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Berg's "Wozzeck" with Skovhus, Goerke, and the BSO

Bo Skovhus and Christina Goerke
Courtesy of the BSO, Opus 3 Artists
Andris Nelsons

Saturday, March 12, and Monday, March 21, 2022
8:00 PM

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Austrian composer’s 1925 opera "Wozzeck," starring soprano Christine Goerke as Marie and baritone Bo Skovhus as the title character.

Andris Nelsons, conductor

Cast to include
Bo Skovhus, baritone (Wozzeck)
Christine Goerke, soprano (Marie)
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano (Margret)
Christopher Ventris, tenor (Drum Major)
Mauro Peter, tenor (Andres)
Franz Hawlata, bass (Doctor)

BERG Wozzeck

See a translation of the Wozzeck libretto.

For a synopsis and notes, visit the BSO.

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Click on the player above to hear Christine Goerke talk with CRB's Ron Della Chiesa about singing the role of Marie in Wozzeck, how film music opened up the emotion of the opera for her, and the camaraderie she shares with her colleagues. She begins by describing her debut with the Boston Symphony, singing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and an unexpected encounter backstage:

Interview transcript:

Christine Goerke [00:00:00] The time that I came in and made the debut here, Robert Shaw was conducting Beethoven 9, because Seiji got ill and he had to cancel. And I remember waiting to go on stage. And growing up, I was a clarinet major, and I was so hardcore into film music and I still am. I'm such a John Williams geek. I am such a superfan. And I was standing ready to go on stage for Beethoven 9, and I looked to my right and two feet from me is John Williams and I almost had a heart attack! And I tried not to hyperventilate, and be cool about it, and I was like, "So excuse me, Mr. Williams, I just, I'm a huge fan, and could you sign this?" And he looked at me and said, "You want me to sign your Beethoven 9 score?" And I said, "It's all I've got." [Laughs] So standing next to him was James Taylor. So I am the only person that I know that has a Beethoven 9 score with John Williams's signature, and James Taylor's in it! [Laughs]

Ron Della Chiesa [00:00:54] He's one of the most beloved, beloved people in the music industry.

Christine Goerke [00:00:58] Of course!

Ron Della Chiesa [00:00:58] You know, young people flock backstage.

Christine Goerke [00:01:00] Yeah.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:01:01] Signed record albums, LP's that they have.

Christine Goerke [00:01:03] Absolutely. Brilliant, brilliant man. And I, luckily in my career, I have had the great fortune to be able to sing a lot of Wagner. And God bless, it is my favorite thing to do when people say, "Oh, Wagner," and I was like, "Oh no, you understand all about Wagner. Let me play some things that you already know by someone else that uses very similar ideas." I never throw the word "leitmotif" out to folks and say, "OK, well, when you hear this, what do you, what is this associated with?" "Well, that's associated with this character, of course." "And when I play this, what is that associated with?" "Well, that's associated with this character." And I said, Well, I'm very glad that you understand how Mr. Williams uses these, and this is exactly the same thing. So congratulations. Now you can listen to the other stuff.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:01:46] Any old movie classic, you know.

Christine Goerke [00:01:47] Brilliant.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:01:48] Turner Classic Movies, all of these great movies. They were indebted to Wagner through Max Steiner, through Korngold.

Christine Goerke [00:01:54] Exactly right.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:01:55] Through the great composer who did "Psycho," Bernard Herrmann.

Christine Goerke [00:01:58] Yes.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:01:59] You know, and John has done those film nights at Tanglewood. They always sell out.

Christine Goerke [00:02:03] Absolutely. I tried to get tickets and I was too late. [Laughs]

Ron Della Chiesa [00:02:07] I want to get back on track about what you're doing right now, because then we can talk about other things. Marie, Wozzeck. First time?

Christine Goerke [00:02:14] First time. Yes. This is an opera I swore I would never get involved with because as everyone who has taken music courses throughout school and perhaps were music majors, every one of us has had our 20th-Century music courses. And of course, this is the score that they dragged out to teach us tone rows, and I wanted to put my head through the wall and said, "I will never touch this piece." And it took me 25 years, but here we are.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:02:41] When did you first hear it?

