It takes money to make art. Yet, it should never be an excuse to take advantage of people who go into the industry for their passion. As such, there needs to be a balance. In this last of “The Relationship Between Business and Art” series, Elizabeth Bachman interviews Christine Goerke, aka Heldenmommy, to talk about the need to maintain the balance between business and the arts and our personal lives. Christine has appeared in the major opera houses of the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, La Scala, and a host of others. Through her experiences, she shares with us the things she learned about standing out and having visibility as a leader. She then tells us more about living a balanced life and how she helps her team step forward and become future leaders themselves.
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Heldenmommy – Balancing Valkyrie, Business, And Family With Christine Goerke
LAST Of “The Relationship Between Business And Art”
This is the part of the special series where we’re talking about what business can learn from the arts. I am happy to have my guest here, Christine Goerke. I’m excited and her bio is long and involved. I’m going to give you the condensed version because otherwise, we’d be here all day. Soprano Christine Goerke has appeared in the major opera houses of the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Opera Berlin, La Scala, and many others. She’s also sung with most of the great orchestras around the world. She’s sung the great soprano repertoire, starting with Mozart and Handel, which is what you were doing when we first met and you were a young artist.
I was working backstage in those days. Now she’s earning critical acclaim for the dramatic Strauss and Wagner roles. These are the loud ladies like Elektra, Turandot, Brünnhilde in the Ring Cycle. She was the recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, which is given to one singer a year, it’s a big deal, the 2015 Musical America Vocalist of the Year Award, and the 2017 Opera News Award. What I love about Christine is that she’s a soprano who thinks, which isn’t always the case with singers. I love singers and spent 30 years working with them, it’s not always an asset for a singer to have a brain, to think hard. Christine, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
The first thing I want to start with is, who would be your dream interview? If you could interview somebody from history, who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them and who should be listening?
It’s funny, I thought about this question because the broadest term history, I could certainly speak to anyone, but as far as the direction that my mind and my life hopefully are going to be taking me in the next 25 years, the people that I would like to speak to who is no longer with us are people that we’ve lost rather recently in the grand scheme of history. There are two women that I would love to speak to. I would love to speak to Ardis Krainik and also Beverly Sills. These two ladies were both singers, very famous. Beverly Sills was before she was a general director of New York City Opera and Ardis Krainik was also a singer, but she came into being the general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago through the long haul. She took a job as a typist at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and she sang some mezzo-soprano roles and learned the ropes from the inside out. When she was appointed general director, I believe in 1982 until she’d served through 1997, she had found out everything she could from the inside out. I’m sorry I’m picking two because that’s how I do.
That would be a cool joint interview.
They were not the same kind of administrator, but they both made unbelievable strides where women were not necessarily making strides at the time and they weren’t trailblazers.
Managing multimillion-dollar budgets, thank you very much. Let’s mention that.The arts, as with any company, really need to change with the times. Click To Tweet
In an arena where most of the budget comes from donor-based income, so that’s an entirely other thing and that’s part of what I would ask them about. Who should be listening? Anybody in the arts, or anybody honestly. These are women who stepped out of the bounds of where they belonged and they stepped into a leadership position and not only led effectively, they created huge profits and a new system for the companies that they worked for and successful ones. The arts, as with any company I suppose, need to change with the times. These ladies were able to do that in a big way. Anybody should be listening.
Any business needs to change with the times. It’s true and it’s hard to do that, especially if you’re at an institution, a large company. The arts are a business, which takes advantage of a lot of people’s passion where people will work for free because they love it so much, but it is a business.
It has to be a business. It takes money to make art happen, but at the same time, there has to be a fine balance with the arts. There’s a saying, “Nobody goes into the arts to make money.” That’s not what we do, but that said, there has to be a balance between budgetary considerations, running the business, dealing with the board, and paying attention to the art that is coming out of the business. That’s a fine line to walk in general.
I remember early in my career, I worked at the San Diego Opera and I would do shows directed by the great Tito Capobianco who was also the general director of the company. He was constantly late to rehearsals because he would stop by the office beforehand. He was directing a show. He was also balancing all the general director stuff. When I first started there, there was a sardonic stage manager who would come up here and say, “Do you have any time for the product? This is the product, this show.” It’s easy to get involved. A classic thing in business and management is that the higher you go, the farther you get from the actual product. I did a series of training for a major construction company. I was working for the employee resource groups to help them step forward and future leaders.
