The American soprano Christine Goerke is back at San Francisco Opera to sing the title role in Richard Strauss’s Elektra, a part she has performed to great acclaim in London, Madrid, Chicago, Boston, New York, and other cities. Her last appearance here, in 2006, was in Johann Strauss II’s comic operetta, Die Feldermaus, and a lot has changed since then. Lighter roles in Handel and Mozart, where she first made her name, have given way to the heaviest of dramatic soprano roles.
Goerke took a break from rehearsals to chat about her career, her approach to the complex characters she sings, and what’s ahead of her. Six feet tall and looking as though wearing Brünnhilde’s armor would present no challenges, she’s warm, candid, and hilarious, joking and laughing throughout our interview.
Asked what excites her and what she loves most about opera, she laughs and says “First of all, you get paid to dress up and be loud and pretend you’re somebody that you’re not for a little while. Who doesn’t want to escape their own life for a while? So that’s a good job.” And she loves being part of the group effort, making something bigger than herself. She goes on to say “for me the most exciting part is marrying the text and the drama and being part of this lush thing.”
The parts she sings are among the most complex and intense in the repertoire. Asked how she creates Elektra, and what she finds inside herself to help with that process, Goerke starts by describing a technique she uses for all of her roles. She learned it from Stephen Wadsworth (“a brilliant man and brilliant director”) when she was in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. He had the singers take an aria and reduce it to three sentences. Then he told them to find three points in their lives that can connect the singer to the emotions in the aria.
I use that. And you know, Elektra is a bit of a mess. Thank you for not saying she’s crazy, because I think she’s the sanest one in the piece, which is terrifying. But she is damaged as all get out. We all know people who have lost someone, who have not been able to deal with the loss and who have been angry as hell. Think of the stages of grief – this woman hasn’t been able to let go of them. She is in all of them at once.
She goes on to explain what she pulls in to connect with Elektra. “Losing someone, whether a parent or a relative or a friend, and the feelings of unfairness and anger that come with a loss. The people in your life who are close, but they make you crazy even though you love them. The relationship that is broken, where you hope to get something rekindled. The person who is naïve and just doesn’t get what’s going on, whom you can’t protect from pain. Check Chrysothemis [Elektra’s sister] off,” she says.
She looks specifically for the vulnerability in every character.
For me, it’s the most fun to find it in a character where no one is expecting it. I play a lot of crazies and bitches. But no one is crazy or bitchy without a reason. So I start from a place where they are the most sane and the most reasonably upset. The Dyer’s Wife [in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten] was tough. But I could not play her as one-dimensional. There’s always a reason people behave the way that they do. In the end, that one was easy. We are all afraid of losing our youth. Some women see having children as part of that. She is a woman who has, in effect, ended up with three children already, with her brothers-in-law.
Her life was not turning out the way that she had hoped it would, even if she did love Barak. To add children to the mix? I feel as though the idea of that put her over the edge. I don’t think that she is an awful woman. I think that she is an overwhelmed and fearful woman. The devil you know is better than the devil that you don’t. Because of all of those things, she acted in ways that were fairly awful. I can’t change the text, but I can try to show people why the text is there. That’s what I try to do with every role. I try to look deeper than what is on the page. Hopefully, that comes across the foot lights.
Pegged early on as a potential dramatic soprano, Goerke feels she was lucky not to be launched on that path too soon. “My first long-term voice teacher, Elaine Bonazzi, whom I studied with in college, concentrated on a very straight up-and-down lyric coloratura technique, and that was exactly right for me at that time. When I was 24, people were already telling me, and her, that I was a dramatic soprano.
“One of them was [conductor] Robert Shaw. My teacher had worked with Shaw, and she said to him, ‘Robert, it is very possible, but not today, so I’m going to need you to stop telling her that.’ And she was right. I wasn’t quite ready, and my voice was growing unevenly. So I wasn’t ready to take on any of the dramatic repertoire.”
Goerke was a member of the Lindemann Program from 1994 to 1996. She says that this, too, “was a really safe place to learn from singers, and after the program is over, cover singers while going into this new repertoire. I really was incredibly lucky because very often people who have big voices would jump in too soon or wouldn’t have the kind of guidance that they need. And I magically found both of those things, and I probably wouldn’t be doing this today if I hadn’t.”
