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Adjusting to the Inner Dramatic
Christine Goerke

by Daniel Vasquez


Sitting in the auditorium during intermission, my friend Will replied to my question: “Last time I saw her? Alcina, 2003. You?” My mind flashed to an evening five years earlier. “Donna Elvira at the Met, 2004.” Yet here we were, in Jacksonville, Florida, about to see Christine Goerke sing the first Turandot of her career.

We discussed the meaning of Goerke’s drastic repertoire change as we waited for the second act to begin. Here was an artist who garnished international attention as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride back in 2000 and, subsequently, created a major career as an important interpreter in the operas of Handel and Mozart. Indeed, my mind couldn’t help but go back to that Don Giovanni.

That particular performance took place with the illustrious Metropolitan Opera Company, and despite (or because of) the glittery cast, it was Goerke who consistently dominated the evening’s proceedings. During the daunting “Mi tradì,” she masterfully resolved the challenges that Elvira’s outburst presents to both artist and audience. The technical difficulties are many, but the sentiments are human yet statuesque. As her voice flew past the orchestra, it created a four-minute gesture delivered as one tremendous sigh. It was magical.

Yet it wasn’t long after that evening that Strauss and Wagner began to replace the bulk of her repertoire, and this Turandot engagement seemed to confirm that there wouldn’t be any going back. Frankly, I was afraid for her. But by the end of the performance, I found myself celebrating an artist who, right before my eyes, was on her way to fulfilling her artistic destiny. In fact, I wondered if this had been a carefully calculated maneuver after all.

Not long ago, you were known as a Baroque and Mozart specialist. In the last five years, however, your repertoire has transitioned into the heavier Wagnerian and Straussian roles. What led to this decision?

Nearly everyone I worked with in my twenties told me that I was going to sing dramatic music. Being a proactive worker, I read up on dramatic voices and expected the shift to happen in my late thirties. I was surprised when things started changing far earlier than I predicted. About five years ago, I had no clue what was going on: I didn’t feel my support under me, and weird pitch things were happening. This wasn’t like me. I didn’t want to feel frustrated about something I loved so much, and I nearly quit singing.

What changed?

My voice had grown beyond the lyric coloratura technique I was using and, unbeknownst to me, I had started to “shut down” my support to compensate. I was beginning to sing in my throat as opposed to using my gut. After realizing what I had done, I concluded that I had to stop and rethink everything.

In truth, it was a really scary time for me, because it happened rather publicly. I had a major career as a Mozart and Handel singer, and now I’d have to start over and audition for a whole new repertoire. It’s been humbling to say the least, but honestly I’m grateful for all the struggles. When we survive them, they let us know that we can’t live without the thing we struggled with.

Some big voices experience confusion when it comes to issues of Fach. Did you ever face questions around this subject?

I never questioned my Fach, but everybody else did. I remember I was singing the High Priestess in Aida at the Met when I was in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. After singing my 15-minute shtick backstage, I suddenly noticed that the Amneris, Dolora Zajick, was circling me, which sure as hell was intimidating. The following day, we had a musical rehearsal in List Hall. I arrived early, and she came in shortly afterward and sat next to me: “How’s it going today? You know, we mezzos have to stick together!” she laughed. I sheepishly said: “Um . . . I’m not a mezzo.” She got this deadly serious look on her face: “Who told you that?”

That sounds distressing! I once heard someone refer to the dramatic soprano voice as “a mezzo with high notes.”

Well, the game with my kind of voice (dramatic soprano, for those keeping count) is that you can come at it from one of two ways. Either you train as a mezzo and make the jump “up” when you’re ready, or you train as a soprano if you have the top for it and slowly move up into the repertoire you’ve grown up to sing. By nature my middle is far richer than the top, which has a brighter color, and that confused folks. Hence, I’ve worked hard to make the color more consistent throughout my instrument.

What was your original musical training like?

When I entered the 4th grade, my father, who adores Artie Shaw, convinced me to play the clarinet. I was pretty good at it, and stuck with it through high school where I met my first great musical influence: my band teacher, Peter Randazzo. I learned from him that music had so much to offer me, and I hoped that I had as much to offer it. By the time I reached the 11th grade, I was studying serious music theory and ear training. Before I graduated, I wrote a string quartet as my final music theory project and was taking four-part dictation of Bach chorales.

But you weren’t focusing on singing at all?

