Professor Diva : Deborah Voigt Hits a New Stride as Mentor

What does it really take to be an opera singer? What are the most common traps young singers fall into? What is it like to go from center stage to behind the scenes? The answers to those questions had to wait a few extra minutes as soprano Deborah Voigt, famous for decades of performing the most difficult dramatic repertoire on the world’s most exalted stages, was running late, busy helping a graduate student to prepare for her recital.

The last time I spoke with the singer (Classical Singer, September 2016), she was surrounded by boxes in her east coast home, readying for a move to San Francisco, where she had taken a post on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Now in her second academic year, she seems accustomed to the rhythms of academe. “It’s crunch time,” she says, apologizing for the interview’s late start.

And you thought you were getting off the high-pressure track.

It’s one of the things that’s most amazing to me. It takes almost as much energy to teach these kids as it did to sing. It’s a different kind of energy, but especially trying to get them to the performance-level energy, because I’m close enough to having experience with that to know what it’s going to take. I think they find it really intimidating to be in the studio in a small space and they don’t realize how much of their body, mind, and heart has to go into it. It’s a very big lesson. One of my girls did her senior recital last year, and she said to me after, “I had no idea singing took so much energy.” And I thought, “You just wait, honey!”

Speaking of feeling intimidated, is there a “star struck” phase with your new students where they have to get over who you are and what you’ve done before they relax enough to get down to work?

I do think that’s true. It’s mostly the younger ones. The older girls are a little less so. Some of them are a little intimidated when they come in, but then they realize I’m not a big, nasty, horrible opera singer, and it’s going to be fine. And then they begin to realize that maybe I can give them more information because of what I’ve done.

But I can see a little bit of fear in their eyes, and sometimes then they’re overconfident and want to show me what they can do, and then I have to break them down a little bit. I say, “Everything you’ve done up till now is great, but now we have to find what you really sound like and not what you think you should sound like.”

That’s one of the most difficult things I’m finding, especially with the freshmen and sophomores, because they haven’t found their own organic sound. They know that they want to be opera singers, they’ve listened to a lot of opera—but if you think of an opera singer and what they sound like, anybody can imitate that. But in order for a singer to have a successful career, we have to find what is unique about their sound and what is identifiable.

So sometimes I have to pull them back a little bit and say, “That’s fine, but you’ve been listening to too much Anna Netrebko.” And Anna Netrebko was not Anna Netrebko when she was 18. It’s gradual. It’s frustrating for them. They want it right now. They think they should be perfect right now. And they’re freshman. It’s going to take them a lot longer than it does just to get their degree to get their career going. I try to get them to slow down and stay in the moment and just do what they can do today. I find myself playing psychiatrist a lot.

It’s pretty common that a student has some idea about repertoire that is really off base. You have a true lyric come in and she’s got all spinto repertoire, which she’s convinced she’s born to sing. Or a tenor comes in but he’s really a baritone. And there are these psychological aspects. How do you break the bad news?

It’s difficult. I have a hard time with some of them in that they’re very stubborn in what they want to sing. And they’re 19! They don’t need to be singing heavy Russian repertoire. They should be singing Schubert and Mozart and much lighter fare, but they have these big personalities and abilities to communicate dramatically. There’s no question they have some stage beast within them, but it’s hard to get them to accept that if they really want this, they have to step back. Some of them listen and they’re improving, and some don’t and they’re not improving as quickly.

I had a dramatic personality and the first arias I ever learned were Cherubino’s. Crazy, but safe. We didn’t know what my voice was going to do. That’s very difficult when they bring in things that are beyond them. I had one student bring in “Ach, ich fühl’s,” and she should be singing Papagena. I don’t want to break her spirit by saying, “No you can’t do that. Go back to 24 Italian Songs and Arias.” So I say, “OK, you can do it as a study piece on the side, but you can’t perform it anywhere. You can’t put it on a jury; you can’t do it in a performance lab.” It’s hard to walk that balance.

