Celebrated American soprano, Christine Goerke has earned great critical acclaim particularly for her dramatic Wagner and Strauss roles at all the world’s major opera houses.
08 March 2020
image © Arielle Donerson
S: What are you up to at the moment?
CG: I’m currently in Vienna singing the title role of Strauss’ Elektra at the Wiener Staatsoper. Making a house debut at 50 years old isn’t for sissies :)
S: What do you love most about your job?
CG: I love being part of something larger than myself. Creating art with other artists. I love giving the gift of immersion and escape to the audience (and myself) for a few hours.
S: How long have you been juggling parenthood and your career?
CG: 14 years.
S: How long after having/adopting your children did you return to singing?
CG: After I had my first daughter, I waited three months before returning to singing. After my second, I didn’t have the financial ability to hold off - and took in a Beethoven Missa Solemnis just five weeks after a C section.
I’m going to say that I would not recommend doing that. Ouch.
S: What physical changes did you feel?
CG: Vocally? I’d been told that with pregnancy, the voice would richen... get bigger in the middle. That was all true for me. It was as if the column of my voice “expanded” to either side. I was concerned that I would lose some of my top. Oddly, the opposite happened. It became more secure, but all in all it made for a huge shift in technique for me.
I also have to say that I wasn’t quite prepared for how much I could do on such little sleep. Adrenaline isn’t only for the stage lol!
S: How did parenthood change your career?
CG: They say it takes a village. I think this is true for any working parent, but with the kind of travel involved with our jobs? Decisions had to be made.
My husband and I had a long talk about how we would go about this. We knew that we would have to get to know our girls, and decide what *they* needed based on who they are becoming. Would we home school and allow the girls to travel with me when need be, or will they need something more stable and a consistent group of friends? We decided that it would be best for them to have the consistency, and that for the most part they would not travel with me.
That was an incredibly difficult decision for me. Sobbing every time I left for the airport... all of us. I have been lucky with wonderful au pairs, and incredible childcare but we were unfortunate in that we didn’t have any family nearby to help us.
Financially I had no choice, bills had to be paid... but I thought at the time that I had my girls that my career was winding down. My voice had changed, and I thought, “You know... I’ve already done *so* much more than I ever expected to do. Now it’s time for me to have the rest of my life.”
...and then it all started up again. I suddenly had everything I wanted.
The problem with that is that you have to figure out what to *do* with everything you’ve ever wanted.
I try desperately to always put my girls first. I have turned down work because I would be away from them for too long, and have had to make big changes in my schedule to accommodate them.
I would do it for my daughters every time. They’re my whole life.
S: Do you think that being a mother/father has ultimately enriched your performing?
CG: 100%. Every experience we have in our lives enriches our performing... this particular “experience” has deepened my compassion for my colleagues, and given me new understanding of every character that I play. Every mother has children. Every child has a mother... the relationships between parent and child are as varied as snowflakes. Every day as a mother, I understand this a bit more.
S: How does your child/children respond to your job?
CG: My girls mostly seem indifferent... at least, that’s how it seems to me much of the time. They know it’s “Mom’s job”, and that I’m in the public eye. Every now and again, though.... they say something that shows that they’re proud of me. I was on the cover of Opera News a while back. One day as we were getting ready to get my girls out the door to school, my little one came to me, holding a copy and asked if she could bring it for show and tell. I smiled and said of course, and then she said, “but you have to sign it. My friends think this is so cool.”
She told her friends about me.
That is the only kind of praise I will ever need.
My girls also really hate that I don’t have a 9-5 job. There is no way to explain that when I am home for extended periods of time, I am there for them 24/7.... it’s not the same thing to them, and never can be. They see the kind of families that their friends have. They perceive that dinner happens at 7pm every night, and everyone sits at home at the table and it’s idyllic.
It’s an incredibly hard balance to find for all of us.
S: Has your child/children ever appeared on stage with you?
CG: Yes, once. Both girls appeared in the finale of Fidelio with me a few years ago. My eldest got the bug that night and has been going out for parts in plays and doing bits of performing since... my little one thought it was interesting but didn’t need to do it again.
I was just happy they had a moment to see things from my perspective, even that once.
S: How do you manage to continue your career alongside your family commitments?
CG: It’s so difficult. We have to prioritize. My priority is always my family, whether I choose to be home with them or take the job that will pay for what they need.
Those decisions have to be made on a case by case basis.
S: What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry, to
make life easier for artists with families/dependents?
CG: This is a very difficult question, but I already have seen changes being initiated by many companies over the course of my career. So many more companies are helping with housing for families, some help with childcare suggestions, and more companies than I can count have asked if I will be bringing my family and my daughters to the opera house... to watch a rehearsal, or even to invite them to a costume fitting!
I think that it is very difficult when we are self-employed to hope that an opera company or orchestra will go the extra step to accommodate families or singers with children, but - after all - it isn’t 1950 anymore, and so many women in our business, especially, are mothers. I’m encouraged seeing that we aren’t any longer an afterthought, and that it’s understood that we are a vital part of the “work force”.
S: Can you think of an example of a job where you have felt really supported by the
company as a parent?
CG: Yes, at my “home” company, the Metropolitan Opera. Granted, they’ve known me since I was a young artist there, but if I were to say that there is an emergency, or something that has to be attended to immediately? They’ve been beyond accommodating.
S: What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to
become a parent?
CG: Do it. Be happy. Love that baby. There is absolutely no good time to become a parent in our business. Have your priorities as straight as you possibly can, and then know that flexibility is required to do what we do. Believe that you can find a way to do it all. There is no right way to have a career and a family. You’ll find your way.
S: Have you come up against or heard of any discrimination or bias as a working parent?
CG: I, personally, have never come across any kind of discrimination or bias. I always say that if we turn up 100% prepared for our job and ready to work, no one should have any reason to complain.
S: Were you ever advised not to have children for the sake of your career?
CG: Ohhhhhhh yes. Well-meaning colleagues... but this was when I was starting out in my 20s. I ended up not having my children until I was in my late 30s, so... I’m honestly not sure if that had an impact on that bit of advice..
S: Aside from the challenges of working-parenthood, have you ever considered your
gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
CG: No... never considered that..
S: Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
CG: Honestly? Elektra. That may sound crazy. Funnily enough, I often hear her described as exactly that. Crazy. I have never seen her that way. She is damaged.
Talking about how motherhood can influence your views on our job.. the crux of this story, for *me* is the relationship between Elektra and her mother Klytemnestra. What has happened, what has been lost between the two of them, the connection between the two women. The sense of loss that they each have knowing that they are all that the other has. The desire for a deep relationship between mother and daughter never fades, no matter whether or not it’s possible.
Elektra is the role that I have sung the most in my career. Each time I do it, I find something new in her character.
S: Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
CG: I honestly can’t point to just one. These days it’s easier to count on one hand the few that don’t inspire me. I think that what we do is utterly amazing. I love that we all come together to support each other. No matter where we are around the world. We are our own second family.
S: Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family
CG: ... honestly, no. There is no time, and in every spare moment I have ... the desire to be with my girls is so great. It’s my reward. Every day.