No. I didn’t grow up wanting to become an opera singer. I wanted to be a high school band teacher, so I went to SUNY at Fredonia to study music education. In order to place students in various classes, all the instrumental music education majors were required to take a sight-singing test. To my great annoyance, the panel seemed more impressed with my voice than with my clarinet playing. I worked hard on that clarinet playing! All of my new friends on campus were music theatre majors, and they insisted that I come with them and try out for the upper division choirs. Begrudgingly I did, and I got in and they didn’t. I grew extremely confused, and began to consider teaching high school chorus instead.

I dropped out and went home to Long Island to study at Suffolk County Community College while I figured out how I wanted to go about it all. There I met this amazing lady named Cynthia Hall, who worked with me when I first started singing. I had been studying for two months, and one day she showed me an aria and said, “You’re going to sing this everywhere!” It was “Come scoglio” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. And I did!

I then transferred to the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island, and met Elaine Bonazzi, who became my voice teacher and mentor until a couple of years ago. She constantly supported me, and I will be eternally grateful to her for keeping me vocally safe until it was time for me to try on my newer, more dramatic shoes.

How did you transition from young artist to professional singer?

I started singing in some of the apprentice programs and covered Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte and the title role in Iphigénie en Tauride. This proved to be a great way for a young singer like myself to be around other people who really knew the styles. When I was a Young Artist at Glimmerglass, I believe Paul Kellogg called Gail Robinson at the Met, who was then in charge of their apprentice program, and told her that she should hear me. I managed to get a List Hall audition and, afterward, I was auditioning for Maestro Levine and the artistic staff onstage. This is how I entered the Met’s Young Artist Program.

I didn’t have a fancy education [or] “people” behind me or go through the National Council Auditions like many of the other Young Artists. I felt that I had gotten in through the back door, and this concerned me. For the entire first year, I questioned myself and cried more times than I choose to admit. I didn’t feel that I belonged, but worked really hard to prove myself.

Though my debut at the Met was in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles (as the “Lady with a baby #1”), my first significant solo role was the High Priestess in Aida, and this led to bigger assignments. I was also being engaged for leading roles in smaller companies, and that was a big blessing. Once I performed a big role with the smaller companies, I could go to a bigger company and do it there. That’s basically how my career got started.

Now that you’re moving to more dramatic parts, do you mourn the repertoire you’ve left behind?

I remember the last performance that I sang of Agrippina in Santa Fe in 2004. I finished singing and, as the lights came down, I stepped off the set and burst into tears. It was my last Handel opera, and it felt as though I was losing a best friend. I think that Handel is some of the most fun music you will ever sing. Once you get to know how the ornamentation works, you can lose yourself in improvisation during performance.

With Mozart, there are two roles that I could probably still sing, but unless I’m singing with other large voices, it’s likely that the ensemble would be compromised. Can I still sing it? You bet! But it’s essential in Mozart to become a part of the texture of the ensemble. When I worked with Robert Shaw, he talked about being “in the sleeve of the sound” in his choirs. The size of the instruments have to be equal, otherwise you’re disturbing, rather than being in the service of, the music. If you have an ensemble of mid-weight voices and you add a soprano with a huge voice, then you have completely toppled that pyramid.

Would you say that once you go up toward the bigger roles, it’s hard to return to the lighter repertoire?

Yes, I think that once you go big, it’s very difficult to go back. If a singer takes on, say, Elektra or Brünnhilde, it’s likely that they wouldn’t be readily considered to sing another Chrysothemis or Sieglinde afterward. It throws you into a different level of things, because there are so few people that can successfully sing the really big dramatic roles.

I know you have sung Chrysothemis. Would you consider Elektra?

Chrysothemis is my favorite role right now. That said, when I sang my first Chrysothemis, my Elektra was Deborah Polaski. “You won’t be singing this role for long. You’re louder than most of the Elektras I know,” she said. I’d love to eventually sing all three roles in that opera someday. The people that I trust the most tell me that I can do it, and I believe them. I’ve sung through the score and it doesn’t feel insanely stressful to me. The thing is, you have to sing every role you do—whether dramatic, Baroque, you name it—lyrically. If you don’t, you’ll kill yourself no matter what you’re singing. Frankly, this music feels a lot better and easier than Mozart does to me at this point in my life.

How so?

