The 2015 Honorees

By Heidi Waleson

She is the great Wagner-Strauss soprano we’ve been waiting for, a multi-hued miracle of gale-force power and pinpoint control. Her transcendent Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met won her several big parts with the company, capped by the pinnacle of her fach—the role of Brünnhilde in the next cycle of Wagner’s Ring.

How often does the next great Wagner-Strauss soprano appear unheralded on a major stage? That was what happened in October 2012 when Christine Goerke sang the title role of Strauss’s Elektra on opening night of the Lyric Opera of Chicago season. Her voice, a multi-hued miracle of gale-force power and pinpoint control, effortlessly rode the clamoring orchestra. And there was more: Her performance was a thrillingly nuanced vocal and theatrical characterization. This was a complex Elektra, not just vengefully crazed, but soft and frightened, wheedling and manipulative, erotically charged. Who was this singer who could make Elektra something so much more than a 100-minute screamfest? Where had she been?

Goerke, now 45, had been waiting for the instrument she hoped and believed was there to come into its own. As is often the case with such voices, the route was not clear-cut. A little more than a decade ago, she was starring in Handel, Gluck, and Mozart roles (she won the 2001 Richard Tucker Award) when she discovered, quite dramatically, during a run of Alcina at the New York City Opera, that her voice had suddenly become far too big for her lyric coloratura technique. She retreated from the limelight, retooled her technique, and gradually made her way into the heavier repertoire. Perhaps too gradually.

“I was clinging to Chrysothemis [Elektra’s lighter, more lyric sister] for my life,” says the singer, whose droll, unpretentious suburban mom demeanor offstage is all the more remarkable when you see how she transforms herself in performance. “I thought there was an age—45—when you are supposed to sing Elektra. I came to realize that it’s not about your age, it’s about your instrument, your technique, and whether your body is ready to support this kind of singing. And moreover, is that what you were put here to do?”

The consensus is that this is indeed what Goerke was put here to do. Her first staged performances of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre are set for early 2015 at the Canadian Opera Company and the Houston Grand Opera; Siegfried and Götterdämmerung follow in the next two years at both companies. Chicago has tapped her to headline its new Ring production, directed by David Pountney, with the American bass-baritone Eric Owens singing his first Wotan, which will begin with Das Rheingold in 2016-17. And days after she sang a transcendent performance as the Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Metropolitan Opera in November 2013, the house snapped her up for the return of its Ring in 2018-19, as well as several other big parts in the interim seasons.

Goerke, who was born and raised on Long Island, still seems a bit amazed that she—and her voice—have finally arrived. In June, she was “terrified” at the prospect of singing big chunks of Elektra and Salome on the Strauss 150th-birthday concert in the Dresden Semperoper where both those operas premiered—not of the repertoire, but of coming up short in the eyes of the famously demanding conductor Christian Thielemann. She needn’t have worried: It was a triumph. “I didn’t mess up a word, or a rhythm, I was so proud of myself ! I will never forget that night as long as I live,” she said afterwards. And Thielemann? “He was the coolest ever!”

It’s a long way from the life of a high school band teacher and PTA mom, which was what Goerke was planning when she entered college as a clarinetist. A chance audition for the school’s choir quickly changed her focus, first from woodwinds to singing, and then from teaching to performing. “I told my dad, I think I’m going to be an opera singer,” she recalls. “He said, right, you’ve never sung in your life. I said, I know. He said, OK, but promise if you’re not supporting yourself with this in five years, you’ll go back and get an education degree.” It turned out not to be necessary. A summer as a Young Artist at the Glimmerglass Opera led to the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program, and a burgeoning career.

The qualities that made her Handel and Mozart so compelling have now been translated into Wagner and Strauss. “One of the biggest things that I take away from every lesson is that I cannot possibly sing any of this repertoire without singing on a supported, bel canto technique,” Goerke says. “Everything has to have line, to be sung like a song. Banging away at the throat is what damages longevity. My teacher, Diana Soviero, will in no uncertain terms let me know if I’m doing anything like that.” The big orchestra is the opposite of a foe for her. “The first time I felt the support of that huge orchestra underneath, it made all the difference in the world,” she says. “I finally felt that I could sing with my entire voice.”

Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, sees Goerke as a gift to the big repertoire. “She is one of the rare artists who is larger than the roles she sings, in voice, stamina, and personality,” he says. “She was not scared of Elektra, and because we could take her confidence for granted, the design could be challenging, and Andrew Davis could do whatever he wanted in the pit. The potential for this new Ring is really exciting.”

Goerke has performed the Walküre Brünnhilde once, in a semi-staged concert in New Zealand; the other two operas are “60-70 percent memorized.” Götterdämmerung—that’s just a free for all,” she says happily. “Everything he wrote thrown into one loud, amazing, astonishing package.” With Ring operas on the books for next half-dozen years, plus Strauss, other Wagner parts, a couple of Turandots (“my rest role—it’s only about 20 minutes!”), Goerke now has to be careful about cramming in too much. She needs to reset, mentally and vocally, between engagements. And there’s also the family—her husband and two daughters, ages 5 and 7, in New Jersey. Time with them, for the woman whose Twitter handle is “@heldenmommy,” is a priority. 

The summer of 2014, when she returned to the Glimmerglass Festival, this time as artist-in-residence and headliner of Ariadne auf Naxos, was thus a very special opportunity. Her family could easily spend time there. She could work with the Young Artists, especially the big-voiced ones, for whom she could be a role model of what’s possible if you are patient. “It’s so hard to see into the future when you are desperate to do something in the moment,” she says. “At 24 or 25, they are babies, and that’s really hard to hear. You have to keep the faith.” When she entered the Festival’s 914-seat theater for the first time since her voice came into its full glory, she remarked to Francesca Zambello, the company’s general director, “Wow, I’m gonna be so loud in here.” Zambello replied, “Good.” •

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal.


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