Few voices can meet the vocal demands of roles such as Isolde and Brünnhilde—which means that at any given moment in history, the list of true dramatic sopranos is a short one. In recent decades Deborah Voigt’s name has figured prominently on that list. With acclaimed performances of Wagnerian heroines as well as the more dramatic roles by Puccini and Verdi, Voigt’s career has crisscrossed the Atlantic and included important premieres at major houses from Vienna to the Met. And just over a decade ago, Voigt made headlines and became a talking point on cultural attitudes towards obesity after being released from a production of Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden because she didn’t “fit the concept” (read: “fit the dress”).
Behind the remarkable résumé and sensational news stories, Voigt’s life trajectory has traversed the challenging terrain of addiction, as she openly and compellingly relates in her autobiography, Call Me Debbie, published last year by HarperCollins. These days, the self-described “down-to-earth diva,” now 56, is still singing, including a successful turn as Marie in Wozzeck in the 2014 season at the Met. But she is also performing a one-woman show, Voigt Lessons, created with playwright Terrence McNally and director Francesca Zambello, and has created the Deborah Voigt Competition in collaboration with Vero Beach Opera (where she is also artistic advisor). In addition to this more diverse schedule of engagements, Voigt has accepted a full-time teaching position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to begin in the fall of 2016.
The day we spoke, I found Voigt in preparations for her pending move from her home back east for her new position at the San Francisco Conservatory. Our conversation was dotted with interruptions as she told the movers, “This chair goes!” and “No, only that one—leave the rest.”
How do you feel about the move?
I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment, but I think that’s just the logistics of it. I’m excited about it. It’s a position I hadn’t thought I would accept quite yet in my life and career, because I’m still singing quite a bit. It was very smart of President Stull to grab me when he did.
There’s a lot about San Francisco Conservatory that appealed to me. The school is really working hard to make a jump in its profile and the level of students, and I’m excited to be a part of that. Juilliard is already a well-oiled machine. I wanted to go somewhere I could really be a help in achieving some of their goals.
I am also a student of your current teacher, David Jones, and your first mentor was Jane Paul Hummel at [Cal State] Fullerton. Can you talk about some of your other teachers, between Jane and David? And what advice would you give to singers about finding or staying with the right teacher?
I’ve had very few teachers and I think that’s important. I think singers can be lured away by the teacher of the moment because suddenly there’s a star coming out of one studio or another. The most important thing, as you know from working with David, is that you find a teacher that you can really understand in terms of the imagery that they use. When I got to New York I needed to find a teacher, and a pianist I was working with mentioned Ruth Falcon. She was kind of at the same point in her life that I am now. She was still singing a lot, thinking about doing some teaching. She had a great technique and I thought I’d go have a lesson with her—and I ended up staying in her studio for 17 years. And really only left because I had been her student for the longest period of time and felt I needed new information and to be stimulated with a different language, and that’s when I decided to go to David.
Your Chrysothemis in the production of Elektra singing opposite Hildegard Behrens at the Met in 1992—was that the role that really made you feel like, “Wow! I’m a dramatic soprano!” Or what do you consider your breakthrough role in terms of understanding your instrument?
That was a big one, without question. Then Ariadne was the next dramatic moment, if you will. I was lucky that I had teachers who advised me well as far as repertoire. I don’t think I ever took on anything too dramatic too soon. Isolde came up sooner than I’d have thought to sing her. But it was a new production in Vienna with Christian Thielemann conducting and a long rehearsal period, and those kinds of opportunities just don’t come up all the time.
But certainly that Chrysothemis was a defining moment, to be able to sing a role of that size in that house and be comfortable with it. I always feel comfortable singing at the Met. It’s a big house but it doesn’t feel like that to me. I feel sorry for some of my European colleagues who walk out for the first time and think, “What’s going to happen here?”
I think that people who have had to work harder for their technique may have a more solid foundation as teachers. Do you feel that having had to re-understand your instrument after a major surgery makes you a better teacher?
Oh, I think so. . . . Everybody goes through transitions of one kind or another, and the voice might be affected by surgeries, by life, by emotional upheaval, whatever it might be. And having to work your way through that, if you do it successfully, does make for a better teacher.
There are plateaus as an artist. What was a moment, or perhaps an encounter with a great conductor, when you felt yourself learn an important musical lesson and maybe jumped to the next level?