When I was singing Mozart just before my rep change, I was trying to relax but, in fact, I had to hold back to sing it. Holding back your instrument for long periods of time is exhausting. This new repertoire feels easier to me because I’m not trying to be something that I’m not. When you’re starting out as a young singer, you try everything that’s presented to you in order to determine where you fit. That’s not only fine, it’s correct. But once you find your niche, embrace it. I’m not saying not to go out of those bounds and sing something new—but if you know what your voice does best, trust it.

The work of the opera singer nowadays goes beyond that which you do onstage. The recording industry is in trouble, yet alternative ways of spreading opera to the public are springing up everywhere. How have these changes affected your career?

Well, recordings were becoming fewer when I got my foot in the door, and those being made were for the 10 people that everybody knew. I made a few recordings, and my view is that they’re a labor of love in the end. There’s no longer a lot of money to be made in that front. Maybe that’s why folks are pushing forth “the new media.”

You mean the HD transmissions?

Yes, or YouTube. No one is making a ton of money off that material, but it’s open to everyone. Is it going to bring people into the theater when they can see it for free, or when they can see it for $15 in a movie theater? I don’t know. I’m totally for anything that will get an audience, but I just don’t know how it’s working out. I know that people are going to see things that they might not have seen, and that’s great. It just makes me sad because it is replacing what the Met tour used to be, and I wish we could get a tour together again. Bring live performance to different cities that may not have access to opera.

I’m old school, and sitting in a movie theater for an opera isn’t really my thing. I’d find the way to beg my way into a standing room ticket for the opportunity to be in the house. Unfortunately, I realize the tour isn’t as cost effective as the HD broadcasts, and would reach fewer people in the end.

I’ve attended several and, because I’m in a movie theater, I find it difficult to accept that I’m seeing something real.

I think that because of the way I function as an artist, I couldn’t focus on anything other than doing my job, which dictates that my first duty is to the music and the drama. I wonder how an HD transmission performance actually impacts the performance one experiences inside the house? I’m not sure that you can’t sing the same way for a microphone as when you sing for a house of 4,000.

The transmissions are also putting a greater emphasis on this new “face” that the operatic industry seems to be pushing forward.

You mean, “The costume is the casting?” I know all about this. I can’t imagine that anyone reading this won’t realize that I have been a Weight Watcher’s girl from way back. I am six feet tall, and I’ve never and will never be a teeny girl. At my smallest, I’m not what the PR-driven end of the industry wants right now. There are some people who are casting with their eyes instead of their ears, and that’s an unfortunate reality whether I like it or not. Now that I’m starting to do some coaching and masterclasses, I dread the moment when I end up running into some fantastically talented 20-year-old who looks and sounds like Nilsson or Caballé. How do I then tell her that she’s not going to get the gig because of her appearance, no matter how spectacularly she sings? These are things that now we have to think about.

The only thing I have to offer up is [to] be as healthy as you can. Don’t do anything that is going to sacrifice your sound. This is opera, and the sound has to be foremost. But now that we’re entering this visual age, there’s a need to put things into perspective. Put someone like me in a 4,000-seat theater with a monstrous stage, and I look and feel at home. Put someone who isn’t a size 2 in front of a little camera, that’s a different animal. Which scenario do you cast for? They’re often two different things, and I wouldn’t want to be the person doing the castings today.

You mentioned that you’re now giving masterclasses. When you were a student, did you find masterclasses helpful?

I can only comment on the ones that I give. The very first thing I say is “If any of you has met a master of singing, then I’d love to meet them. Mastering something as elusive as singing isn’t something that I think will ever happen for me in my lifetime. I’ve never had a perfect performance, and I doubt I ever will. We’re all colleagues in here, and if somebody has something helpful to say, we should all discuss it.” To me, that’s much more conducive to learning.

When I was a student, I sat through my fair share of masterclasses—some of which were performances for the people giving the class and, honestly, I hated those. That said, there were two singers whose classes will stay with me forever: Barbara Bonney and Diana Soviero. They treated us like intelligent artists and their equals, and I learned so much from them because of that. You see, in 10 years you’re going to be onstage with these young people, so why not treat them like colleagues now? It would make learning a lot easier.

For those young artists out there looking for a teacher, do you have any recommendations?

I studied with Elaine Bonazzi for a very long time. She has a spectacular lyric coloratura technique, and I’d send anyone with that type of voice to her. When I realized that my voice was growing past that technique, I began to look around for a new teacher. Choosing a teacher is very complex. You must try on every pair of shoes to see which one fits, because every voice and personality is different.

