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The Valkyrie Who Maxed Out Her Credit Cards: Christine Goerke Sings Brünnhilde

Soprano Christine Goerke, as Brünnhilde the Valkyrie warrior, at a dress rehearsal for Wagner's <em>Die Walküre</em> at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Richard Termine
Met Opera
Soprano Christine Goerke, as Brünnhilde the Valkyrie warrior, at a dress rehearsal for Wagner's Die Walküre at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Christine Goerke is focused on endurance. The dramatic soprano is tackling one of the most challenging roles in opera: singing Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie maiden warrior, in Richard Wagner's epic, Der Ring des Nibelungen, at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Otherwise known as the Ring cycle, the 16-hour saga spans four operas and tells the story of gods, monsters, humans and an insatiable urge to own an all-powerful golden ring.

"The thing is that there are three different roles within the Ring cycle for Brünnhilde and they are all very different," Goerke says. "The stamina is really the biggest issue, so pacing is paramount." It's not only Goerke's Met Brünnhilde debut — it's also the first time she's sung the roles back to back, as Wagner envisioned audiences to experience his cycle.

Goerke wasn't always a huge-voiced Wagner singer. Nearly 16 years ago, the rising star was building her career on lighter fare by Mozart and Handel. Then she hit a wall. Her voice was maturing far faster then she had expected and she couldn't control it in the lighter music.

"I literally thought I broke it," Goerke says. "But once I went in and changed my support and I allowed my voice the room to grow, it did what it was supposed to do and it turned out to be far less of a bump in the road than it seemed."

But there were trying times. It took a few years for Goerke to reinvent herself, which meant less singing, fewer paychecks. "We went into quite a bit of credit card debt," Goerke admits. "We survived. We didn't lose our house, everybody was fed."

She persisted, taking on some of the heavier Richard Strauss roles, catching breaks along the way with acclaimed performances as Chrysothemis in Elektra and as Dyer's Wife in Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

"I just have the best job," Goerke says. "I get to be loud, pretend and dress up for a living. That's not so bad. I get to throw myself into a different world and be someone else for a few hours. It's a mirror image of the reason that we all go to the theater. We all want to escape the real world for a little bit; I just get to do it in a slightly different way than everyone else."

Goerke explains that once you take away the gods, dragons, mermaids and giants from the Ring cycle, you're left with a web of intense interpersonal relationships at the heart of saga.

"It's beautifully written," she says. "Anybody who thinks, 'Ugh, Wagner, I can't be in the middle of that for 16 hours' — if you can sit through a binge watch of Game of Thrones, I promise you this is much cooler."

Goerke's performances run throughMay 11. Listen to the radio version for the full conversation between Goerke and NPR's Scott Simon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ned Wharton is a senior producer and music director for Weekend Edition.