about everyone’s day.
The girls went to their first live opera in December. The Magic Flute. They’ve been singing the big Queen of the Night aria ever since. Yes, they have the F’s. (Yikes!) The only advice I can give is that it will be different for each family. Make sure you’re in touch. Communication is vital… and roll with the punches!
EP: Traveling is an occupational hazard of the business. How demanding is it to be on the road all the time? What are some of the challenges you face from being constantly in motion?
CG: I’m answering these questions while on a six and a half hour layover at LAX, waiting to board the fifteen hour flight to Sydney. It’s demanding. Challenges… I guess a big one is not getting run down. Not allowing your immune system to let its guard down. That’s hard enough at home, where you can control your atmosphere, diet, sleep patterns, etc. Being in a hotel room with windows that won’t open, or on a plane with folks sneezing and coughing next to you… There are so many things that are really out of our control.
EP: You’re well-known for your Facebook and Twitter presence. How do you think the Internet and social media have affected the classical music world in general, and your career in particular?
CG: It’s funny… I got on Facebook because someone told me that I should for PR purposes. It has become a kind of lifeline for me. I can get up, wherever I am in the world, make my coffee and sit down to have it “with friends”. We singers are a close knit band of nomads. Being able to have some semblance of contact makes being away from home a bit more bearable. I do think that we have to remember that once something is put out there? You can’t take it back. I keep saying “the Internet is forever”. Be very sure that you want people to know and possibly repeat what you have to say. Some of us forget this from time to time…
EP: What sorts of music do you enjoy listening to? Is it all opera all the time, or do you need to get away from it every once in a while and rock out to heavy metal or hip-hop or something?
CG: Opera all the time?! Good Lord, no! You can often find me rocking out to Queen, Earth Wind and Fire, Billy Joel (I am from Long Island, after all), Adele, random Celtic or bluegrass, and occasionally an opera I’m studying.
EP: With the advent of high-definition telecasts and more theatrically-oriented productions, has come a greater emphasis on opera as not just a musical form, but a visual one as well. How have you and your colleagues had to adapt to the new styles and technologies involved in presenting opera nowadays? What adjustments have you had to make?
CG: It’s more the adjustments in the casting. I heard a tale of someone singing Madame Butterfly, and being asked if she could please sweat less. For the camera, of course. It’s a bit difficult to reconcile the gym-hard bodies, with singers who are working hard, and wrapping it up with a bow while trying to look like Hollywood starlets. I have no problem with singers looking the part. I have a problem with the definition of what “the part” looks like. Unless it’s something incredibly specific? Heroes and heroines can take many shapes and forms. I find them all beautiful.
EP: Elektra is a role you’ve been singing a lot lately, to wide acclaim. I love that opera to bits — it’s loud and it’s sick, and Elektra surely qualifies as one of the great tragic figures in literature. It’s a crazy part, musically and dramatically. How do you get inside a head case like that? What’s the key to her, for you?
CG: Hmm…Head case. What if she’s the only sane one? What if everyone else has been so busy sweeping the past under the carpet that they’ve literally created an alternate reality for themselves? Whenever I take on any character, whatever they’re feeling, and however they’re reacting? It’s normal. It’s their normal. Elektra is a kind of chameleon. She is smart. Damaged, for certain, but very smart. She can read people and has the ability to become what they need at any moment. Though she sings nearly all the time? For me, the key to this character is listening intently to the other characters. Reaction is everything in this piece.
EP: You’ve already started tackling the big kahuna of dramatic soprano repertory: Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring. There are three Ring cycles in your future — Chicago, Houston, and the Met. How does it feel to be the Brünnhilde of the moment? What do you love about doing the role? What’s the biggest challenge about it?
CG: There are actually four, if you include COC in Toronto. I am so happy about it. I love this character. I feel like I “get” her. She begins as this know it all, strong willed, loyal teen. A daddy’s girl if there ever was one. She knows when she’s right, even to a fault. She then becomes vulnerable as she grows — as we all do as women! All the while retaining that inner strength that sees us through to the final chapter. Vulnerability and love give way to betrayal, jealousy, regret, and righteousness. She is an epic character and I am beyond honored to try to become a little part of her history! The biggest challenge will be pacing… But that’s the kind of thing that you figure out on your feet.
Christine Goerke performs the title role in Richard Strauss’ Elektra with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on February 22 and 24, the soprano soloist in Mahler’s 8th Symphony with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra on April 11, 12 and 13, and Ariadne in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos with the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, in July and August. Her website is at www.christinegoerke.com.
Many thanks to Paleo Retiree and Blowhard, Esq. for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this interview.
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