Certainly Maestro Levine—I talk about in the book—there was a certain moment in “Ariadne” where he pushed me musically. [Author’s note: The moment referred to is in the aria “Es gibt ein Reich,” on the low G on the word Totenreich.] But I think too of that Isolde with Thielemann. He’s a very demanding conductor and not just a little intimidating. One rehearsal—it was not just a musical thing, it was a vocal thing. I was barely getting through it. I felt like I was going to run out of breath at the end of every phrase and I said to him, “Maestro, your tempos are lovely, but I can’t do it.” And he looked at me and said, “But you are doing it.” That was a lesson.
And being onstage with Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. At some point, you have to stop pinching yourself and saying, “How did I get here?” and own that you do belong there. It was heady company to be keeping, but at some point you have to get over that.
Repertoire question: Is Elektra the one that got away?
Yeah, I think so. Unfortunately. She came up three times and fell through three times, having nothing to do with me. I don’t know if Elektra is going to happen at this point. I might move right on to Klytemnästra. I’ve had many, many, many nights of being the top lady all night. I might like to do some acting things and let somebody else do the heavy lifting. But never say never. I’d at least like to do it in concert some time.
It is still a common occurrence that singers are told to lose weight. As a teacher and mentor, if a young singer who is overweight comes to you and says, “So and so told me I had to lose weight,” what would you say to her? And I say “her” because it is mostly women who are told this.
I would and do encourage young singers that I work with to lose weight. If they have the absolute world-class voice, they’re going to float to the top no matter what. But that is a very rare talent. But if you’re going to be competitive, especially in an art form that is becoming so much more visually oriented, it’s more important.
Beyond that, I want the singer to use any way that they can to be as comfortable as they can in portraying a role and feeling confident. If you’re playing Tosca and you’re supposed to be beautiful, then she should feel that way about herself. If I encounter a heavy woman who has a fantastic world-class voice and is confident about herself and everything about her, then more power to her. But I find that very rare, that combination.
So I encourage it. Gastric bypass was my choice after I had tried everything else from when I was 16 ’til I was 44. My knees were starting to kill me and my quality of life was not what I wanted it to be. And also, for where I saw myself going vocally and the characters I was going to be called upon to portray, I didn’t want my weight to get in the way of being as compelling an actress as I could be, and that meant getting rid of a lot of weight.
What are you most looking forward to about this next phase of your life?
I’m looking forward to using all this knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years in a way that will help young singers. I’m just beginning to enjoy that process and feel confident that I have something to share with them. I used to be frightened to death of doing masterclasses. They do still scare me, but I’m becoming more confident in myself as a teacher. And I think it’s going to be good for me as a singer to be in a studio. I’m going to have to demonstrate, to be in a room with a piano. That’s always been a problem for me. Once I get in the rehearsal room, I’m great, but getting there is like pulling teeth.
I want to explore different recital stuff and concerts. My career as an opera singer has been all-consuming. I’ve still been very lucky in that I’ve had a very good recital career, professional career, and recording career. I’m kind of looking forward to breathing a little bit. Not throwing my things in a suitcase and running off for six weeks at a time—that’s going to be really a pleasure.
San Francisco is a full circle for me. That’s where my career began. It feels like it’s all meant to be. As you know from reading my book, I don’t think anything is random. It’s all planned out. I’ve been praying and thinking about what the next phase of my career might look like, and the position at the school is going to be a really lovely way to transition gracefully and still sing and concertize but still move on to the next phase.
You can’t be the top banana till you’re 75. It doesn’t work that way.
Is there something you wish somebody had told you at the beginning of your career—or maybe they did tell you but you didn’t hear it?
Jane was always concerned that my relationship with John, who became my husband, would get in the way of my career. And while I don’t think that that relationship necessarily did, I think I can look at relationships I used—food, alcohol, other things outside of myself—to comfort myself. I think if I had learned to really be happy with Debbie at that young age, my journey would have been easier.
I tell my students all the time, you have to stay in the moment and enjoy what you can do. You can only do what you can do today. I think if I had done that, it would’ve been a smoother ride, but maybe not as interesting. They’re not going to throw anything at me that I haven’t been through. Conductors. Costumes. Whatever. That’s, I hope, going to be valuable at school.