Christine Goerke [00:02:42] Oh my goodness. It had to be in the early 90s. And I was fascinated by it. But at the time I was learning about the compositional style, and so it was more math than music to me. And it took time for me to be able to put that aside and to really hear the genius and the tonality within the the twelve tone of it all. And I stopped listening to it as though it was an assignment and started listening to it as drama. And that really, really appealed to me. So now I can look at it and listen to it in a very different way.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:03:21] So let's compare it to Wagner. I mean, you are the quintessential Wagnerian singer. How does it compare to Wagner, how do you make that transition? What's different between Wagner and Alban Berg?

Christine Goerke [00:03:33] Well, I mean, certainly the tonality is different, but you know, the sheer brilliance of the orchestration, it is, the orchestration itself is gigantic, and we are having an incredible luxury right now, being on stage with this orchestra and hearing the orchestration in a way that we wouldn't hear if they were in the pit necessarily. I was actually having this conversation with one of the violists not 20 minutes ago, about the fact that it is incredible to be able to hear real intricacies that sometimes get lost when you are on stage. So that said, there are moments of bombastic chaos, and it's gigantic and it is visceral and it shakes your body. And then there are moments that are so transparent and heartbreaking. There's a moment when Marie and Wozzeck are in a scene together, and it is this unbelievable cataclysm of sound, and it literally just, it is, you know, turn the volume up to 11, for you "Spinal Tap" folks. You understand that reference. And then all of a sudden it drops down to nothing, and a C Major triad. It is the most jarring thing in the entire piece for me because it goes from just this bombast to utter simplicity, and it just grabs you in a way that you could not expect.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:05:05] Mm-Hmm.

Christine Goerke [00:05:06] Wagner does that, I think as well. He's brilliant at playing the largeness of the sound versus the whisper of the sound. But this is definitely a different animal. And to me, this is far more about color and intention than the singing of the line when I'm doing Wagner, if that makes any sense,

Ron Della Chiesa [00:05:28] Yeah, no, it does. There are parts of it, too, that are truly horrifying.

Christine Goerke [00:05:34] That's, yes, that's true.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:05:35] I mean, it's like a bad dream that you can't get out of.

Christine Goerke [00:05:38] But isn't that the point? I mean, the amount of storytelling, it is a bad dream that you can't get out of. These people, their lives, it's like walking around in a nightmare so much of the time. And the painting that goes on with the sound and all of the orchestration and the different colors that you hear, you're right. That's exactly how it comes across.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:05:59] This is Jackson Pollock. This is not Debussy.

Christine Goerke [00:06:02] There are times that it is Jackson Pollock, and then all of a sudden it's paint by numbers and it's completely jarring, as I said.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:06:08] Right. What about Marie, what kind of character is she? I mean, she has this affair with this drum major. Poor Wozzeck, you have to have sympathy for this guy. He's like a test tube.

Christine Goerke [00:06:19] Well, yes, you do have to have sympathy for him. I mean, he is like a test tube. There's there's so much going on in his life and he's doing his best to keep everything together and hang on to his sanity. But being in the middle of all of these tests, his demeanor has changed so quickly and so drastically that I can only come at things from my role. So the way that I view a piece, I view it from my character. So this woman who has been with this man for quite some time and they have a child together has just suddenly started to turn and and really fall apart. And she she likes, she likes the guys, she does, and it is difficult for her to find herself in a position where the small happiness that she had and the feeling of security that she had is crumbling. And she sees something that is shiny and a possibility there for her to have some happiness. And she goes for that. And then she feels incredibly guilty two minutes later, and she knows that she's done something that's wrong. I mean, the scene with the Bible is astonishing. You know, there is the grasp for happiness and then the guilt for wanting the happiness.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:07:36] You have the lullaby, too.

Christine Goerke [00:07:38] I do have a lullaby.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:07:38] A big lullaby scene.

Christine Goerke [00:07:39] I do have a lullaby and do my best to lullaby. But you know, it's actually, Marie has some of the most beautifully tonal music in this piece. And then, you know, there are moments, as I say, that are chaotic musically, and they describe beautifully the scenes and things that are going on. I have very quickly fallen in love with this piece. I'm looking forward to doing it on stage at some point, but this is a real luxury of an introduction to it for me with this band and this conductor!

Ron Della Chiesa [00:08:09] Of course, it comes out of Schoenberg. Schoenberg was Berg's teacher, idol, and then Berg wrote Lulu.

Christine Goerke [00:08:15] Yep.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:08:17] Have you considered that?

