Christine Goerke is an American dramatic soprano who happens to be one of the hottest stars in opera these days. The "next" great Wagnerian soprano, she had reviewers the world over flock to Toronto last year as she made her role debut as Brunhilde, the heroine of Wagner's Ring Cycle, at the Canadian Opera Company. Her next step is her debut in Siegfried, the next opera in the Ring Cycle, coming Saturday night at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. She'll be singing the role at the Met, in Houston and everywhere in the next few years. But in Toronto first. She sat down with The Globe and Mail earlier this week.
You're a week or so away from opening night. How do you feel?
Terrified, which I think is appropriate. If I wasn't, I would be worried.
Let's talk about Brunhilde, your character in the Ring. In Siegfried, it's like a serial – we pick her up where we left her at the end of Walkuere, asleep. She's still on that rock.
Yeah, I know it's a rough time, but I'll tell you what: For sleeping as long as she did, she wakes up looking okay. I'm not going to lie.
But it's a different Brünnhilde in this opera than in the last one.
She certainly is. She's been mortal for five minutes, and she has no idea what to do because she can no longer protect herself the way that she used to. Then, when Siegfried awakens her, everything comes together for her. But, as a mortal, she has all these erotic feelings for the first time and she fights them for the whole scene – by the end, I feel they've both gone through puberty in 40 minutes.
Brunhilde's experience – that experience of losing your way and being in new circumstances – parallels your own in an odd way. Your voice changed when you were in your early 30s, when you changed from a coloratura soprano to a dramatic soprano, throwing you into a real crisis. How did that happen? Was it physiological?
Yes and no. You know, if you play the violin, if you play the trombone, you take your instrument out, you warm up and you play it. It doesn't change. Every single day, we singers change, our bodies change, we age, our weight goes up and down – God knows I know about that one – and with every pound, with every year, with every day, something different is happening to our instrument. Imagine what your body was like when you were 25, or 35, or 45. My body is my instrument – of course, it changes. It's just that the change in my voice was very rapid, very dramatic. That was very, very scary to me. I had no control over it.
When the voice changed, there were a whole new set of roles you had to take on, and you had been doing Mozart and Handel, and now it was Wagner and Strauss. I have to tell you – I would have pegged you as a Mozart person long before I pegged you as a Wagner person. You're so funny, down to earth – I can imagine that in Susanna in Figaro, or Zerlina in Don Giovanni. I can't imagine that in Brunhilde.
But wait a minute. Think of her in Walkuere. She's the only one that has the nerve to give her father sass.
But that was your Brunhilde.
Yes, but it's there. It's in the text – nobody else would dare say these things to him.
No, I understand. You turned Brünnhilde into a person. That was your choice.
I love her. She's amazing. I'm 46, and I don't think I'm going to go through everything that she's gone through.
I guess not!
But when you break it down into individual situations, we've all seen someone [we] love and put on a pedestal fall. Everyone experiences something that they're terrified of turn into something amazing. If you pull experiences like that from your life, it's very easy to understand this woman, what a gift this character is.
How does it feel to be the next big thing – to have people the world over anticipating your every performance?
I'm a natural seconda donna, not a prima donna. I love the collegiality of opera, and especially this repertoire, where everyone has an important part to play, I love that. I sang Norma twice. I was never so uncomfortable in my life. Just standing on stage and 'showing off' – that's not the right word, but you know what I mean. That's not me.
Well, this has been fun. But now I have to review you on Saturday.
Be kind. Think of my kids
Okay, let's do it this way. If I hate what you do, I'll say: 'I would review Ms. Goerke's performance, but she has asked me to consider that she has two university educations to pay for.'
If you write that, I'll frame it!
The Canadian Opera Company's Siegfried runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 14 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (www.coc.ca).