And then there’s the girl I was running late because of. Her voice has grown immensely. She’s been a master’s student for the past two years—and that’s a little daunting as well, because I hear where she’s going, and where do I put her that she doesn’t get there too soon? She probably will be a baby dramatic soprano, but right now she shouldn’t be singing Tannhäuser, so I have her singing the Wesendonck Lieder.

Many people don’t realize that dramatic soprano Nina Stemme also started with Cherubino, so things do take time. If we are talking about the foundational issues of singing—like legato, breathing, posture—I’m sure you’re seeing all kinds of things, and each student is different. But what would you say is the most common issue for singers coming into your studio?

Without exception, in my studio, in every masterclass, it’s support. They do not realize they have to use their whole body. It’s not just from the ribcage up. That’s not low enough. It might be because I’m a dramatic soprano and I’ve had to access that part of my body, but it makes me very nervous to hear so much of that going on across the board. Every masterclass I do, I spend most of the time talking about getting their bodies engaged.

It could be a byproduct of mostly singing in small spaces. Also, I think they edit themselves emotionally. In order to engage that part of their body, they have to kind of let go of fear, and that’s very difficult for many of them. And they listen to themselves so much. They tape their recordings, and that’s all well and good because they can hear what’s better and what isn’t—but what’s more important is that they can recognize in the moment physically what was different.

I will stop and say, “What was different?” And sometimes they have a really hard time and say, “I don’t know, it was just better.” And I say, “That is not acceptable. You don’t have to have a perfect answer, but you just did something different, and you have to be able to identify it.” They might say, “It sounds more nasal,” and that’s not good enough. You have to be able to identify what it feels like.

[Support] and inappropriate repertoire, those are the two most difficult things.

I have interviewed several dozen of you A-level singers, and you all work so hard when you’re in the height of your careers. Not just the physical act of singing, but the life, the travel, the number of productions, the different personalities. It is just such a tough gig. I have two questions about that. One, is part of you breathing a huge sigh of relief that you get to be relatively settled here in San Francisco? And second, do you ever find yourself wanting to warn the students, to say, “By the way, if you make it in this, it’s really a tough job?”

Absolutely. Yes, I am relieved—more and more so. And part of me feels a little guilty about that. I could probably be singing more, but I would have to be self-promoting more than I’ve ever had to do, and I really don’t want to and I’m not good at it. And then I think, “Do I want to learn that role? Do I really want to spend that much time memorizing yet another role?” And I’ve done most of the roles I’d like to do. The only one I didn’t do was Elektra—and at this point I’d be 60 years old by the time it came up, and that’s not going to work.

I think the last time I interviewed you, you said maybe you’d go straight to Klytemnästra.

I think that would be good. One scene, a decent fee, and you’re done. [Laughs.] That might not be a bad way to go. It’s kind of a matter of what I’d like to sing. I’m focusing more on concert repertoire and recitals, that sort of stuff. And, yes, with the students who have real potential to have careers, we talk about these things.

One girl, graduating last year, was trying to decide whether to stay here or go to New York, and I hated to lose her because she was adorable, but I encouraged her to go to New York. But she has a relationship with a guy who lives here, and they wanted completely different things. She wants to pursue her career as far as she can, and he wants to stay here and have a home life, and they don’t go hand in hand necessarily. It’s a big matter of commitment. Ironically, she ended up at Mannes studying with Ruth Falcon, whom I studied with for 17 years.

Also, it’s difficult to have conversations about how realistic it is, to think that when you graduate from this school or any school that you’re going to have a career. How many people come out of one school and become stars? Nadine Sierra is sort of the crowning star of the school at the moment, but that is rare.

It’s a difficult road to walk because, on the one hand, we have to fill the studio. The conservatory has to make income, so we have to have students. I have a hard time, and it’s taken me almost two years to understand that they can’t all be headed toward the Metropolitan Opera—and I may be looking at things with the wrong perspective because that’s where I went. I think I forget sometimes how completely rare that is, and a student that I may not think will have a career in four years may blossom into something fantastic. And even if they don’t, I know I can help them, and that’s what’s important.

Graduate schools often fall into a trap of teaching everything and the kitchen sink, but sometimes they don’t teach the thing one will most need when they get out. Is there something you feel conservatory training is generally lacking in, that is essential in the “real world,” something you’d like to see more of at SFCM or conservatories in general?

