The following interview took place in the administrative offices of the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Dramatic soprano Christine Goerke; resized image of a publicity photograph, from christinegoerke.com.]
Wm: You were raised in Long Island, New York. What were your earliest musical experiences?
CG: Well, there were no professional musicians in my family. When I was in third grade, I wanted to join our school orchestra and was the only student that asked to play the viola. When I told my father about it, he was skeptical about renting the instrument, because he didn’t think that I would stick with it. I was one of those kids who started things and didn’t tend to finish them, so my stringed instrument desire passed.
The following year, when band instruments were offered, I went to my father again, and said that I wanted to play the flute. My Dad, who is a huge Artie Shaw fan, talked me into playing clarinet instead.
I discovered that I really loved the clarinet, and had the best time playing it through all of my school days. I taught myself to play bass clarinet, flute, sax, and oboe as well.
Wm: When did you become acquainted with opera?
CG: My very first experience with opera was when I was just thirteen. I was flipping channels one night, when I happened to come across a PBS broadcast of Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini”.
Wm: That’s a quite different first experience with opera than one would expect for a young teenager. But that was not your principal musical interest at that age, was it?
CG: Oh no, I didn’t have any interest in opera or singing at the time! I was very much involved with my instruments. I played clarinet and bass clarinet in the concert band, and bari sax in the jazz ensemble.
My high school music teacher, Peter Randazzo was a miracle. He was just so wonderful, and his enthusiasm made everyone fall in love with music. He was an alumnus of the music education department of the State University of New York [SUNY] Fredonia.
I decided that I would follow in his footsteps and apply there. I wanted to bring that same joy and enthusiasm to other young minds.
Wm: How did you go from bari sax and clarinet to voice?
CG: All of my new friends that were from Long Island at SUNY Fredonia turned out to be singers. I was the only would-be instrumentalist in the group. When I took the placement tests for the sight singing or ear training classes, there were two members of the choral faculty there administering it.
I did very well in the placement test, but they were far more interested in my auditioning for the upper division choirs. I was surprised, but went ahead with the auditions. It soon became very apparent that my singing was better than my clarinet playing. None of my new singer friends were accepted into the upper division choir, but I was.
My first voice teacher thought that my instrument was good enough to try to pursue a career in performance. After some thought, and a short stint at Suffolk County Community College, I transferred to SUNY Stonybrook.
Wm: What was the reaction of your parents to changing schools to pursue vocal performance?
CG: When I told my father I planned to be an opera singer, he was nervous. Understandably so – as I had never sung before! He made me promise that if I wasn’t able to support myself by singing within five years, that I would go back to school and get my education degree.
Wm: Yet, before long you had applied for and been accepted into the Glimmerglass Young Artists program. What was its effect on you?
[Below: Christine Goerke is Fiordiligi and Joyce DiDonato is Dorabella in the 2001 Houston Grand Opera production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”; edited image, based on a photograph for the Houston Grand Opera.]
CG: To be honest, I found it amazing that people were taking my singing seriously. I was given the cover for Fiordiligi in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”. This meant that I had extensive coaching on how to sing and act Fiordiligi’s role, with coaching on language pronunciation and style.
The camaraderie and support at Glimmerglass has always been very special to me. It was a great benefit to be around professional singers that summer, and to watch them rehearse.
Wm: Explain the benefits that a Young Artist derives from attending rehearsals.
CG: In this business, we as young artists tend to put the established singers on pedestals… but when you attend rehearsals, you begin to understand how they prepare, and – this is important – that they are human and make mistakes just like the rest of us.
In fact, watching a professional dealing with a mistake is illuminating. I recall one little example vividly. In one of the “Cosi” performances, the Don Alfonso couldn’t recall his line. Without breaking character, he smiled and made a gesture to the conductor and simply said “Maestro?” It was charming and human.
An experienced opera singer must often fix a mistake on a dime. Trying to be perfect in performance is useless. There is no such thing as a perfect performance. Knowing that something will happen, and that we will have to fix it immediately? This is far more important.
Wm: It seems that it is desirable that the artist have a good relationship with the person covering their role.
CG: I absolutely agree, but not every artist does. Some artists don’t like covers or other singers watching their rehearsals. I don’t ever mind when my cover is in a rehearsal. In fact, I usually ask them for advice!
