STEINBERG: Christine Goerke fighting opera’s ‘fat lady’ stereotype

If you are daunted at the prospect of sitting through five hours of Wagner, imagine performing it on stage.

Picture leaping from rock to rock, dressed in armor, crying “Ho-yo-to-ho,” then singing, in German, in tune, and loud enough to be heard over a 93-piece orchestra all the way in the back row of the Civic Opera House 212 feet away.

Contemplate doing what soprano Christine Goerke does night after night in “Die Walküre,” which opens Nov. 1 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“It’s very much like running a marathon,” said Goerke, relaxing after a recent rehearsal for the second part of Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle” that Lyric began last year. “I will be on stage about three hours. It’s very physical.”

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Described by one top critic as “now arguably the finest Wagnerian soprano in the world,” Goerke is whatever the opposite of a diva is: warm, easygoing, quick to laugh, a reminder that when she isn’t traveling the world singing opera, she is a New Jersey mother of two girls and married to a construction superintendent.

“They are the love of my life,” she said.

Goerke sings Brünnhilde, the most recognized character in opera. When Bugs Bunny dons a winged helmet with braids, he is parodying Brünnhilde.

“The huge lady with the braids,” as Goerke describes her. “A stereotype we are fighting right and left.”

It’s a stereotype that, like Bugs, is 75 years old, harkening back to the “park and bark” days when enormous sopranos stood on one spot and belted out arias. While Wagnerian singers can still be large — Goerke is 6 foot and generously proportioned — they also must be fit. Goerke bristled only once in our conversation, when I suggested that her character evokes the adage, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

“No. Absolutely not,” she said. “I am busting my ass to try to be healthy.”

She recently lost 33 pounds and hopes to pare off another 28 by the end of January.

“I literally haven’t had carbohydrates in four months,” she said. “I’m not a teeny girl, but I’m teenier than I was.”

Nor is she alone in the world of opera.

“Everybody works to be as healthy as possible because this is so athletic,” she said. “Does that mean every opera singer is going to look like a Barbie doll? No. Every opera singer is strong, wherever your body happens to be. Some people are a size 6 and do this, and that’s awesome. Some people are a size 18 and do this and that’s also awesome. But you can’t do this if you’re not healthy and strong.”

Critics praise Goerke for the vulnerable humanity she brings to Brünnhilde, a key figure in Wagner’s epic tale of gods and storms, giants and dwarfs struggling over a powerful golden ring.

“She’s an amazing character,” said Goerke, 48. “Of everything that I’ve ever done in my entire career, this one is the gift.”

At the beginning of the opera, Goerke said, Brünnhilde is “a know-it-all teenager — everybody can relate to that one.”

Goerke certainly can. While her daughters, 8 and 10, “kinda like” opera, they sometimes can be as dismissive as any child; one summarized her triumph in “Elektra” with: “You know that blood looked really fake.”

Maturing is also what Brünnhilde is about.

At the start, “she doesn’t understand anything about anything. She only knows what she feels is right, and sets her off on a journey that is terrifying for her and enlightening for her,” said Goerke. “In the end she’s not afraid to make a sacrifice to make things right. She’s a strong woman hero.”

Speaking of heroism, I mentioned how afraid some people are of the opera — to them it’s a place they’d never consider going, one you need both courage and a degree in musicology to face.

“People have this idea that people who come to opera have to be sophisticated,” she said. “You don’t have to know about it, you only have to show up and enjoy it. . . . It’s very cool. And it’s exciting. I so want people to come to this; it’s so different than what they think it is.”

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