It’s a coup when a great international artist comes to your city. But when the artist in question is one of the most talked-about singers of the year? AND she’s choosing to make her most important role-debut here in this city?
That’s a huge big deal. The moment the Canadian Opera Company announced that Christine Goerke was coming to Toronto to star in Richard Wagner’s epic Die Walküre, in her role debut, might have been the highpoint of the tenure of COC General Director Alexander Neef so far.
Christine Goerke has recently elevated her singing to a new level, possibly because there’s a world-wide appetite for what she does. The audience response to her portrayal of the Dyer’s Wife in the Metropolitan Opera’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten roughly a year ago was rhapsodic, both in person and in social media. Those of us who couldn’t get there could only envy those who got to see and hear her in person. No wonder that shortly thereafter Peter Gelb signed Goerke to be the Metropolitan Opera’s next Brünnhilde. Ditto for Houston Opera.
But before NY or Houston, Toronto will be the lucky ones to hear Goerke in her role debut as Brünnhilde at the end of January in the remount of Atom Egoyan’s production of Die Walküre. Last season she sang Brünnhilde in concert with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, but this time the role will be fully staged.
And so I had to ask Christine Goerke ten questions: five about herself and five more about preparing Brünnhilde at the COC.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
That’s a tough one… I have to say that I’m really not sure!
My Dad is *super* organized and likes everything “just so”. I’m a little OCD, and if things are out of place? It makes me crazy. My family laughs at me (and sometimes actually tilt pictures on the walls *just* a little to mess with me.. it completely freaks me out!) So, in that way, I’m like my Dad. He’s a very intelligent and self taught man.. so I hope some of that rubbed off also. Unfortunately, we lost my Mom when I was just twelve years old and she was just thirty eight. Though I don’t remember very much about her, sadly, I do remember her as a very gentle, caring, and sweet woman. I pray some of that has rubbed off and is evident in my parenting. I was lucky enough to have had an amazing stepmother in my life from the time I was eighteen until recently, when we sadly lost her as well. I tried to take some examples from her as well, as she was an amazing, giving, and joyful woman. I guess the old question of nature vs nurture comes in here!!
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?
The way that the music touches my soul. It’s an incredible gift to be part of something so much bigger than yourself.
That I can be transported from my life for a few hours.
The feeling – yes feeling – of the orchestra when I’m on stage. It’s physical, it’s visceral.
Finding that I have an “opera family”. When you settle in a repertoire, you tend to run into the same people over and over, and as lonely as it can get when you’re away? It’s so nice to know that you have “family”.
I get to be loud, dress up, and pretend for a living! What could be better???
Being away from my home and family. As a parent I doubt myself constantly about what is best for my children. I hear constantly about how incredible it is to show them that their mother is a role model.. someone who is doing something she loves and more importantly providing for her children…. but my heart breaks every single time I have to leave to go on a gig. Bless Skype and FaceTime. I try to be in contact twice a day with my family no matter where I am in the world. I do my best to plan my schedule to have chunks of time at home with my “monkeys”, and when I am home? Those kids *own* me. It’s so funny… I go from ball gowns to yoga pants. From riding in town cars to driving my mini van. My life is a series of extremes and I love it.
This is going to sound a bit insane and certainly like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth? .. but I am honestly a little uncomfortable with all the attention that I’m getting now. I kind of liked it better when I was flying *just* under the radar. I just want to show up, be part of something bigger than myself, make music, create art (hopefully), and go home. The rest of this… not my thing. The “soccer mom” in me wins out here.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Well, as far as listening… I am from Long Island, NY, so if I don’t start my list with Billy Joel? I am officially betraying my “heritage”!
I adore Billy Joel, Queen, I love Earth, Wind, and Fire, Bruno Mars.. I tend to avoid listening to a lot of classical music unless I’m studying it for performances. I will say that as far as “who is the soprano you like to listen to” goes? I am a huge Varnay fan. Something about that voice just gets to me.
What do I like to watch.. I don’t leave for a gig without “The Princess Bride” and “Grumpy Old Men” on my iPad. No matter how bad my day has been? Those two movies always elicit giggles. My guilty pleasure is “Say yes to the dress”. I know, it’s silly… but I like pretty dresses! I also watch Storage Wars, Pawn Stars… kind of silly and light things. I find it’s a good way to take my mind faaaaar away from my job for a while.
I often find myself turning on the Disney channel when I am away. Just out of habit. In a weird way, it makes me feel as though I’m a little closer to my girls..
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I had the ability to be in two places at once. (is that an ability or a super power??)
I wish I was able to stop thinking and just turn my brain off occasionally. It’s so hard for me to walk away from things that are left undone. Sometimes? We just have to do that for our sanity, and I’m *lousy* at it!
I wish I wasn’t so hard on myself. I preach to my children that life is about learning. That perfection doesn’t exist. I wish I’d listen to myself and believe that! (because that’s right! … I just expect the impossible of myself.)