Fortunately, right after my apprenticeship at Glimmerglass Opera, I was invited to cover Patricia Racette at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis as Iphigenie in Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride”.
Covering Patricia Racette was such a great time. She is so open and supportive with other singers.
While covering her I realized that as a singer you have to have the whole package – not just the ability to sing beautifully, but serious acting skills as well. I noticed that whenever she was not singing, she was actively listening to and reacting to the other artists. This seems basic, but it’s really overlooked sometimes!
I was excited to spend yet another summer around so many talented young artists. I really began to understand the value of the programs that are designed to help a young artist develop the skills needed to succeed in this business. I took the lessons I learned there very seriously.
Wm: Then you were accepted into the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists program. What did that program mean for your artistic development?
CG: Without that experience, I would not have had a successful career. It was not easy at first, because I had not been accepted into the program as a result of the National Council auditions or from one of the music schools that were considered “first rank”.
I always felt less important, less deserving than many of my colleagues in the program. In fact, I was terrified of being considered inadequate that I would go home almost every night crying that first year.
My then voice teacher, Elaine Bonazzi, talked me down nearly every night and told me to calm down and go back. That I did belong there.
It was the late Gail Robinson, who was director of both the Young Artist Programs at the Met, that truly understood that I needed convincing that I belonged there, and who held my hand every step of the way.
The Lindemann program provided wonderful preparation in languages and generous time for coaching. As young artists, we were a bit fearless, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but had so much to learn.
Wm: In 2001 you received the Richard Tucker Award, which has been so important to the careers of the recipients of the award whom I have interviewed. What impact did it have on you?
CG: There is nothing routine about getting the phone call that you have received the Tucker award. For most awards and honors, there a process of auditioning. However, no one knows that they are being considered for the Richard Tucker award.
The consideration process includes conductors, administrators, directors, and colleagues who have observed your demeanor in rehearsals and your performances. Being nominated by these colleagues is already an incredibly high honor.
Wm: How did you learn that you had won the award?
CG: I was in Japan and received a telephone call from Barry Tucker. He told me I was that year’s winner. Without thinking, I let out a joyful expletive, then immediately apologized for my language to Barry! He said that he thought it seemed completely appropriate.
Wm: In the early part of your career, you were associated with roles in performances in Mozart opera, such as Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” and in the lyric coloratura roles in baroque operas such as the title role in Handel’s “Alcina“.
But beginning in 2003, your voice went through a major vocal transformation and you emerged as dramatic soprano. How did that affect you?
[Below: the sisters Elektra (Christine Goerke, right) and Chrystothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka, left) sort through some family matters, in the 2013 Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”; edited image, based on an Alastair Muir photograph for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.]
CG: I have to say, I do prefer the term “vocal transformation” rather than the term “vocal crisis” that you sometimes see written about that period of my career.
All my coaches could tell that my voice would likely be getting bigger, but it moved so well when I was in my early twenties that Mozart and Handel roles were what suited me best.
What surprised me, and surprised others, was how early and how quickly it changed. It felt as though my world was caving in around me, it was so sudden.
I have always worked very hard, and suddenly nothing was working. I could always figure out what was going on in my throat, but at that time I was absolutely stumped. It was a very scary time for me, personally.
Wm: You said that you were being advised, even when you were singing lyric coloratura roles that you would become a dramatic soprano. Would you amplify on this?
CG: Ever since I was twenty four years old, people heard in my sound that I would likely take on the dramatic soprano roles. My voice teacher would say “Just put your fingers in your ears and smile. Some day you might be a dramatic soprano. Today you are a lyric coloratura”.
I was singing high and my voice was moving fast. I was curious, of course, so I started reading about the dramatic soprano voice type. Just in case everyone who was predicting my voice change was right.
Even so, when the transformation of my voice did begin to happen, it freaked me out, because it occurred so much earlier than I expected it would.
I had read that this sort of change happens in your late thirties to early forties. I was thirty three years old and suddenly nothing was working.
I was performing in a Francesca Zambello staging of Handel’s “Alcina”. Francesca took me aside and asked, “what is happening with your voice?” I answered honestly… I had no idea.
I knew that I was working so hard, and that the technique taught me by teacher was solid, but it was no longer working with my body. I knew that I needed to make a change.
