Like a Valkyrie swooping down from her mountaintop, soprano Christine Goerke is poised to descend on America's opera houses — but instead of wearing a set of wings on her shoulders, she's carrying the role of a lifetime.
The role is Bruennhilde, the heroine of Richard Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle, a part requiring such power, stamina and beauty of voice that few singers dare undertake it and fewer still can do justice to all its facets. Goerke has just sung "Die Walkuere" with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto — and the critics are raving.
"Were the high hopes for her Bruennhilde warranted?" asked Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times. "In a word, yes. From Bruennhilde's first appearance ... Ms. Goerke looked and sounded in command." Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal said Goerke "gave me chills with her exuberant entrance cry of 'Hojotoho!' Her gleaming top notes and huge, penetrating sound promised much, and she delivered."
For Goerke, now 45, the triumph has been long in coming, since almost 20 years ago, when she was still singing lighter roles by Handel and Mozart, colleagues started predicting she would one day become a Bruennhilde.
"When you're a kid and people tell you they see something in you, you get excited about it," she said in an interview in her dressing room at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. "But until it actually happens it's hard to believe that it is a possibility."
Now it's far more than that. In April, she stars in a production of "Die Walkuere" in Houston, then over the next two years tackles the other two "Ring" operas in which Bruennhilde appears: "Siegfried" and "Goetterdaemmerung." In a few years she'll sing complete cycles in Chicago and at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Goerke said as she's studied the text she's been surprised by her character, the favorite daughter of the god Wotan, whose job is to fly down to Earth to bring back slain warriors to the gods' home in Valhalla.
"Everyone has this idea of the warrior maiden thing, but there's so much more there," she said. "She's strong and scared, and it's the fragility of her that struck me."
In "Die Walkuere," Bruennhilde defies Wotan's command to let the hero Siegmund die in battle, in part because she knows he secretly wants him to survive. Goerke said she identifies with her character's rash act.
"I have a good relationship with my father now," she said, "but my mom died when I was younger so it was just the two of us, and we were constantly at each other. I was the teen who knew everything. I was the one who knew I could do things better."
After Houston, Goerke will take most of the summer off. There are two reasons for that. One is to prepare for Puccini's "Turandot" at the Met next fall. The title role lies mostly in the soprano's upper range, requiring time to shift her voice from the lower placement of the "Walkuere" Bruennhilde.
"People have this idea that I'm not comfortable singing high, because I can make noise in the middle," she said. "But I warm up to an E-flat every day. I have a top. It's easy actually. It's just a case of what do I put next to what."
The other reason she's clearing her schedule is to spend time at home with her husband and two young daughters, ages 6 and 8.
"I have the best job in the world, but it's awful to know your family needs you and not be able to be there," she said. "People tell me, 'Oh, they'll grow up and be so proud of you,' and I say, yes, but right now they're little girls and they just want their mom. And the thing is, their mom wants them too."