Christine Goerke is flying high in the opera world, but not so long ago a catastrophic vocal crisis threatened to send the world she knew crashing down around her.
The celebrated American dramatic soprano, who will make her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in the formidable title role of Richard Strauss' "Elektra," which will open the season on Saturday night, is one of the lucky ones who made it back from every singer's nightmare.
It was in September 2003, and Goerke, then in her mid-30s and acclaimed worldwide for her opulent sound and the regal command she brought to the Handel and Mozart operas, appeared to have everything going for her. Two years earlier she had won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award for exceptional artistic promise. Her career was going gangbusters, and there was nothing stopping her.
Or so she believed.
Then one morning Goerke woke up to discover that something had gone terribly wrong with her instrument. Suddenly she couldn't get her breath right, couldn't situate her voice in her body, couldn't produce a sound she felt comfortable with.
"I became paralyzed with fear," the singer recalls, wincing at the memory, during an interview backstage at the Civic Opera House. "I was sure the problem was something technical, but I couldn't understand what that was, because vocally I was doing the same things I had always done."
Thinking the impairment would fix itself in short order, Goerke went ahead with the commitments she had made before the crisis hit. But she was singing badly and she knew it – worse, she knew other people knew it. She thought seriously about giving up singing.
James Holloway, the construction worker she was dating and whom she eventually married, told her, "If you want to stop singing, I will totally support you. I just think it's a mistake. You love it too much, and people would miss you.''
With Metropolitan Opera performances in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at stake, Goerke sought the advice of her colleague, soprano Diana Soviero, a former City Opera star who was now a respected teacher. "When I tried to sing for her, I couldn't get through two notes, I was so tied up in knots," Goerke remembers. Immediately Soviero spotted what was wrong. "You've become totally disconnected from your support,'' she told Goerke. "I'm not sure why, but that's gonna stop now.''
The problem, Goerke came to realize, was that because her voice had grown so much larger much sooner than she had expected, she was singing with higher and higher vocal placement just to hold onto her lyric coloratura technique. In the process, she was producing sound almost entirely from the throat, without proper support from the chest register.
"Within two weeks, with Diana's help, I started reconnecting to my support," Goerke says. Within a month, she had her old voice back, but with a dramatic difference. "All of a sudden, everything changed. I found that my voice had grown to three times the size it was before. It was a new sensation! I owe Diana everything."
All at once, Wagner, Strauss and Verdi, and all the rest of the dramatic soprano repertory she always knew she would eventually sing was hers for the taking. She started auditioning again, determined to prove to opera company directors she had fixed herself and was ready to take on heavier roles. She was, she says, like a kid who had just discovered a new playground.
Lyric general director Anthony Freud, then director of the Houston Grand Opera, was struck by Goerke's vocal heft and beauty and wasted no time casting her as Ortrud in Wagner's "Lohengrin" in Houston in 2009, and, last spring, Eboli in the French version of Verdi's "Don Carlos." He remains one of her biggest boosters. "She has emerged as one of the most important dramatic sopranos of her generation," he says of the 43-year-old Goerke.
The part of Chrysothemis, Elektra's younger sister in the Strauss opera, became one of the vocally reborn Goerke's signature roles. It was only a matter of time before she would graduate to the title role. Her colleagues knew it even before she did. Once, during a run of "Elektras" she and soprano Deborah Polaski were doing together, the latter told her she wouldn't be singing Chrysothemis much longer. "Why, am I terrible?," Goerke asked. "No, you're just louder than most of the Elektras I know," Polaski replied.
That was just the encouragement Goerke needed. She sang her first Elektra last year in Madrid's Teatro Real – a more traditional production than the one Scottish director David McVicar has created for the Lyric, she reports. She considers the role an ideal fit, vocally as well as dramatically. "I can't say I don't find Elektra difficult to sing – you would have to be loony to think that! – but it's only difficult to sing because there's no time to rest," she explains. "Pacing is the biggest challenge. If you throw yourself into the drama 150 percent all at once, chances are you will expend too much energy too soon and won't be able to finish the piece."
Goerke has nothing but praise for McVicar, conductor Andrew Davis and the rest of the cast Lyric has assembled, including Emily Magee, Jill Grove and Alan Held. "I was over the moon to discover that David was on the same page as I with respect to interpreting Elektra," she says. "These characters are not the most savory of folks – they've had their family issues! I think you will find this a bit more moving than a lot of other productions that are out there."
The singer takes a deep breath and smiles. "I am so honored to be finally making my debut in this house," she says, in a voice as big and generous as her personality. "As exhausting as rehearsals have been, I really look forward to coming in every day and getting down and dirty with the fascinating figure I am portraying."
Lyric Opera opens its season with a new production of Richard Strauss' "Elektra" at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Performances run through Oct. 30; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.
Read John von Rhein's preview of the entire 2012-13 Lyric Opera season Friday in On The Town.Copyright © 2015, RedEye