By the time you’re a graduate student, you should have a fairly good idea who you are vocally. When I see someone who’s auditioning for our graduate program and they put down Pamina and Trovatore Leonora, you think this person has had four years of college and still doesn’t even know what Fach they are—and that sets off alarms in my head because even if they can sing it, they’re not going to be cast that way. I could maybe have sung Mozart longer than I did, but there was a need for singers of other repertoire, lighter Verdi, and I happened to be OK at that, so that’s where I went. It becomes a matter of what’s salable.

And if you put that mixed of a list in front of a casting person, they immediately think, “Do they even know what a Fach is?”

Exactly. And do they know who they are emotionally? For example, I have a girl in my studio, she’s a second year master’s, who came in as a soprano last year. It’s a gorgeous voice. She has a nice extension on the top but she doesn’t like to sit up there. Her personality is not a soprano. There’s something earthier and more playful. She could force herself to stay as a soprano, but she’s not happy there. And so she switched to a mezzo, and she’s having tremendous success and she feels better. It’s not always what you think you should be vocally. You have to think about where you’re going to be comfortable—and if you’re not going to want to sit in the upper passaggio all night, you are not a soprano.

Do you think that tessitura is an under-discussed concept, in terms of what you were just saying?

It’s walking a narrow line to talk about it. On the one hand, we don’t want to talk about head, middle, and chest, we want it to be one voice. But the fact of the matter is the voice hits certain areas where one does have to adjust, to think about narrowing or changing position or whatever it might be. So you have to discuss it to a point. But I’m always surprised when I hear a soprano sing [sings descending scale that falls apart on the bottom]. That’s one of the last things to come in. They get scared and fog out or grab with their tongue or go back in the throat. That’s tough. We spend a lot of time in my studio going nyah nyah nyah nyah [imitates a nasal sound], trying to get the voice forward.

In the wake of James Levine being fired from the Met, the New York Times ran an article with a headline, “Should We Rethink Maestro Worship,” and I wonder what your thoughts are on that topic. First of all, do you think “Maestro Worship” is a fair characterization? Have we not already rethought that? And what advice do you give your students for dealing with conductors?

I think they’re all well enough aware at this point that if there’s some sort of behavior going on that makes them uncomfortable, they know what to do and have to handle it, so that’s not something I have had to address. And “Maestro Worship”—that’s a hard thing to even talk about.

I didn’t know those things. Has it been proven? Maybe it has, because the Met has taken those steps in firing him. But my experiences with him were not of that nature, they were musical. I would not have had the career that I’ve had without James Levine. I don’t pretend to worship anybody, not that’s on this Earth anyway. But I had an enormous amount of respect for him, and I feel very sad that this has happened at the end of what was the most glorious conducting career of anybody.

But if it happened, it happened, and there are repercussions, and opera companies have to be precautious and they can’t take risks. I think that’s what we’re seeing across the board, whether we really can prove it, or if we don’t want to be liable or take a chance. More than that, I’m not comfortable saying. I never had an issue with anybody, ever.

Final question, sometimes things work both ways in the studio. Is there something you are learning from your students or some way they’re inspiring you?

They inspire me when I see something click in their brains and they finally get it or they finally decide to trust me. It’s a scary thing and, as I said, they’re listening to themselves. So when they sing a high note and it’s got a little more pinch—no, not pinch but point—in the top of the voice, which I believe it needs to flip over and carry, in their ears it sounds like a cat meowing. It takes a long time to get them to trust and stop listening to themselves and go by sensation. And when that happens, that’s really nice.

And when I have a student—going back to what you said about being intimidated to be working with me—who values that experience, who was intimidated at first but eventually says, “I’m so glad to be working with you and I leave my lessons feeling lifted and invigorated,” that’s great.

And that’s why it takes so much energy to get through a lesson. It’s a lot of energy, but there’s a big pay off.

Read more from Ms. Voigt in the complete online interview available at www.classicalsinger.com, including how she would handle three hypothetical teaching situations.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.