In this season’s Ring cycles, Christine Goerke takes on the ultimate challenge for a dramatic soprano—the role of the warrior-maiden Brünnhilde, whose heroism, sacrifice, and discovery of love make her the heart of Wagner’s epic tale. As she prepared for the run, Goerke spoke with the Metropolitan Opera’s Jay Goodwin about bringing one of opera’s most compelling characters to life.
For a dramatic soprano, Brünnhilde is the highest mountain. At first, it must seem insurmountable.
Well, in the beginning, even when I was 24 years old, people were trying to attach the words “dramatic soprano” to me, and I’m really grateful that I was smart enough to realize, and lucky enough to be surrounded by people who told me, that at that age I was no such thing. Still, knowing this music, I really crossed my fingers and hoped that one day I could sing it because I was completely in love with it. When you’re younger, you don’t realize quite the size of the mountain you’re trying to scale. The fear comes with more knowledge, and unfortunately, that knowledge is what’s required to actually do the job. It’s not insurmountable, but it is certainly daunting, and you have to be really at the top of your game—technically, mentally, and stamina-wise.
You’ve now sung Brünnhilde in Houston, Toronto, Chicago, and in concert in Edinburgh. What do you think will be different singing the role at the Met?
Well, every time you come together with a different cast, you have different personalities, and they bring different things to their characters. And every production brings new thoughts about a role. So it’s forever changing, forever living. But the other part that’s really cool about this is that I grew up at the Met, watching people sing this repertoire with my jaw on the floor, thinking if I could ever do that, even once, that would be amazing. And now I have an opportunity to do it at home, where I trained. It’s remarkable.
What is a Ring week—when you sing Die Walküre on Tuesday, Siegfried on Thursday, and Götterdämmerung on Saturday—like for you?
Well, actually, these will be the first cycles I’ve done over the course of a week. So I thought, why not try it out at the Met? That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? [Laughs] But I have a plan. I live in New Jersey, not far from the opera house, but I know the huge mental and physical task ahead of me, and I am terrible at resting if I have other things to do. So I’ve gotten an apartment very close to the Met for when I’m performing, and after I sing, I am going to just crawl in, order myself some Chinese food, and shut up. I’ll finish one opera, sleep as long as I can, then study the following day to get myself into the right space for the next piece.
You sing several of the great dramatic soprano roles—Elektra, Turandot, Ortrud in Lohengrin, for example—and they tend to be extreme, sometimes one-dimensional characters. But Brünnhilde’s not that way at all.
No, she’s amazing. The thing that I love most about the Ring cycle is that, at first glance, we’re talking about gods and mythical creatures, but if you strip away that fantastical veneer, these are some of the most human characters we have in opera. They are so flawed and so real—Brünnhilde most of all. At first, she is a know-it-all teen, and she couldn’t possibly imagine being anything other than right and helpful. But the first time she puts herself out there to stand up for what she believes in, it ends up putting her at odds with her father, the person she loves most in the world. And in her mind, he betrays her. When we see her next, in Siegfried, she takes a terrifying chance to open herself up to love again, to being vulnerable. She has been stripped of her strength and power from her father, but she starts to see that she has wisdom from her mother. And then, in Götterdämmerung, we see the anger and the rage, and we see that she’s still her father’s daughter. In the end, it’s the combination of the two—the wisdom and the power—that defines her.
How do you sing differently as Brünnhilde the demi-goddess and Brünnhilde the mortal, and as she goes through these changes of outlook and identity?
The funny thing is that I don’t even have to think about it. Wagner has orchestrated this so that all you have to do is listen to what instruments are playing at what times, what colors he provides in the orchestra, and he gives you the emotion. When she is forlorn or afraid, for example, she’ll often be paired with the bass clarinet—which, by the way, I could not dig more because I was a bass clarinet player, and every time I hear it, I get to geek out a little bit. Then, if she’s angry, she’s usually paired with the brass. It’s very clear to me, every single time, what color I need to use.
Now, for fun, I have some quickfire questions for you. Starting with—your favorite scene in the Ring?
Oh, that’s really hard. There’s nothing quickfire about that! It’s probably Brünnhilde’s scene with Wotan at the end of Walküre. It’s just heartbreaking.
Your hardest sing?
I think there’s a hard sing in each one of my three operas, but I would say the hardest is someplace around “Ewig war ich” in Siegfried [as Brünnhilde comes to terms with the loss of her immortality]. As long as I get the right tempo, I’m in good shape, but I really have to focus because, emotionally, it starts to get to me, and I can get in my own way.
The worst thing that’s gone wrong in one of your Ring performances?
In the Walküre production in Chicago, there is an amazing horse that I ride out on, built on one of those old movie booms. It was up in the air, and I was standing on it, but it wasn’t connected quite right. The stagehands were trying to fix it, but I’m hearing the music for the scene, and Brandon Jovanovich [as Siegmund] is out there waiting for me. And I’m saying, “guys, you have three seconds, you have three seconds. I’m going to miss my entrance.” So finally, I disconnected myself and just walked right out, no horse. Brandon looked slightly confused, then amused, and that was it. Eventually, I found a way to get off to the side of the stage and came back mid-scene on the horse.
The Brünnhilde of the past that you most admire?
Well, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t admire Birgit Nilsson, but that’s an impossible thing to try to emulate. The one I love most is Astrid Varnay. No one has ever sung this role perfectly, but there’s so much color, so many aspects to the character, in her interpretation.
And finally, what’s the one thing you’d tell a newcomer to make them want to give the Ring a shot?
Don’t be afraid! If you like a good movie soundtrack, you will love the Ring. I was a huge movie-music freak when I was a kid, and I was fascinated by John Williams. I loved that I could listen and pick out the themes for different characters and emotions. And of course, it was only later that I realized—oh, somebody else did that first. Plus, the Ring is like Game of Thrones—you’ve got gods and dragons and heroes and all the rest.
That’s all very in right now.
Exactly! This is just the kind of epic thing that people are flocking to on TV and at the movies, but this is live. You can’t know what it feels like to be in front of the amount of sound that’s coming at you, without amplification, until you are sitting there. It’s absolutely worth every bit of the time and effort.