One of the questions I would ask the people who said, “I’m going to put myself forward as a leader,” I said, “You have to think about this. The more you are in the administration, the farther you get from the actual product.” There were a couple of them who said, “I love being an electrical foreman and I’m going to miss getting my hands dirty. Let me be the best I can be at this point, but I don’t think I want to go into administration because I want to be connected to the bones of this building as it goes up.” It’s the same thing with any creation. You’re creating a software, a widget that you sell, a program, an opera, or a concert. Tell us what you have learned about standing out in visibility and standing out as a leader?
It’s funny when I tell people that I was wildly introverted when I was younger, they don’t believe me. It took the arts to bring me out of me. I had the worst grammar I have ever used in my life. It was interesting because even in the beginnings of my career, it was always a surprise to me that I was having a career. We had a conversation about this at one point. When you start out in the arts, when you’re younger, it’s a wonderful, fun thing. It’s new to you. It’s all travel, stage magic. I can’t quite say glamour because sometimes you’re not glamorous, but it is wonderful and exciting. The further along you go, if you are as lucky as I have been to do this, I’ve been doing this for 26 years, which astonishes me every day, it becomes something different.
You don’t necessarily lose your love for it, but you do start to understand that it is a business and you have to run your life as though it is fun. If you end up in a position where your visibility, it becomes something strong and it must be taken with equal parts of responsibility. You are in a position to stand strong for things. Especially in the arts, you are visible. Social media has become a huge part of our lives. Keeping the right social media presence, knowing what things to share, what things are not to be public. Everyone’s entitled to whatever they want to feel, but what is it that you want to put out to your audience? This has been a huge learning curve. I work with a lot of young singers. This is something that is the first thing I tell them, “The internet is forever. Be careful about the you that you put out there.”
Your image, your personal brand if you will. When you are lucky, another thing that you had were sponsors and allies, which is important in a career. Anybody who’s reading who is thinking about a career, talk a little bit about sponsors, mentors, and allies. In your mind, what’s the difference?
There are sponsors who are allies. That don’t necessarily mean that those two things are always combined. I’ve had sponsors in the way of monetary sponsors, people who have foundations who wanted to get behind my product. This is the funny thing, and I suspect it’s the same across any business. If one person buys into what you are doing and becomes a sponsor, suddenly everyone wants a piece. If you get the right person to take an interest, you can carefully and wisely use that to drum up more interest.
That’s a good part of leveraging.
What we do as a singer is when we were younger, we do a lot of competitions. We all dress up in our finest and we wander out and we sing our bits. The judges who are generally people who are higher up in our business, people who are perhaps casting directors, other singers, people who are agents, people who have artistic casting abilities within companies, they all speak to other people as well. As far as that works, those people could be sponsors if they hand you some money, which is lovely. I also find that sometimes when you are looking for sponsorship, that is also a huge part of networking. Just because you don’t get a sponsorship, it doesn’t mean that you have failed. You have spoken to people who may speak to other people about you. This is a huge portion of that for me. Allies, we always find the people who want to help us. The people that want to help us aren’t necessarily the ones who have the money to back us, but that isn’t the only way to help. The networking, like I mentioned and sharing of ideas. Brainstorming sessions between my colleagues and I have been huge.
Consulting allies who are peers.
It’s a big deal because that requires a lot of trusts, especially if you’re in a business where you’re technically competing with each other.
There’s only one person who gets the same Brünnhilde each night.
That’s true but that’s something that’s lovely about this new repertoire that I’ve gotten into. I always laugh because when I speak to people who don’t know opera, I say, “You’ve seen Bugs Bunny, spear and magic helmet? I’m Bugs Bunny.” That’s it. There’s not a lot of us that do that. I’m lucky to have gone from being the little fish in the big pool to being a big fish in a little pool. Because there are only many of us who do what I do, I can’t say there’s no competition. We all are always wondering, “Why is she getting?” There’s always that, “What’s going on?” There’s no ill-feeling. If I wanted to shoot off an email to a colleague who does the same thing that I do and say, “I’m having a problem with this. I heard you do this. What do you do?” they will tell you in a moment. There’s no danger of them losing job over sharing information. If you are lucky enough to find that rapport with your peers, that is important.