Christine Goerke [00:08:18] Nope. [Laughs] I would definitely be more of a Geschwitz than a Lulu. Do not have those notes, but I will say that I really love the piece. It was done at the Met not too long ago, and of seven performances I went to six of them.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:08:35] Yeah. You would have enjoyed a piece that the Boston Lyric Opera did called Schoenberg in Hollywood. Did you hear about it?

Christine Goerke [00:08:40] I did not.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:08:41] It's a piece for, the character who plays Schoenberg, and a male and soprano role, and it's all about Schoenberg going to Hollywood and getting involved with all these Hollywood producers. It's a 90 minute piece, and it did very well in Boston.

Christine Goerke [00:08:57] That's brilliant. I'm going to have to look it up.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:08:58] It had some legs. I think it went to Vienna.

Christine Goerke [00:09:01] Oh, that's wonderful to know. Well, I will look into it.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:09:03] I think it's wonderful to know that people are discovering this music, you know, through Schoenberg and Berg for the first time, and they're not backing away from it.

Christine Goerke [00:09:13] No.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:09:14] Throw yourself in.

Christine Goerke [00:09:15] Well, I agree. But you know, there's more to it than that. I think that, again, I'm a movie music fan, and I think that people don't quite understand the astonishing amount of detail that goes into that kind of writing and how much storytelling happens when they're not paying attention. And as you say, all of this has come through, through all of this old movie music. And to me, this is so much more akin to what people actually have heard in the theaters, but they just don't know it. So when they hear this in person, it's not terribly unfamiliar to them in a way.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:09:56] Christine Goerke at the movies. I could just see it. You know you're right about it, and once you get hooked into that bag, the movie world, David Raskin, for example, I had the pleasure of interviewing him. What a charming man. And you know, the lineage between that and some of the other movies, you hear Schoenberg and Berg and some other scores. Some of these horror movies, you know, they are all dipping into that world and it's so rich.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:10:20] It is true. And I mean, what's amazing is that every composer sort of tosses in something from somebody else, just a slight homage here and there. And I was laughing today because, again, things that we don't necessarily get to hear. And I happened to be offstage when the band was playing for the tavern scene and I laughed hysterically because there's a little passage right in the accordion that started with [Sings]. And I said, "Oh, well, there's Marriage of Figaro right there." [Laughs] You know, and tiny bits and things. You know, it's brilliant when you get to be on the inside of some jokes. So it's, I'm always fascinated in a piece that is this dense, musically, to -- and I will admit that it is absolutely lovely to hear Maestro Nelsons being able to pull the transparencies out of this incredibly dense score -- to be able to hear things that really can get lost when you are watching the piece in its entirety. It's a very cool opportunity to get to be able to be in the hall for this and experience it with the orchestra on stage.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:11:27] You're doing more things now, things are opening up. Fortunately, little bit more day by day. You know, you talk about some of these things on Screaming Divas. But those were recorded earlier when everybody was really masked up.

Christine Goerke [00:11:41] That's right.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:11:43] Are the opportunities opening up more and more for you now?

Christine Goerke [00:11:46] They are. A lot of the things that have always been in my schedule are going forward and I'm incredibly grateful for that. Some things that were not planned. And you know, this is the time when every organization in the arts has sort of had to punt and rethink how things are going forward, what is available, who is available, what is going to make financial sense for everyone. You know, this was not just a lack of art for everyone, which was already devastating, but the fact that art organizations are still viable and healthy. I'm so grateful for every single one of them that's still here. And so I have had things added to my schedule that weren't in my schedule before. It's exciting. I have some new roles coming up. So it's, you know, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. [Laughs] I'll be 53 this year, so I'm excited to take on all kinds of new things.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:12:41] You're just getting started.

Christine Goerke [00:12:42] That's right.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:12:44] You have been able to capture in your career, and not unlike a lot of divas of your type in the past. I think about Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel, Nilsson. They all have great senses of humor. They all, I mean, it must be because in a way you want to get away from all this serious stuff and have a ball. But still, you're all, you're all very upbeat.

Christine Goerke [00:13:07] Well, I tell you, it's--

Ron Della Chiesa [00:13:08] As compared to, I don't mean to disparage other categories, you know.

Christine Goerke [00:13:13] As opposed to?

Ron Della Chiesa [00:13:14] Verismo singers, you know?

