Elektrifying: A Short Opera With a Big Soprano

Critics tend to get a little breathless when conveying the power of Richard Strauss’ 1909 opera, Elektra.

Christine Goerke (Arielle Doneson)

“An intense and still-startling work that unites the commanding impact of Greek tragedy with the unsettling insights of early-20th-century Freudian psychology. The drama unfolds in a single act of rare vocal and orchestral power,” the website of the Metropolitan Opera says of Elektra. The score encompasses an astonishing range of musical color: There are moments of sublime lyricism when the characters express tenderness or love, and there is brutal, harsh dissonance when they are at (or beyond) the bounds of sanity.”

And critics can barely contain themselves when writing about Christine Goerke, the soprano who plays the title role in the San Francisco Opera’s production this fall.

“The night belonged to the American soprano Christine Goerke, who simply owns the title role,” wrote The New York Times about her Elektra at Carnegie Hall two years ago. The critic went on to talk about her as “one of the most fearless and formidable dramatic sopranos of the day,” with “effortless power, gleaming sound and dramatic intensity.”

The New York Observer added that, “For the obsessed heroine, Strauss wrote what is arguably the most difficult and demanding female role in all of opera. To the rarefied society of superb interpreters of Elektra, consisting of perhaps two or three singers in each generation, we can now welcome Ms. Goerke,” going on to call her voice “a mighty battering ram of sound, vaulting from thundering low tones to brilliant, steely shafts of tone on top.”

Goerke, on a break from rehearsal in San Francisco seems remarkably down to earth in spite of the critics and audiences’ adulation, talking about how she always ends up wearing her coffee when using a travel mug and how, in spite of being about a woman obsessed with revenge for her mother for killing her father, she thinks Elektra is a great first opera.

“It’s super-intense and the music is beautiful, like your favorite movie soundtrack,” Goerke said. “And it’s short — you can be at the bar for a post drink in two hours.”

Goerke loves playing the role. 

“People say, ‘Your character is crazy,’ but to me, she’s the sanest one,” she said. “She’s the only one who remembers everything and I was talking to my husband about this — it’s like as it’s happening, she’s going through the stages of grief, and she’s hanging onto every one, so sometimes it’s angry and sometimes it’s tender and sometimes sad. Strauss gives it all to you. So all I have to do is pay attention to what’s going on in the pit. He’s one of the composers who really wrote for my voice. It just fits.”

The story might seem over the top — “Those ancient Greeks are a hot mess,” Goerke observes cheerfully — but she thinks it’s also accessible, with recognizable characters. 

“Her mother had reason to be mad at the father, and she’s wildly intelligent, so when they lock horns, it’s like get the popcorn,” Goerke said. “And then her relationship with sister — I think a lot of us have a person in our lives who is so naïve and thinks everything will turn out well, and you’re not sure whether to hug them and shelter them or to shake them.”

Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Goerke did not dream of being on stage, singing the role of a Greek heroine. Her high school band teacher was so inspirational and enthusiastic that she planned to do the same thing. Then in a sight singing class, she was told she should audition for the upper chorus. She went along with some friends who were auditioning as well. None of the friends made it, but the two chorus groups fought over which one she would be in. She decided she would be a chorus teacher instead of a band teacher. She would be great, someone told her — but she should really just try to be a singer. 

“And thank God I did,” she says. “I never in a million years would have thought I would be doing this. I still run into people from high school who say, ‘You’re doing what?’ And it’s the greatest gig! Opera is so cool.”

When she was just 32, Goerke was doing well in her career, singing Mozart and Handel, winning awards and getting plum roles. Then, she just couldn’t sing the way she had been. Goerke says she was terrified, worried that she had somehow broken her voice. She had to reinvent herself and start singing differently. She describes it as her voice getting too big for what she was singing, sort of like trying to squeeze into size 12 jeans when you’re a size 6.

So she worked with a teacher who told her she just needed to let her muscles support her voice.  She had to change her repertoire, moving into Wagner and Strauss. With a composer like Mozart, there are typically 40 to 60 people in the orchestra, Goerke says, whereas with Strauss, it’s more like 100 — which means she can really let her voice go.

Making the change was difficult psychologically, Goerke says. After years of not auditioning, she had to start again. She worried that people were only seeing her as a favor to someone or felt sorry to her. A friend suggested she find a mantra to help her focus, so she chose a line from a Wagner opera — “Victory or Death” — and had it inscribed in a ring, which she wore to auditions. It was singing in Elektra, in the role of the little sister, when Goerke started to feel all right again.

“I could let all my voice out,” she said. “It was like I’m home — I had found where I live, and I could just sing.”

Elektra, at the San Francisco Opera, 301 Van Ness Ave., Sept. 9-27, $26-$370, 415-864-3330 or sfopera.com

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