Christine Goerke has worn a lot of hats in her operatic career. Once a lyric soprano who sang Mozart, she’s matured into the next big American Wagnerian: She’ll be singing Brünnhilde in upcoming “Rings” in Chicago, Houston, and the Metropolitan Opera. You can’t sing only Wagner, though, and this fall she’s happy to be singing a different kind of music at the Washington National Opera: the title role in Daniel Catán’s “Florencia in the Amazon,” whose score she describes as “if Strauss and Puccini and Debussy had a baby.”
“Having an opportunity to do something different,” she says, “was so welcome.”
At her Washington hotel, she talked about how a soprano goes about making her art.
“The minute I found out about this [role], I was in the score. I immediately thought, right, I’ve got to get hold of the book” — that is, “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which inspired some of the opera’s themes if not its actual plot. “I was about to order it, and then I thought, you know what, librettos are not the book, and I need not to read the book right now. I need to deal with the story that’s in front of me, and if there’s any back story to be created I need to create it for myself.
“The first thing I did was translate everything. The second thing I did was go to a diction coach because I was determined not to sound like I was singing in Italian. ( A far more common operatic language, and one in which Goerke is fluent.)
“That said, there’s something that is so hyper-emotional about being able to sing in Spanish. Having the flexibility of the Italian line, which is the way that Catán wrote this, but also you have the opportunity to use explosive consonants, [similar to] German. And to be able to use the consonants that way with this Italian line, I find it to be so unbelievably expressive.
“Practicing generally starts with not making noise for me. There’s so much to do before I open my mouth. I don’t sing much unless something feels like it’s really not working right.” (Goerke does work with a voice teacher, the soprano Diana Soviero, but she gets lessons only occasionally, between road trips.) “I know my voice fairly well at this point, so I know what I’ll need to work on, and I also know that if I sing a difficult passage too many times, it’s going to hinder the rest of the practicing anyway. So normally if I hit it once and it feels right and I know what I’m doing, I leave it alone. And then when I really need to sing something out, I sometimes go to my church, because it’s loud and I don’t want to scare the children [Goerke’s daughters are 5 and 7], and I just let her rip sometimes. We have an adorable little Tudor [house] and I have a music room with a door. But it’s probably about 10-by-10. Even I don’t like to hear me in that room. So I try to find bigger spaces.
“I never come to the first day of rehearsals for anything without having completely gone through the part in my head. I have an idea of staging; I have an idea of who I’m talking to; I have an idea of what I’m doing. It may end up being completely different, but I come to the first day with an idea. It’s so much less mental work when you get started; it saves so much time in the end, because you’re just changing your ideas, rather than not having an idea.
“This is the kind of thing that I can’t quite explain to my friends who are not musicians and not singers. We don’t just go and do our job and then we have three months off and we don’t do anything. We’re working the entire time, I swear.
“I never listen to myself. I shudder when people want to play things that I have done. I don’t hear that [sound] in my head. And if I hear it, I will be totally confused. What you’re hearing means nothing to me. If you like it, I am thrilled to death, but what you’re hearing is not what I am hearing, so I have to go based on what I’m hearing in my head.
“Basically with this repertoire”(the big Wagnerian roles) “people plan it 10 years out. When you finally are accepted as one of the loud, golden children, you get to go to the back of the line. Which is totally fine. God bless the fact that there is a handful of people that sing this repertoire. The best part about it? Everyone knows everybody; there’s no cattiness. It is a very different animal than where I started, collegially. This is the kind of thing that I love the most about this repertoire. No one ever will judge you onstage. When you’re onstage and something is difficult — and everything is — you have four colleagues onstage with you that are willing to hold your hand the entire time, because you will hold theirs when it’s difficult for them. I’m so much more relaxed for that reason. You don’t think the person next to you is judging the sound you’re making. The person next to you is thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, the next scene I have to sing 14 Q-flats; crap.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to pick up your train, because you’re about to step on it, and there’s fire there.’ ”
“Florencia in the Amazon,” presented by the Washington National Opera, runs Saturday through Sept. 28 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
This interview was condensed and edited by Midgette.