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Music Christine Goerke on Wagner, endurance and the drive to perform

Christine Goerke plays Brunnhilde and Andreas Schager is Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Gotterdammerung.

Chris Hutcheson

In a year or so, Christine Goerke will be singing the role of Brunhilde in a complete Ring Cycle at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Odds are, when that happens, that she will be one of the most famous operatic performers in the world.

So if you want to be able to say, then, "Big deal, you smug New Yorkers, you're just hearing her now. I heard Goerke's first-ever Gotterdammerung," you'd better make sure you get to the Four Seasons Centre sometime between next Thursday and Feb. 25.

That's when Goerke will be making her Gotterdammerung debut, here with us, at the Canadian Opera Company. Goerke is already a great artist – her appearances in Die Walkure and Siegfried over the past two seasons have been stunning. More importantly, she is, as her colleague, conductor Johannes Debus, says, "absolutely exceptional – as a singer, as a musician, as a mensch. When she sings, even in rehearsal, she gives you goosebumps."

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Goerke spoke with The Globe and Mail as she approaches her first Gotterdammerung. Here she is, in her own words:

On the stage: "Brunhilde has been presented like a park-and-bark kind of a creature. But she's not. She's the most fleshed-out human creature that I have played. She goes on the biggest journey of anyone in my repertoire. She's remarkable to me. You have to work on the music ahead of time and keep working on it constantly so that the stamina is there. Because once you get on stage, you just let yourself fly with it. It's the most remarkable feeling."

On the drive to perform: "We're living in an era now where it's not just about your talent. If you would like to get rehired, you have to be a really good colleague, you have to be really prepared, you have to be a kind person. I mean, these things go ahead of you. You can't be a diva and when things don't go your way, say, 'Fine. I go airport.' They'll just get on the phone and say, 'Who else is available?' Ego needs to be checked at the door. It's impossible to do the work we do without an ego, but you need to be able to keep it in check."

On endurance: "Walkure is a long evening but I don't wander in until Act Two, so for me it's a two-act opera, and Siegfried, I can go and have dinner with my family and show up for the last 45 minutes. That's a good gig, I won't lie to you. But Gotterdammerung is a different animal. It's the first time I'm doing it – so I arrived panicked. And if I wasn't panicked, I probably would be doing it wrong. It's a long song; there's a lot to remember, and there's a lot that happens to Brunhilde in this piece. And the danger is being angry the whole time. This is all about her trying to understand her place and, in the end, making a decision for what's right above what she desires. And for me, it is remarkable that the year when this was written, Wagner chose to make his hero a woman. That's astonishing. It speaks volumes and it gives me some very big responsibilities."

On Wagner: "There is no screaming in Wagner. There just should never be. If it's five hours of loud, you're doing it wrong. I'm singing as quietly as I've sung, ever in Wagner, in this piece. It's a necessity. If you don't give variables to the audience, if you don't give them both ends of the extreme, then you'll bore them within 10 minutes. I'd leave, too. The question I constantly ask myself is: 'What's in the text, how do I colour this text? Can I whisper? I'm going to whisper. You can whisper in Wagner? Oh, my God!'"

On the end game: "In the end, it's your performance. That's the game. In the rehearsal period, I'm not going to lie to you, there's a lot of back and forth. God bless Tim Albery [her director] – we have had it out. 'Can you do this?' 'But that's not what she's doing.' 'But it is.' Fine. And I try to do it. But in the end, it's the performer that's up there, so we have to be very aware of whether or not we can absolutely achieve what the conductor is asking, what the director is asking. If we can, then we do it. If we can't, we negotiate."

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