Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle
Christine Goerke almost walked away from opera, right in the middle of her career. She’d been singing lyric soprano roles by Mozart and Handel to great acclaim, and then suddenly, for no reason she could figure out, everything stopped working.
“I couldn’t get the vocal support I needed,” she recalled during a recent interview. “My throat felt tight. I was suddenly scared — I just couldn’t control what was going on.”
What was going on, as it turned out, was that her voice had gotten larger and more powerful than it had ever been, and done so about a decade before that kind of shift usually happens. Suddenly, it was as if she was trying to steer a forklift using bicycle handles.
The result of her midcareer transition to the heavier roles of the dramatic soprano repertoire can be witnessed this month at the War Memorial Opera House, where Goerke is undertaking the title role in the San Francisco Opera’s powerhouse production of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra.”
Actually, “undertaking” is putting it too mildly. As she prowls the stage for nearly two hours of uninterrupted performance, Goerke seems almost to consume her assignment as the aggrieved, unhinged Mycenaean princess. It’s an explosion of vocal outpouring and dramatic intensity, backed up by an elaborate framework of preparation and technical mastery.
In person, Goerke, 48, is as affable and gregarious as Elektra is tormented. A self-described “Jersey girl” with a vivacious and often profane wit, she talks with easy fluency about a host of subjects.
Chief among her interests is her family — particularly her two daughters, 10-year-old Margaret and 8-year-old Charlotte. Not for nothing does she use the Twitter handle @HeldenMommy, a reference to both her career as a singer of heroically heavy operatic roles and her maternal identity. (Her only previous San Francisco Opera appearance, in a 2006 production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus,” took place when she was well along in her first pregnancy.)
“The funny thing is that I never wanted to be a singer, but I wanted to be a mom for as long as I can remember. Back when I was in Brownies, I just wanted to have a family and have my girls in Brownies and teach them to cook. I thought that would be the greatest thing, and that never went away.”
Goerke’s own mother died suddenly, in a car accident, when she was 12, and music became a solace to her.
“It was my gift for having to lose her, and music helped me get through everything I needed to get through. It sounds insane, but I was a very introverted kid, and it brought me out of myself.”
Her career blossomed early, with roles at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, and she won the Richard Tucker Award — a prestigious landmark on the path of any young career. But when she hit a bump in the road, it took the technical advice of a new teacher, the renowned soprano Diana Soviero, and the emotional support of her husband, a supervisor in a family-owned construction business, to keep her going.
“I gave myself a finite amount of time to fix things — basically the three months until I was set to open in a new production of ‘Don Giovanni’ at the Met. But fortunately, it was a basic fix to my vocal technique. Within three months of taking lessons, we had to move to a bigger rehearsal studio.”
The expansion of Goerke’s vocal resources meant giving up Mozart — that “Don Giovanni,” in 2004, was her farewell to the composer’s music — and embracing the heroines in operas by Wagner and Strauss. Elektra has become a signature role, along with Brünnhilde in the operas of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle, which she’s been adding to her repertoire one by one in advance of her first complete cycle at the Met next year.
“I love singing Brünnhilde so much!” she exclaimed. “You get to go on this journey from a teenager who thinks she knows everything, to realizing that she knows absolutely nothing. Her world is falling apart, the people she put on a pedestal are falling away, which is always harrowing.
“Then the experience of realizing that you’re on your own and you’ll have to take care of yourself, and coming out the other end with an act of huge self-sacrifice.”
For Strauss, Goerke relies on her interest in music theory to get her through some of the composer’s technical challenges — especially in “Elektra,” where the composer came as close as he ever would to flirting with atonality.
“I found out very quickly that the trick to Strauss is that the singer takes the lead in every harmonic change — so you’d better know where the harmonies are going to. Sometimes a section settles into a single key for a while, which is lovely, but when you go into a new key, very often you’re in that key before the orchestra is.”
With the arrival of the school year, Goerke has been able to ramp up the frequency of her engagements. But she’s made it very clear to her management that during the summer, she wants to spend more time with the family by doing concert work, or taking jobs not far from her home in Teaneck, N.J., where her daughters can accompany her.
“Traveling is not so bad now, because if the girls need me they can shoot me a message and we can talk on FaceTime. God bless the singers who did this before the Internet. I don’t know how they made it work.”
San Francisco Opera: “Elektra”: Through Sept. 27. $26-$397. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com