Christine Goerke [00:13:15] Well, I'm glad you did, and I didn't have to do it. But I, no, listen, there is a definite difference and those of us who lean into the German for the most part, we all know it because we leave and we want to run out the back door and meet each other for a beer and a burger, or a beer and a bratwurst or whatever it is. And you know, there's, everyone knows how incredibly difficult this is. And so when we're on stage with each other, there's only a handful of us. There's no reason to feel competitive. There's only reason to hold each other up. And that has been one of the greatest gifts of moving into this repertoire. It's a small family of the folks who do this, this kind of rep. We all know each other. And so when we do jobs together, it's like coming home. We have to leave our families, but we know we're going to the family that we have, our "other's" family, you know? So it's amazing to get back out there and get to see these people again. I've missed them.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:14:13] You've been able to combine this fabulous family life with your two daughters who were with you right from the beginning.

Christine Goerke [00:14:18] Yeah.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:14:19] How's that working out to this day?

Christine Goerke [00:14:21] Well, you know, they're teenagers, so they hate me now. And that's probably about right. It just depends on the day. I'm either the devil or I'm, you know, giving them something to work towards their learner's permit. So, you know, I hold some cards. They love what I do. They love to see that I am out there doing something that I find fulfilling.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:14:43] But they used to come along with you. I remember meeting them at Tanglewood.

Christine Goerke [00:14:47] That's right.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:14:48] When you were out there.

Christine Goerke [00:14:49] They do still come sometimes. You know, it's just, you know, they're teenagers now and they want their time and they're learning about who they are. And I mean, they're proud of me and that means more to me than anything. But you know, I'm a mom and they need to find their way and I don't need them at everything that I do. I need them to find what makes them happy. And so that makes me happy.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:15:12] Well, you made a lot of other people happy, not only with your great art, but with your personality.

Christine Goerke [00:15:16] Well, thank you.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:15:17] You know, years ago, it wasn't always like that. There was a lot of elitism.

Christine Goerke [00:15:20] Really?

Ron Della Chiesa [00:15:20] In opera, you know? Yeah. Oh yeah. Robert Merrill got fired once for singing and making a movie out in Hollywood. Robert Merrill.

Christine Goerke [00:15:28] Oh boy.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:15:28] You can't do that. Helen Traubel. She said, "No, I'm going to do it." She went on the Jimmy Durante show, you know? And she had a ball with Jimmy Durante, but a few of them broke the ice for the younger members of the opera who were like you.

Christine Goerke [00:15:41] Well, thank god for them.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:15:43] To do that and bringing the younger people into the house. There's a great photo of you in front of Lincoln Center, with the Brünnhilde regalia on with all those kids.

Christine Goerke [00:15:51] Oh, that was an amazing day.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:15:52] That says it all.

Christine Goerke [00:15:54] Ok, so, I will just tell you quickly this story about that. We went out because the Met photographer wanted to take some pictures in front of the Met with the costume on, and there was a school tour going through at the time. And I don't know which Marvel movie had just come out, but these kids were absolutely positive that I was part of a Marvel movie and they were determined to come over and like, talk to me and hang out. And there was one young man in particular who was so adorable, and he just insisted on having a picture with me by himself. And I went up to his teacher and she said, You have no idea he just lost some folks in his life. You don't know what this meant to him today. And I marched directly back inside and I said, I need your number and I need your email address and managed to make sure that he got tickets to come and see the show.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:16:45] That's great.

Christine Goerke [00:16:46] But this is, you're right, breaking that kind of mold. It's not that anymore. There's nothing elitist about what we do. Inviting everyone in, taking the chances to cross over, however we feel necessary.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:16:59] Yeah.

Christine Goerke [00:17:00] It breaks down the barriers. And I hope it is showing people that this is not some crazy art form for your grandparents or your great grandparents or their grandparents. This is something that's really accessible and very cool for you to come see today,

Ron Della Chiesa [00:17:12] And some of those artists were doing that earlier, like Eileen Farrell.

Christine Goerke [00:17:16] Yes!

Ron Della Chiesa [00:17:16] She called herself the crossover queen.

Christine Goerke [00:17:18] That's right. I have some of the albums.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:17:19] She started recording the standards, you know, and that's great. Thank you so much for taking time. Christine, it's always a joy to be around and hang out with you.

Christine Goerke [00:17:28] Yes, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Ron Della Chiesa [00:17:29] And we'll see you back at Tanglewood.

Christine Goerke [00:17:31] You will, and I hope everything will move forward this summer and we will have ridiculous crowds and a wonderful time.