After a Soprano’s Crisis, a Brünnhilde Is Born

Christine Goerke
New York Times

She had just immolated herself onstage in one of the most demanding roles in opera: Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie who becomes mortal and redeems the world in Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle.
But as the soprano Christine Goerke basked in a standing ovation in February with the Canadian Opera Company here, the moment took on extra resonance. With her triumph, she cemented her arrival as the reigning American dramatic soprano of the day — the big payoff on a risky bet she made after a crisis nearly 14 years ago.
Ms. Goerke, now 47, was a rising young star when vocal troubles unexpectedly struck in 2003. “It all happened so fast,” she recalled recently, “that when I hit a brick wall, it was terrifying.”
She considered quitting. Instead she remade herself as a very different kind of singer — a challenge akin to a top pitching prospect’s deciding to become an outfielder. She jettisoned the Mozart and Handel fare she had made her name with for heavier Strauss and Wagner roles that felt right. She struggled through lean years without much work as she reinvented herself, taking on credit card debt for the first time as she and her husband, who works in construction, raised a family in suburban New Jersey.

But she persisted, winning some of the loudest applause in recent memory, paying off her debts, fielding offers from opera houses around the world — and finding her voice as Brünnhilde.
The day before she sang her first “Götterdämmerung” here, an opera that runs more than five hours, she rested her voice. Then, on the big night, she let loose — pausing to post on Twitter before her shattering immolation scene.

Now, with the Toronto run behind her, Ms. Goerke is bringing “Götterdämmerung” to Houston Grand Opera on Saturday, April 22. And she has more Brünnhildes coming up: She will sing “Die Walküre” next season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and star in a full “Ring” cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2018-19 season.

Two days before her opening in Toronto, Ms. Goerke spoke over tea about her path from the band at Patchogue-Medford High School on Long Island to Wagner’s Valhalla. Music came along at a particularly painful time in her life: Her mother died when she was 12. A high school band teacher, Peter Randazzo, became a source of inspiration.

“As awkward and — believe it or not — introverted as I was at the time,” said Ms. Goerke, now known for her vivacity, “he managed to find ways to drag me out of my shell at every turn.”

It was not until she auditioned for a choir at the State University of New York at Fredonia on a lark — some friends had asked her and, she said, shrugging, “I’m a joiner” — that her vocal talents were first recognized. But she had no dreams of becoming a star; she set her sights on teaching chorus.
After a break to work on her piano skills, she enrolled at the State University at Stony Brook in 1989 to take lessons from one of its most celebrated voice teachers, Elaine Bonazzi, recalling: “She immediately said, ‘Look, I appreciate that you want to be a chorus teacher. But I really think that you should do this.’”

She built up her voice with a steady diet of Mozart and Handel. There were early hints that heavier roles might lie in her future: Robert Shaw, the great choral conductor, pegged her as a dramatic soprano after she sang for him a number of times in her early 20s. But she was loath to push too hard, too soon — a strategy that can wreck voices.
Ms. Goerke began a rapid ascent, winning an audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s program for developing young artists. But she worried that she had not attended a prestigious conservatory or won any major vocal competitions.
“I worked hard,” she said. “But I was always waiting for the shoe to drop and for them to throw me out.”

It did not happen. And soon her career seemed to be taking off.
Then trouble struck. Ms. Goerke was starring in Handel’s “Alcina,” which opened New York City Opera’s season in 2003. “It should have been a perfect fit,” she said. “But I just could not get underneath my sound. Everything felt really tight. Pitch started being really wonky — not something that was a thing for me.”

It got so bad that the director, Francesca Zambello — a friend who had worked with Ms. Goerke on one of her early successes, a 1997 production of Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” at Glimmerglass Opera — took her out for a difficult lunch.

“I told her, ‘You can just step back, and accept that you have done really well so far,’” Ms. Zambello recalled. “‘Or you can take stock, and go and study, and make this better. If you can work hard on this, you’re going to have to take some time away from the business. It’s not something you can just do tomorrow.’ She was very upset. There were tears.”
Ms. Goerke was not sure which way to go. “I really, really entertained the idea of quitting,” she said.

But first “Alcina” had to go on. Several influential critics expressed concerns — which, in the cutthroat world of opera, where productions must be planned years in advance on the strength of a singer’s reputation, can take a toll. In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini praised many aspects of her singing, but observed that “her voice did not consistently do what one sensed she wanted it to.”

“She has greatness in her,” he wrote, “but may need help to bring it out.”
Ms. Goerke decided that the time had come to try a new approach, with a new teacher. Walking away from Ms. Bonazzi after more than a decade, she said, was like trying to walk away from family.

“She was so upset and so offended,” she recalled. “I said that it had nothing to do with her — something had changed. She had kept me safe for all this time, and I don’t think for a second that anything she had done had been wrong. But something was not right with me, and I had to try something else or I was going to quit.”
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