I began to study with Diana Soviero, who found that my problem was the result of my support. This is a bit simplified, but the support that I was using worked very well when I was singing lighter lyric things, but could not support the amount of sound that was now coming out. It wasn’t a big fix, but it was a very different way of thinking.
Wm: It’s remarkable that so many persons predicted your voice would have a big change, but still it came as such a surprise.
CG: It wasn’t a case that it was a huge surprise that it actually happened, but a surprise as to when it happened. Every voice is individual and grows and changes in its own way and in its own time.
[Below: Christine Goerke as Rosalinda in the 2006 San Francisco Opera production of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”; edited image, based on a Christina Koci-Hernandez photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]
Wm: The first time I reported on one of your performances was a role that one does not think of as either a lyric coloratura nor a dramatic role – Rosalinda in “Die Fledermaus” at the San Francisco Opera in 2006.
CG: That was so much fun. When I was cast, I was absolutely giddy – and then learned that the cast included the German baritone, Wolfgang Brendel.
I was so excited and so nervous. I’d had a gigantic crush on him for years.
Wm: How did you come to have a crush on Wolfgang Brendel?
CG: Doesn’t everyone?! I guess it first happened when I heard him sing Mandryka in “Arabella”. When I was still in the young artist program at the Met, I took German lessons with Irene Spiegelmann who was of his friends.
I was sitting on the side of the stage after a Magic Flute rehearsal, when he walked up to me and said, “Hi”. I sputtered.. “Hi”? He told me that Irene had mentioned that I needed to practice my German, and invited me to go and have a beer.
I suddenly became a fifteen year old, freaked out and said “Uhm… I have to go home now… thanks!”, and ran off. I was positively ridiculous!
Upon arriving in San Francisco and heading to our first rehearsal, I saw him and greeted him. Hi looked at me quizzically said, “I may be in trouble for asking this, but, may I ask, … are you pregnant?” In fact, I WAS just four months pregnant, but had not told a single soul. I said “How did you know that!?” He replied “I have a gift”. I guess so!
Wm: You did a fine job singing Rosalinda. But the changes in your voice suggested other roles than those of Austrian operetta.
CG: At that point in 2006, my voice was still moving as before. The coloratura was still florid, but when that San Francisco Rosalinde happened, I was already beginning to seriously study the bigger German repertory.
I was lucky enough to have a few long conversations with dramatic soprano Linda Watson. There had already been inquiries as to whether I would like to sing Brünnhilde, but I knew that there was a step before those roles. Roles like Sieglinde in “Die Walküre” had to come first.
When in San Francisco, I asked Conductor Donald Runnicles if I could audition for him. I sang Chrysothemis’ Ich hab’s wie Feuer in der Brust from Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”, and some of Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from “Götterdämmerung”.
I then decided that it was time for the Met hear me do this new repertoire, and requested a stage audition. I sang passages from Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, and arias of Chrysothemis and Sieglinde. Even at that time, I was told that perhaps it was time for me to begin to look at Brünnhilde.
Wm: The next time I saw you was in the Daniel Slater production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (that I refer to as “Soviet Bloc Brabant”) in which you performed Ortrud. How does the role of Ortrud fit into your career path, and what did you think of the production that was later seen, with a different cast, in San Francisco?
CG: I thought the production worked very well, with all the right relationships between the characters. I really enjoyed the music making.
The wig I had to wear did cause some jokes, such as “Regine Crespin called …she wants her hair back!” Ah, the styles of the ’60s!
[Below: the Princess Eboli (Christine Goerke, right) attempts to secure the affections of a disinterested Don Carlos (Brandon Jovanovich, left) in the 2012 Houston Grand Opera production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos”; edited image, based on a Gary Fountain photograph for the Houston Grand Opera.]
Wm: Then I reviewed your Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” in John Caird’s production, starring Brandon Jovanovich, that restored the large chunk of the prologue that Verdi had jettisoned just before its 1868 Parisian premiere.
CG: I loved the production and the restored music, and, of course, working with Brandon. Interestingly, John Caird, seeing that we were a group of thinkers, really let us follow our instincts in our acting choices. When a director trusts you? That is truly a gift to a singer.
Wm: I had a conversation with Caird in which he said that he stages each production and revival to complement what he finds to be the acting abilities of each artist.
CG: That doesn’t surprise me – it’s how he presents his approach to us.