Sponsors and mentors can make a huge difference in one’s career. One of the things that have helped me a lot is to find people who are outside my business and who know people in my business. When I was running TOP Opera and I did that for eleven years, we had a lot of young singers, I would always remind them that the people who worked the other singers, they had to talk to the audience because they are the customer. They’re the people who’ve come to pay to come to see you. In a business where fewer than 5% ever wind up doing it and fewer than 5% of them wind up lasting more than ten years, chances are good that little lady who comes because she loves Mozart had the same training you did, but took a different path, chose not to do that. These are people you want to keep around you. Where you are is comparable to being at a C-level at a corporation. You are one of the top sopranos in the world and things might change. As you said, companies might change, the business changes or somebody else comes along who also wants your job.
Younger and cheaper, is what you’re saying?The more you are in the administration, the farther you get from the actual product. Click To Tweet
Yeah. Younger and cheaper, there is always that. The world loves wunderkind. Everybody wants to know who’s hot, who’s new, who’s great.
Isn’t that something that’s an interesting balance as well though? It is something that the world does want and there are brilliant young people who are coming up, and I can say that because now I’ve hit the big 50, use the words ‘young people.’ There is certainly room for everyone. The new ideas that are coming in from someone who is say 25, straight out of college, ready to do this, they are going to bring something different to it, but it doesn’t negate the knowledge or experience that I bring to it.
That’s a great way to put it, that your experience and knowledge is just as valuable. Here’s another thought, this is something about making a presentation. This is a question I get from speakers all the time, which is speakers are asked to talk about their specialty and there are a lot of other people who do that. A lot of times, speakers will say, “I don’t know what makes me new or different or is it the same old thing? How do I make it new and for me?” Here you are singing repertoire, some of which is 200 years old and we’ve been listening to it for a long time. How do you make a performance you? How do you make it interesting for people who’ve seen it a million times?
People have been given information through this medium and opera thousands of times, but people haven’t seen me do it. What is different about when I step on stage, you step on stage, someone else steps on stage, they are bringing their own experience, life stories, emotions, and reactions. Largely, what I do is not just about music. This is the cool thing about opera. The music is beautiful. We have to sing. We will open up a score and have a ton of words. We’ve got the text. When someone wants to tell a story, everybody’s heard of Goodnight Moon or The Cat in the Hat.
If two different people read that story, you will get two different understandings of how it should go. If five different people read that story, you will get five different interpretations of how that should go. On any given day, that person could read that story to you again and something else might’ve happened to them in the week between the last time they’ve heard it. They’ll give you a different interpretation of what that story is getting at. I will say that it is impossible to relay the same information in the same way because there are no two people that are the same.
That’s important for speakers and presenters is you’re also bringing your background and your specialized knowledge and why it matters to you so that you can make it matter to the audience. Communicating, that’s another important thing.
Bringing a different perspective perhaps. Just because it’s the same information, it doesn’t mean it’s coming from the same perspective. That’s important to remember as well.
I’m going to ask you about an international life. There are a lot of people who read this blog who are in business, who before pre-COVID-19 were on airplanes all the time going back and forth and going to meetings around the world. Now, we’re doing it all on Zoom. We’re recording this during the COVID-19 shutdown. We don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. Talk about what you’ve learned about cultural differences if you’re doing the same role in a different country.
It depends upon the audience. Directors who get a hold of what we do. We singers, we turn up and they say, “This is the piece that we’re doing.” I come and I have my role memorized. I’m ready to go. We talked about this. I know my texts. I know what I would like to say. I know what the music does. The director will have a completely different idea and this is part of the collaboration, which is important. My job is not to lose myself while still doing what I am being asked to do. It’s interesting because depending on where I will be working, the results that end up on the stage is because the general director, the head of the company, understands their public and their audience, knows what product to offer them to keep them involved. I will go to one part of the world where things have to be unbelievably conservative.
They have to be, I don’t want to use the words old fashioned, but in a way, old fashioned in the grand scheme of what I do now. If there’s a term that they used to talk about with opera singers and that’s park and bark. We’d wander out on stage and stand still and sing a bunch of things and turn around and leave. Now, people will tell you, “Be ready to do acrobatics. Are you okay with doing trapeze work? Are you alright with being upside down? Do you have a fear of heights? Are you okay with animals?” There are all kinds of crazy things that happen and it’s wonderful. Some places are ready for more progressive things and some places are not. Understanding culturally what you need to provide and how far you can push is important in having a success financially, mostly because people will not come otherwise.
