What Would Deborah Voigt Do?

Superstar soprano, Deborah Voigt, is taking charge of life beyond the stage in a commanding way. A biography, a one-woman show, a teaching fellowship at Notre Dame, artistic director of Vero Beach Opera with a competition named after her—and all while finishing up her first two years as a full-time professor at San Francisco Conservatory. The singer has hardly been resting on her laurels.

Ms. Voigt will be headlining the CS Music Convention in Boston next month, May 24-27, and she’s also the cover story of the May issue of Classical Singer magazine.

We asked her for advice on three hypothetical teaching situations. Here’s what she had to say:

Let’s run through a few hypotheticals in the studio, a “How would you handle it?” or “What would you say if . . . ?” OK, first one. A student comes in unprepared. Unfamiliar with the text, even hesitant about the notes, just not ready for the lesson.

I try to be as patient as I can. I recognize that some of them have fewer musical skills than others. I have spent time helping to pound out notes. And then there has come a time when I’ve closed the book and said, “You’re not ready for this lesson and we’re wrapping it up right now. I suggest you go to a practice room. You’re spending a lot of money to come to this school, and I have a limited amount of time.”

Fortunately, I’ve had only one or two, and they do get the message. I’m pretty easy going and I try to create a fun environment in the studio—so when I get serious, they know I’m serious. And they have advisors. So if I have to, I go to their advisors and they take care of it.

Soprano Juliet Kidwell, left, tweaks her singing with the help of world-renowned opera star Deborah Voigt.

Here’s another one. A student comes in who is painfully shy and very timid in their demeanor and in their singing.

We do a lot of overacting. Or I’ll give them a piece that is really out of their comfort zone. I have one girl who is really shy, and we’re doing a little Bernstein concert, and I gave her “It’s Gotta Be Bad to Be Good.” I’ll give them something that makes them get outside themselves.

Also, they just don’t realize how big something has to be to be seen on a stage. Very rarely do I have to say, “That’s too much—back up.” It’s always a matter of “More, more, more!” “Pretend you’re an opera singer,” I’ll say.

There’s one freshman, we’re working on “Glitter and Be Gay,” and she’s not being as free with it as she should be—and then she’ll stop and she’ll laugh and be very silly, and I’ll say, “That’s it! Put you into what you’re doing.” They sort of edit themselves, or they can’t relate, and I’ll tell them to find the emotions of what that person is talking about. You can probably find something emotionally.

Not that I have anybody singing Salome in my studio, but I remember when I worked on that, I couldn’t relate to wanting the head of John the Baptist on a platter—but I broke it down and I could relate to being a frustrated teenager who wasn’t getting what she wanted.

Trying to get them to attach to the emotional content of what they’re singing helps, but a lot of it just takes time. They have to get out in front of their peers in studio class and hear what their peers think, and either they’ll get it or they won’t—but most of them do. They come out of their shells. I had one girl last year who cried in every lesson, and it was just frustration. I did it too. I told her, “You’re trying to do something very intimate. And get it out; this a safe place. I have a box of tissues and a piece of candy for out the door. It’s gonna be OK.” And she’s so much better this year.

Baritone James Lesu’i works with world-renowned opera star Deborah Voigt at an onstage master class at the at Clayes Performing Arts Center’s Meng Concert Hall at Cal State Fullerton.

Here’s a tricky one. A student is not open with you. You find out they’re singing something you told them not too, or don’t recommend, and basically not taking your advice when they are outside the studio.

It’s part of the student handbook—they are not allowed to do something outside of the school without the permission of the teacher. That includes masterclasses, performances, everything. And I found out [one of] my girl[s] had done some things I never would have let her do. She was not ready. I had a very serious talk with her. I said, “Look. See right here what it says? You cannot do this without talking to me first, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not because I want to be mean, it’s not because I don’t want you to have opportunities—it’s because I want you to be ready for them when they come, and I don’t think you’re ready for that yet.”

And other times I say, “Sure, go ahead and do it.” That’s for their protection. And not only their vocal production. If they’re talking about some organization I’ve never heard of, what do you know about it? Are you being paid? Is it an AGMA group? It’s to protect them financially in ways that have nothing to do with their voices. And I have my reputation to preserve too, so I don’t want some student going out without my permission saying, “I’m a student of Deborah Voigt’s” and she’s 18 doing a masterclass with Plácido Domingo. Luckily I know Plácido and I can call him and say, “Hey!” But, yeah, that is verboten.

Read more in the May issue of Classical Singer magazine, available online May 1 at www.csmusic.net. And join us in Boston at the CS Music Convention for Masterclasses, the CS Vocal Competition, the Expo Recruiting Fair, Concerts, and great networking opportunities.

Lisa Houston

Dramatic soprano, Lisa Houston, is a longtime contributor to Classical Singer magazine and the website, San Francisco Classical Voice. She sings and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she recently performed Beethoven’s concert aria, “Ah! perfido” with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra. Houston is the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a site with ideas, instruction, and inspiration for classical singers.