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I literally sat staring at the screen for a good five minutes thinking about this one, and realized my answer is … “just relaxing and not working? Is that a thing??” I’m a working Mommy! I guess the answer is sleep????
Five more about undertaking the role of Brünnhilde for the first time in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre
1- Talk for a moment about the vocal challenges of undertaking your first Brünnhilde here with Maestro Debus & the COC.
Well, first, taking on what is the pinnacle of Wagner roles for me is both incredibly exciting and utterly terrifying! Wagner requires a rock solid technique, stamina for days, and irrational fearlessness! I was told from the time that I was twenty five years old that I would be a dramatic soprano. I thought, “Wow, that’d be cool!” .. but at that age, I was far away from actually singing this repertoire. I made a very happy living with Handel and Mozart operas, and suddenly – around age thirty two? Everything started to change.. and change *fast*. My voice got bigger/louder, deeper, more colorful, and it required me to retool the way that I was singing. It also enabled me to start into this repertoire. I had hoped *so much* to sing this role someday. So few women have the honor… the fact that I am actually doing this? It’s literally a dream come true.
We are just a week into rehearsal for me, but working with Maestro Debus is a total joy. When you work with a conductor for the first time, you never quite know what to expect. With a role like this? You hope and pray that you will have a great connection with the conductor. I can honestly say that at the very first rehearsal, it was clear to me that I was safe. Feeling safe in this repertoire is huge. It enables us to take chances. To know that if I look down, Maestro Debus’ eyes will be on me. He’s an amazing musician, and more over? A lovely colleague. That is a big gift.
I’ve also been looking forward to working with the COC since I found out about this contract. I have heard nothing but raves from my colleagues about how incredible the company is, about the amazing people who make up the company, about the acoustics of the house, and about the artistic level here. I can happily report that it’s all true. To be prepared for Toronto in the winter I was told to show up with my score, Sorel boots, and a down coat. Add a flying horse, and I guess I’m all set!
2- What’s your favourite moment in the role of Brünnhilde?
This is going to be odd. I’m not actually singing. No one is! Just after I finish singing my role, there is the big “hug” moment in the orchestra in the third act. It is so unbelievably heartbreaking that I have yet to get through it without sobbing like a two year old. That’s technically in the role, isn’t it???
(..a girl loves a good ho jo to ho, too… 😉
3-Please talk for a minute about your pathway as a modern woman portraying a legendary immortal, a sung role in a stylized opera.
Interesting question… because I find her to be quite human (a huge part of her problem as an immortal… for now.. oops spoiler!). When we singers step on to the stage? We have to leave our daily lives behind. I find Brünnhilde to be one of the most remarkable characters in all of opera. Over the course of the three operas that she is in, she goes through every emotion, every joy, every sadness… In this one, she is young. The teen who knows everything, and knows better than her parents. Well meaning, always… but finding her humanity, leads her to a punishment of … well, humanity. I think that over the course of the three operas, we see how something amazing can come from a perceived tragedy. If that’s not a modern idea, I don’t know what is..
It may seem that the Ring Cycle is about Gods, and Dragons, and Castles… and it’s the stuff of lore. It is! .. but when you look past that? It’s about personal relationships that run very deep and have so much truth for each of us every single day.
It’s why I love it so much.
4-The opera world can be every bit as comical or tragic as the stories portrayed on its stages. Please comment on the business and how you observe it unfolding as an artist and as a citizen.
Wow… well? I can say that I have zero patience for ego and .. well, sorry but .. BS. Politics also. As I said earlier, I’m about showing up, creating something uplifting, and hopefully doing my job to transport the audience for a few hours. I never judge singers when I read about strange demands, etc. This is a reaaaaally weird job that we have, and it takes a lot of nerve to get out on stage and do what we do. We have critics at us left and right, and every person in every seat has a right to their opinion about what we do. That’s not easy! So if someone needs something specific to do that job? I say more power to them.
In the USA (and around the world), we’ve had a very scary run with the economy and we have lost a lot of our smaller companies. I am doing my best to help when I can, but I feel that we must support these smaller companies and bring *live* performances to people. To give them the opportunity to experience this amazing art form live. To have that visceral feeling coming over them as the orchestra starts, as the singers begin.
I would also really like to see less of folks listening with their eyes and more listening with their ears.
5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I have been really lucky to have two women who have held my hand while I worked through my technique. From my start, I had the amazing mezzo Elaine Bonazzi, and for over ten years now the incredible soprano Diana Soviero. I can’t thank Diana enough for instilling the thought that *all* singing has to be based in a bel canto technique in me. It is the gift of longevity.
I also have to mention my manager, Caroline Woodfield. It’s a blessing to find a manager that understands that my family life is a huge part of my career planning, and that carving time out to be home is a necessity. She is a great “business mom” and I’m so incredibly grateful to have her in my life.
Christine Goerke is Die Walküre for seven performances with the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre, January 31- February 22nd.