Wm: I notice that the first two roles I observed in your transformation into a dramatic soprano are Ortrud and Eboli. The former is often sung by mezzo-sopranos, the latter is considered to be a mezzo role.
CG: Well, to sing Ortrud and Eboli you need color in the middle of your voice as well as the top notes. For me, Verdi soprano roles are tricky. They tend to sit high on the staff, and stay there. My voice likes to sit in the middle, go up for the Cs and Ds, then come back down again.
[Below: Christine Goerke is Donna Elvira and Thomas Hampson is Don Giovanni in the 2004 Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; edited image, based on a Marty Sohl photograph from www.christinegoerke.com.]
Similarly with Mozart? Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni” sits up there in very much the same way. That’s why I preferred to sing Donna Elvira in that opera. She spends more time in the middle of her range, where I have a lot of color in my voice.
Wagner and Richard Strauss wrote dramatic soprano roles that are centered in the middle voice, then head up for dramatic climaxes.
Wm: The first role I’ve seen you perform that is unambiguously associated with the dramatic soprano is Ariadne in “Ariadne auf Naxos”. I first saw you do that at the Houston Grand Opera in 2011 with Laura Claycomb and Susan Graham, Both Claycomb and Graham have indicated to me that you all had a lot of fun on that production!
CG: It was absolute joy. We were constantly playing tricks on each other, and would try to break each other up onstage.
[Below: Ariadne (Christine Goerke, left) takes interest in the reflections of Zerbinetta (Laura Claycomb, right) that the both of them are simply in a period of time between lovers, in a scene from the 2011 Houston Grand Opera production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
When that run ended, I was so sad at the thought that Susan Graham and myself – who had had such fun over the years singing Mozart – were unlikely to be working much together in the future, since our repertoires were unlikely cross paths.
Maybe someday she could be persuaded to do a Brangaene to my Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. (What do you think, Susan??)
Wm: It certainly looks like you are enjoying Francesca Zambello’s 2014 Glimmerglass Festival production of “Ariadne in Naxos” that so effectively integrates the prologue with the scene of Ariadne’s and Bacchus’ transcendence at opera’s end.
CG: I think it’s brilliantly conceived. We all had great fun in the development of the staging. I think we were all surprised at the impact of the opera’s ending.
[Below: Ariadne (Christine Goerke) settles in on the hay bales she has encountered on the Island of Naxos, in the 2014 Glimmerglass production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Noxos”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: You will have a lot of Brünnhildes over the next few years in Houston, the Met and elsewhere. Are their roles that you would like to add?
CG: Oh there are a lot… I’d love to sing Anna Maurant in Weill’s “Street Scene”, I’m working on Isolde now, and I’d really love to do Minnie in Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West”,
Wm: Brandon Jovanovich, your colleague from “Don Carlos”, told me he wants to do Dick Johnson in “Fanciulla”.
CG: Oooh, wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’m in!
Wm: You have two daughters. How do you balance career and family?
CG: I had made the decision early on that I wanted to be married and to have a family, but being on the road away from home does require considerable patience and work.
I try to make sure that any European engagements are scheduled in a way that I can minimize my time far away from home.
During the school year both my daughters, ages 5 and 7, are in school. I speak to them on SKYPE or FaceTime every day.
I have my daughters with me here at the Glimmerglass Festival. We’ve got a lovely house, close to the theater. This is the first summer that they’ve really been able to have the freedom to fully enjoy their childhood in a safe, outdoor setting.
When you live close to a major city, it’s hard to let them run around outside unsupervised. I wanted them to have an experience as I did when I was younger…. they had one this summer!
Wm: Even though you are a rising international superstar in the German operatic repertory, you are scheduled to open the Washington National Opera’s 2014-15 season at the Kennedy Center on September 20, 2014 in Catan’s “Florencia en Las Amazonas”. What are your thoughts about taking on this role in Spanish?
CG: I’m so excited to be opening WNO’s season as Florencia this year. It is certainly a departure from the rep that I have been making a steady diet of, but I welcome the change. The music is stunningly beautiful and the story is so touching and human.
[Below: Christine Goerke as Florencia in the 2014 Washington National Opera production of Catan’s “Florencia in the Amazon”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Wm: Thank you, Christine. I enjoyed the interview.
CG: As did I. Thank you!