Identify the singers that you feel are using their instrument in the healthiest way, and go to their teacher. Take a couple of lessons, be open, and try everything that the teacher offers up. If it doesn’t work, ask about it. You are paying for this, so come away with the information that you need. Don’t ever feel that you can’t ask questions. Every brain is wired differently, and there’s a hundred different ways to say things.

I looked around for quite a bit and was fortunate to find a great teacher in Diana Soviero. My choice sometimes confuses people because I sing German music and Diana specialized in Italian opera. Honestly, she doesn’t need to have sung the same music I sing. Coaches need to know the style, but teachers need to know technique—and, boy, does La Soviero know about technique! She’s incredibly smart and she doesn’t let me get away with anything. That’s important because I have a strong personality, and if you let me walk all over you, I will. (It’s funny—when I met my husband, he didn’t let me get away with anything either. “Finally! Someone who can handle me!” I thought. “Get me a ring!” Now that we’re married, he still doesn’t let me get away with anything! It’s very annoying.)

Also, since I’m singing a repertoire that Diana hasn’t done much of, we’re experiencing things together for the first time, and it’s an amazing way to not have preconceived ideas about how a voice should sing this music.

Do you take your new roles to your teacher right away?

Not right away. First I go through the score and translate the text. My languages aren’t infallible, so I double-check everything against Nico Castel’s translation books. (God bless you, Nico!) Finally, I write all of my text down in a notebook. Something about putting pen to paper really helps cement everything for me. I sit down with my notebook and the score and listen to a recording of the opera for memorization purposes. Curiously enough, I memorize best by looking at a DVD. There’s something about seeing movement that attaches the words to my brain better than just listening to the work.

During all of that, I identify areas that may potentially present problems for me, and I start there. Only then do I go bombard my teacher and every coach I can get my hands on with it.

Earlier you referred to body changes and their effect on your instrument. You’re now a proud mother of two. How were the changes different between your first versus your second pregnancy?

The first time around, I was onstage until I was five and a half months pregnant. I had a lot of energy in the second trimester and, in my estimation, that’s when you will be happiest if you’re pregnant and singing. When I had the baby, I labored for 15 hours, and she was just not having it. The doctor suggested that we proceed with a C-section. Bottom line was, it was the right decision, and my doctor promised me that she’d move all my muscles by hand and wouldn’t cut anything. She was great, and I was on my feet rehearsing Falstaff two months later.

It’s astounding what your body is capable of. I noticed right away that my middle voice (which had pretty much settled for a bit) just got monstrously big and the top had to catch up, resulting in a voice that became bigger and richer. The second time around, my body said, “I remember this!” I didn’t notice that much of a change in my voice, but I have to say that singing your first Fidelio with morning sickness isn’t a good idea.

You don’t think you need a certain period of silence before singing again?

That’s going to be different for everyone. I sang performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis five weeks after my second C-section.

What?

Ha! Imagine my reaction! I had a ton of work around the time I was due. I had canceled the opera engagements, but the Missa Solemnis were concert performances. There’s only so much you can cancel and pay your mortgage [laughs]. I gave myself a two-week break after the surgery, and then started slowly working my muscles and singing a little again. I found that it wasn’t difficult to sing but, man, did I feel it afterward. For anyone not realizing how much our muscles work when we’re singing, try doing it after a C-section! I feared that I gave myself a hernia after the concerts, but thankfully my doctor diagnosed me with a severe case of sore abs. We do work that hard every time we open our mouths!

If anything, it is hard work. When you compare how you entered into this versus the reality of it, has it lived up to what you originally thought it would be?

And more! I came to this by accident. I didn’t grow up thinking, “I’m going to be an opera singer.” Every great achievement that has happened in my career was more than I had hoped for, because I had hoped for nothing. I remember getting off the plane and taking the Air France bus from the airport into the middle of Paris to make my European debut. I was scared to death! Here I was working with Susan Graham, who I worshipped. “What am I doing working opposite her?” I stood there thinking, “How did this happen to me?”

Even when there have been tough times and I nearly quit, I have been grateful for this incredible gift—and I remain grateful for everything that is coming my way now. We’re all so lucky that we’re involved with this art form. And if I count all the blessings that have been granted to me by this gift, they completely eclipse all the taxing things that may have come along the way with it.

Daniel Vasquez is a freelance writer specializing in operatic interpretation and voice production. He currently resides in Atlanta, Ga. with his feline companion, Pugsley, who only likes Baroque music.











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