In March, soprano Christine Goerke makes her eagerly anticipated Metropolitan Opera role debut as the title character of Strauss’s Elektra, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting Patrice Chéreau’s production. Next season, she will take on the ultimate challenge of singing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring cycle. She spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about singing two of the repertoire’s most powerful soprano roles and her journey from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program to the top of the opera world.
You started in the Lindemann program in 1995, singing a lot of Mozart and other lyrical fare. But over time, your voice grew in size and power, and you transitioned to a completely different kind of repertoire. What was it like making that change?
Well, the funny thing is that I actually try to sing this music the same way I sang Mozart. Everything has to be lyric. The thing that’s different for me is that it’s so much more harmonically driven. I have to let what’s underneath dictate what I do vocally. As far as technique, there is really only one healthy way to sing, and how your instrument works is what dictates the repertoire. When I was getting to the end of the time for me to be singing Mozart and Handel, it had become more difficult to sing that music because my voice had grown bigger than what’s comfortable as a Mozart singer. And the very first time I was able to get myself in front of a Strauss orchestra going at full blast and was able to let loose, I thought, “I’m home.”
What does it feel like to be the source of the huge vocal sound that allows you to sing over these massive orchestral textures?
Here’s what’s going to sound unbelievable—it doesn’t sound loud to me. I’m always asking if my voice is carrying over the orchestra, which generally gets a giant laugh. But if it’s loud in your head, it’s not going anywhere. Also, part of what I do is to look at the orchestral score and really understand what the instrumentation is. Having a big instrumental moment with a lot of strings is very different from when you add horns and woodwinds. The game is to know what color you need to use to ride on top like a wave.
Elektra is one of the most taxing, relentless roles in the repertoire—you’re onstage and singing almost the entire time.
It is the biggest adrenaline rush that I can imagine. It’s all about the pacing, and you have to be very careful about how you start out, or you risk putting yourself in a position of weakness for the rest of the piece. Then, once you get going, the adrenaline carries you. I don’t ever feel like I’m flagging by the end—but about 45 minutes after it’s over, I hit a wall so hard.
How do you see the character of Elektra? Is she crazy, or is she the only one in the family who’s not?
I think she’s the sanest one up there. To me, she is the only one who’s not trying to sweep the past under the rug—the only one who really takes stock of everything that has happened. She’s slightly obsessive, admittedly, but only for justice. And she has suffered a lot to try to find that justice.
It’s a complicated character, psychologically. How do you get into the right mental place to become this tortured but powerful person?
You know, I step out on the stage, and as soon I hear the first few notes, the switch flips and I’m in that world. Most of the time—depending on the production—I end up on stage during the first scene. And it’s like you’re in a room where people are talking about you, they know you’re there, and it doesn’t matter. It’s frustrating, and it’s hurtful, and it makes you angry and strong and fragile. And all of this happens before I have to open my mouth. So the libretto and the music get me there—all I have to do is listen.
You sang a concert performance of Elektra at Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2015 that has become somewhat legendary. Now, you’re coming back to New York to do a run of fully staged performances at the Met. Do you feel like there’s a weight of expectation?
Honestly, the big expectation is of myself. Having grown up in this house, it’s a hell of a journey from where I started to where I am. And when you’ve been a young artist with a company, coming back is always difficult because you feel like you’re trying to please your parents. So more than anything else, I’m excited to come home and try to make Mom and Dad proud.
On top of your Elektras this season, you’ll make your Met role debut as Brünnhilde next season with three complete Ring cycles. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. Are you able to stop and just enjoy it?
Nope. [Laughs.] You know, it’s one of those things—be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. Doing these things is a joy, but there’s a lot of pressure. I mean—the Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera … From the time I skulked off stage with my broken rope as Third Norn [in the old production of Götterdämmerung in 2000], staring longingly at Jane Eaglen and thinking “Even if I break my voice, I just want to sing this once,” I’ve hoped and prayed for this.