That’s rule one of any speech and presentation is make it about the audience. What is the audience ready to hear? That’s a huge part of what I do as a presentation skills trainer is help people analyze who’s listening and what do you want from them so that you can deliver it in a way that they can take it in. I was living in New York and I did a speech in Wisconsin, a suburban Rotary group, and I use a Yiddish word, which has not terribly polite meaning. In New York, it’s general usage. In Wisconsin, they were mortally offended. It’s one of the worst speeches I’ve ever given. I realized that I was assuming I was talking to a New York hip, New York urban audience, and this audience didn’t get it at all. My jokes weren’t funny because they didn’t get it.
It’s a fine line to walk, isn’t it? I always say that, “Know your audience.” Part of what I love to do, and you alluded to this, I do love to speak to the audience. I do love to get out there and talk to people about this. Part of what my social media presence has been to be open and allow people to chat with me. I’m interested in what they have to say. I don’t have to agree with them, but I am interested to know what people are after because that helps me do my job. That is a huge part of it, isn’t it? You also have to know as far as what you can deliver, where is the line that you can walk and how far can you push a bit to expand people’s thinking? The danger is going too far. How do you deal with that?
I think about it a lot. I work in Europe a lot. Fortunately for me, English is the international language of business. When I’m working with somebody, we are talking about English, which is the language I don’t have to think about. I’m also fluent in French, German, Italian and Spanish, if they say, “I don’t know how to say this,” I say, “Say it in Italian. Here’s how you want to do that.” I’m also careful to choose references that make sense to an international audience. I’m not going to refer to an American children’s show or American slang, for instance. There are plenty of times where I will use a simpler word rather than sounding educated and polysyllabic and I have an extensive vocabulary because they’re easier to understand, especially when you are listening instead of reading. Diction is another big thing that opera singers have to learn and talk about that a lot. Here’s another big topic, which is when you go off to do say, you’re singing Brünnhilde in Germany, you’re leaving your family behind. The work-life balance is something that had happened with men and women in business where either mom or dad is gone a lot. How do you see your colleagues dealing with it?
When I started, I wasn’t married, had no children and I’m old enough to say that the internet was not a thing. I still remember the commercials saying, “The information superhighway is coming.” I thought, “What’s that?” Once that arrived, it changed everything for parents in our business and for family. We don’t have to be parents. We travel and leave partners behind. This is a difficult situation. When I first started, I spoke to my colleagues who were older and more experienced and I said, “How do you do this?” They said, “We have incredible phone bills.” I remember having this conversation in Tokyo the first time I was there with a colleague and I thought, “I’ll never be able to do this.” Suddenly, Skype was a thing and now we have a million different ways to keep in touch via video chat. You and I are not around the corner from each other, but we are having this conversation. I hop on and have a coffee with my colleagues who are in Japan and New Zealand and that’s fine and normal now. As my daughter say, “It is wonderful, but it’s not a hug.” This is a difficult thing. I know that this is my job and this is the way that I have to make money.
It is my career. It is my job. This is the way I go to work and I pay my bills. Getting in the car and leaving for the airport, I can’t tell you the percentage of times that I got in the car and cried all the way to the airport. Leaving my children crying at the door, this is a difficult situation as far as finding the balance. What I tell everybody in my business, when they asked me, “When is the right time to do this? How should I do this?” I say, “There’s never a right time.” There’s never a time that having a family and a partner will not turn your life upside down. That’s your life though. That’s the part you need to keep in mind. The balance is a game of percentages and you get to choose what those are. If you feel 90% of careers, 10% family is your thing, cool. You feel 50/50 is your thing, cool. You could make anything up. It’s what is right for you and no one will have the same situation as you. It is something that is malleable and it changes for me constantly. I’ve been doing it for 26 years. I’m a bit more ready to spend more time at home. I’ll be honest.
Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, sheltering in place. Have your girls said, “Okay, mom, time for you to hit the road again?”
At the beginning, all I heard was, “You’re never here enough.” They were screaming at me and I thought, “Yes, do it right.” I said, “Be careful what you ask for.” I have teenagers, so they either love me or hate me no matter what.If we all don't tap into that bit of ego, we can't really function and show people who we are. Click To Tweet
That’s a wonderful thing about teenagers is about 2021, those darling children that you raised will come back.