The transition from singing florid lyric roles to dramatic roles wasn’t an easy one for Goerke, not least because she ran into audible vocal difficulties for a time in the early 2000s, and after her recovery, she had to again prove herself to opera companies.
This started during a run of Handel’s Alcina at the New York City Opera. “It should have fit perfectly and much of it did. But I felt like I wasn’t in control of everything the way that I normally am. I am not a lazy singer and I am not somebody who doesn’t practice, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. As ridiculous as it sounds, I literally thought, well, I broke it. That’s because I couldn’t figure out how I must’ve just broken it, which is completely not reasonable.” She laughs, and says “But my hamster soprano brain went ‘Oh God.’”
At that point, as grateful as she was and is to Bonazzi, Goerke decided she needed to try something new. She turned to Diana Soviero, a teacher who’d had a significant career singing primarily Italian roles, a far cry from the repertoire that lay in Goerke’s future. Soviero proved to be exactly the right teacher, both technically and personally.
“The woman knew technique and she also could handle my personality because she’s also from Jersey. About half of our lessons are us just screaming at each other! But I went in and I sang one lesson for her and I could not get through three pages of music. I was so scared. My throat was closed and she said ‘Honey, I have no idea why you’re disconnected from your support, but this crap has to stop.’”
In short order, they determined that as Goerke’s voice had grown, she had attempted to keep it very light so she could continue singing Handel and Mozart, and in the process she had lost her support. It didn’t take long to reconnect her, and her voice grew larger and larger. Soviero kept Goerke’s training classical, insisting “that if I was not singing everything with a bel canto technique and a bel canto line, she was going to throw me out of her studio.”
After a period of retraining, Goerke began to assume the roles that suited her newly reborn voice, taking Chrysothemis (Elektra’s sister), Leonore in Fidelio, and more and more. She recently added Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens to her repertory, and she has sung Brünnhilde all over in recent years, with full cycles awaiting her at the Met and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
One legacy of her vocal crisis is Goerke’s involvement in the Miami Wagner Institute, an annual three-week young singers’ program focused on coaching singers in German repertory scenes. “It wasn’t my idea, but I was asked to be part of it. We’re for singers coming out of the lyric repertoire who are currently working and looking to get into the German repertoire. There was nothing like it, or like the American Wagner program within Dolora Zajick’s Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, when my voice was changing. I feel certain that if there had been and I had had the opportunity to work with people who have gone through such a switch in voice type, then there wouldn’t have been such a public bump in the road for me.”
What lies in the future? Perhaps most exciting for her fans, Goerke is under contract to sing Isolde. She can’t say where or when, but it’s several years out. She has found learning the role a challenge, because, initially, she didn’t fully understand Isolde. In act I, “she’s angry and it’s all a lie and that breaks my heart. This is where I started. But by the time I got to the end, and started really thinking about it, I realized it actually has nothing to do with them particularly. It has everything to do with the emotion, and what that does to transport people, and how being in love can make you feel and how much you’re willing to give up for that. And suddenly everything looked different. Even the text looked different. The line looked different. I was absolutely unafraid.”
Goerke would love to do more contemporary music, but notes that new operas are more likely to be written for lyric voices than dramatic. She loved Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, which she saw four times during its first run. She made sure that Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek knew that, asking that they consider her “if by some chance they need a loud girl” for a future project.
She’d like to sing Anna Maurrant in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. At a time when companies perform unamplified musicals along with opera, she feels it’s a great bridge between musical worlds as well as being a great piece. Goerke also has a pet project for an interested composer: an opera about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge — she’s something of a bridge geek — focused on Emily Roebling, who effectively became one of the lead engineers after her husband, Washington Roebling, son of the bridge’s architect, became disabled from the bends.
Asked what role outside her voice type she’d most like to sing, she answered, without hesitation, “Peter Grimes. I’d die to sink my teeth into that one.” Perhaps surprisingly, she’s not that interested in Salome, a part that has been offered to her, though she loves the music and has sung the final scene in concert. “In the end, she doesn’t go on a journey. She starts in the same place that she ends. She wants what she wants, she’s a petulant child and she gets what she wants. And she says that something has happened, but nothing has happened to her. She’s the same in the end as she was in the beginning.”