US soprano Deborah Voigt talks to us about her biggest public set back and teaching a new generation of opera stars ahead of her Abu Dhabi Festival performance
Down to earth diva Deborah Voigt finds wisdom after scandal
Despite the historic venues and regal outfits, the opera world and the entertainment industry go hand in hand.
With the entertainment world increasingly crowded, some savvy marketing is needed to keep your star shining.
Herbert Breslin knew this when advising the celebrated US soprano Deborah Voigt nearly two decades ago. The man knew what he was talking about – he made his reputation by steering the career of the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
“What we really need is a scandal,” he said, according to Voigt’s 2015 memoir, Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva.
Voigt was slightly taken aback by the approach. Can scandals be created, she thought, and how would you go about doing one anyway?
Controversy over Royal Opera House dismissal
As it turned out, Voigt didn’t have to resort to dark marketing. She found herself in the middle of one of the most controversial moments to hit London’s theatre district in recent times.
In 2004, she was dismissed from her signature title role at Covent Garden in the Royal Opera House’s production of Strauss’s Aariande auf Naxos, because of her ample figure. Where the opera normally employs looser period costume, the London production had a modern touch with Voigt reportedly replaced by German singer Anne Schwanewilms, after not fitting into the “little black dress”.
Speaking to The National before her appearance at Emirates Palace tonight as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, Voigt is philosophical about that episode.
“I can laugh about it at times, but if I also look at where I was in life, with what was going on with my body and my weight, it was out of control,” she says.
“There’s no question that when I walked on stage I was a poster child for obesity.”
The resulting controversy remains a blight on the ROH’s prestigious reputation, but, ironically, it benefited Voigt, who used the fees owed to her from the production to fund gastric bypass surgery that resulted in the weight she has maintained ever since.
While the mean-spiritedness of the decision can sometimes rankle, Voigt is pleased at the furor and resulting discussion. With the Me Too movement raising pertinent issues regarding women’s rights in the entertainment industry today, she is convinced no other artist will go on to face the same humiliation.
Her career after surgery
Despite fears that the operation would affect her powerful voice, Voigt’s career gathered strength. She performed her first Tosca with the Vienna State Opera in 2006 and starred in the rare and anticipated performance of the 1776 opera Alceste by German composer Christoph Gluck in New York City’s Lincoln Centre.
With her career at the three-decade mark, Voigt is content now to pick and choose her jobs, with most of her time taken by teaching vocals at San Francisco’s Conservatory of Music. As part of her Abu Dhabi visit, Voigt will also deliver masterclasses to aspiring singers.
While pleased with her students’ determination, she says she tempers her technical training with a dose of reality. “From what I see from students is that they have little of what I might call tunnel vision. They see the prize ahead, but they don’t understand what they’re going to have to jump over to get there,” she says.
“It’s a difficult place to be as a teacher, because on the one hand you want to encourage them to be the best they can, of course. On the other hand, if I have a student who I think is going to have a more difficult time creating a career for themself, well it may be a difficult conversation because I don’t want to disappoint them. I remember also not knowing about my ability at their their age either. I just took one opportunity, then took the next one. and I was lucky and blessed.”
'I only knew I loved to sing'
That said, while it took Voigt time to sharpen her skills, there was no doubt what she wanted to be. Indeed, Just Call Me Debbie begins with a 14-year-old Voigt hearing a voice from within in the early morning that said: “You are here to sing.”
“I never imagined myself becoming a world-famous dramatic soprano who’d share the stages of the biggest opera houses in the world with the most celebrated vocalists of our time,” she wrote.
“I didn’t yearn to meet presidents, princes, Pavarottis, and Placidos. As a child, I only knew I loved to sing.”
Voigt’s parents didn’t hear the same tune. At the time, Voigt was an exuberant and outgoing child, something her parents tempered through strict discipline and allowing her to sing only in church.
“I certainly wasn’t really aware of any ability when I was little, except my parents looking at me very oddly as I danced around the living room. I think that stuck with my parents for quite a long time before they realised that I could indeed make a living and be very successful,” she says. “When it came to myself, it was my teacher, who was an opera singer, who led me down that path. She said my voice clearly was made to be an opera singer, but I do often think: ‘Well, what if she had been a country and western singer or a musical theatre singer?’ What would my life look like? It would have been completely different.”
Some of those hidden passions will come to light during Voigt’s Abu Dhabi performances. In addition to her renowned takes of Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Strauss, she will pepper her set with some Broadway standards by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, Kern and Sondheim.
Intriguingly, Voigt will also give voice to compositions by American composers, including the 20th-century artist Amy Beach – known as the first successful female classical composer in the US –and the still active Pulitzer Prize-winner William Bolcom.
“I have not had the opportunity on the opera stage, certainly, to sing in my native language. That just doesn’t happen for me. So I wanted to present a programme that would be easily absorbed by a person who is not necessarily a fan of classical vocal music. But at the same time, it is a goal of mine to really present composers that I had never sung,” she says.
“It’s difficult, at this point in my life, to discover what I want to sing operatically. I don’t want to sing roles that I was known for doing, at this point in my life, because I can’t sing them as well as I did 10 years ago. That’s just the reality of the way that voices mature and the way careers mature.
Deborah Voigt performs at Emirates Palace Auditorium, Abu Dhabi, Thursday at 8pm. Tickets from Dh200 www.abudhabifestival.ae