This is what I hear. I’m excited about it.
One more thing I want to ask you, let’s talk about image and being a woman. We talked about Ardis Krainik and Beverly Sills beforehand of going from the diva image to the leader image. How do you deal with that? You had to deal with image early on because as a soprano, you are tall. How do you deal with being taller than the guys?
I’m used to this and my favorite thing about doing opera was, “You can’t be taller than the men.” I said, “Let me tell you how many guys that I’ve dated were ready to climb up the tree.” It’s fine. It’s not a thing.
It’s perception, that’s the thing. It is all about perception and that’s how personal branding and how you dress and how you look is still something that people notice and people make assumptions about you.
What I try to do, and what I learned is that I can use this to my advantage in the beginning. I’m 6’0,” and I have gone between being relatively I would never say I was thin, but I was curvy and I’ve gone back and forth between curvy and less size. You see a 6’0” plus-sized lady coming at you, people take that as intimidating. I am the least intimidating person on the planet. I was uncomfortable with people finding me that way. I leaned hard into my humor to try to break the ice for a long time until I realized that it put me in a powerful position. I could make a decision about how I want to hold people’s attention.
I could be that person who jokes around and puts everybody at ease, or I could be someone who stands up straight and demands and commands attention from people. I did it on stage all the time, but somehow in my personal life, I wasn’t able to do that. It’s funny because onstage, we pretend. We become somebody else. I learned quickly that I could adopt a similar way of life offstage and turned it on and off. When I would have to go into auditions, it’s the same thing as going into a meeting with a small amount of people. I’d be nervous about walking in the door. There are no costumes. There’s no pic, no scenery. There’s nothing to let people not see me.
You are the product too. You are selling yourself. That was a job interview.
Every single time, it’s a job interview. I got nervous about it at one point. Before I open the door, I reminded myself of exactly who I wanted to walk in the door. I’ve picked bits of different characters because of their attributes. I decided I’m going to think about this character because she is powerful. I’m going to think about this woman because she is wise. I’m going to think about this woman because she’s playful but smart. I’m going to stand up straight and go in there and be all of these people. The funny thing is, I wasn’t being all of these people. I was pulling those things out of myself.
What you are offering is your gift to the listeners. That’s the other thing that I talk to women all the time where they think, “If I’m asking for a job, I am begging for something that I need that’s going to hurt them,” rather than saying, “I am an asset, a gift. I am going to be the answer to your problem.”
Everybody wants you to be the answer to their problems, or they wouldn’t be having the interview. They wouldn’t be coming to listen to you speak. They want you to be able to solve the problems and they believe in you the minute you walk into the door. If you walk in and understand that, you put yourself in a position that is different than walking in and feeling like you’re hoping this will work out.
It goes back to make it about them because if you’re there hoping it’s going to work out and feeling less than, you’re stuck in your own head as opposed to making it about them and what I can offer you is my skill, my talent, my presence.
It’s funny because it requires a bit of ego to do that and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hate that the word egotistical has such a negative connotation. There is excessive ego, but if we all don’t tap into that bit of ego, we can’t function. We can’t show people who we are. I keep talking about the line to walk. There’s always a line to walk.
I call it the tire up.
Turn right up to it and be on the line.
Christine Goerke, this is fun. I’m happy. I’m excited to hear what’s happening next and I may have to have you on again a little bit and do maybe a follow-up interview because I’m sure there’s a lot more that we can talk about.
I would love that.
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About Christine Goerke
Soprano Christine Goerke has appeared in the major opera houses of the world including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, La Scala and a host of others. She has also sung at the great orchestras around the world.
Classics Today said: “So few singers live up to their hype –– but not Christine Goerke, now arguably the finest Wagnerian soprano in the world.”
She has sung much of the great soprano repertoire, starting with the Mozart and Handel heroines and now earning critical acclaim for the dramatic Strauss and Wagner roles. Elektra, Turandot, and Brünnhilde in the Ring Cycle.
Ms. Goerke was the recipient of the 2001 Richard Tucker Award, the 2015 Musical America Vocalist of the Year
Award, and the 2017 Opera News Award.
In addition, she is a singer who THINKS.