Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Downsized Soprano Deborah Voigt

LA Times
Still big where it counts
Soprano Deborah Voigt has downsized since a famous firing. Her voice? Plush. And she's got that job back.
By Irene Lacher
Special to The Times

January 10, 2007

BEFORE (2001)

AFTER (2006)

New York -- In his office at London's Covent Garden, Peter Mario Katona keeps a thick file of hate mail. The Royal Opera's director of casting even framed one particularly unquotable letter and hung it on his wall.

His sin? Firing American soprano Deborah Voigt before she could sing her signature title role in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" in 2004.

Her sin? She was too fat to fit into Ariadne's little black dress.

"I think he looks at it with a little more humor than I do," Voigt says dryly, one gastric bypass and 140 pounds later.

The sacking of the leading dramatic soprano echoed around the world, parsed by People magazine and other news outlets not noted for following the vicissitudes of high culture. But in a happy ending better suited to Hollywood than the opera stage, where the heroine usually succumbs to some tragic fate, Katona has invited her back to perform in June 2008.

"So I'm going back to sing Ariadne in the production I was let go for," says Voigt, whom the Los Angeles Opera will present in concert with pianist Brian Zeger at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday night. "In that production. In that black dress. Won't that be a circus?" The following year, she'll return to Covent Garden to sing the role of Puccini's fetching chanteuse, Tosca. Then she will reward her fans by singing Brünnhilde in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle starting during the 2010-11 season.

Known for her wicked sense of humor as well as her command of the Strauss and Wagner repertoire, Voigt's blue eyes dance at the thought of a mushroom cloud of press surrounding her moment of triumph. She's too ladylike to express her glee at the turn of events, but, asked if she finds the prospect satisfying, she can't resist a silent response in a universal language — she flicks her chin with her fingertips and smiles.

Voigt, 46, has reason to relish Covent Garden's comeuppance. Only a month earlier, she realized a long-held ambition to sing the title role of Strauss' "Salome," one of the most brazen seductresses in opera, in a staged production. The suddenly slim diva took it all off — or at least appeared to — on the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, stripping down to a body suit at the end of Salome's debauched dance of the seven veils.

The critics applauded, not merely for Voigt's success in accomplishing the physical transformation, but in surviving it. Since the surgery in June 2004, her performances have been scrutinized for evidence of vocal impairment, but critics are proclaiming her voice as potent as ever. In his review of "Salome," John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune wrote that "most of her singing was gleaming and voluptuous, its power and warm, womanly vocal quality undiminished."

Voigt says she underwent the gastric bypass for health reasons, not career, although her artistic opportunities have clearly blossomed as a result.

Still, she realizes that the random stranger she encounters on a plane will likely know her as that opera singer who lost all that weight, not the interna-tionally acclaimed Ariadne she is.

She is asked how she feels about the fact that the world at large is more compelled by her weight than her art.

"Would I like to have the same sort of international recognition for being the best singer in the world?" she muses. "Yeah, that would be nice. But part of the reason that story took off is that it really resonated with people. We are weight obsessed.

"And also because I think people have preconceived notions about what opera is and what opera singers are and 'it ain't over till the fat lady sings,' so how can you fire the fat lady? I think that really shocked people. They thought this was the last area of high culture that wasn't going to be bastardized by people's visual concepts."

'She's not like anyone else'

Opera News will recognize Voigt's place in the classical music firmament on Jan. 28, when it presents her with a 2006 Opera News Award for distinguished achievement, an honor she will share with such luminaries as James Levine, the veteran music director of the Metropolitan Opera.

In the magazine's salute to Voigt in the current issue, Janet A. Choi writes that hearing the diva's Ariadne prompted her to experience the "kind of freefall [encountered] during the best moments in opera, when grounding disappears and one is weightless, fully absorbed into the art."

Opera News Editor F. Paul Driscoll says the magazine is equally impressed with Voigt's unique path to divadom and her willingness to redefine it. "We feel she has done a great job in defining what an opera star means to her. She's not like anyone else."

Often noted for her accessibility and frankness, she's a prima donna for the age of mass media, where narcissism doesn't play well up close. And if "easygoing diva" sounds like an oxymoron, it's not in her case. That's because Voigt puts a particularly American spin on being an international opera star.

"She is very much a contemporary American woman, and that has always been a bit of a dichotomy within opera, because opera is not, by its nature, an American art form," Driscoll says. "So the question of how American singers — men and women — exist within this art form, which is inaccessible in language and sometimes musically, is always a knotty problem. I think by staying true to themselves, they're able to take what they need from this art form and still have it come out in a way that's unique to them."

Finding her voice

Voigt, born Debbie Joy outside Chicago, stumbled into opera after her family moved to Placentia when she was 14. As a student at El Dorado High School, she developed a taste for the Carpenters and musical theater, singing the roles of Auntie Mame and Marian the librarian in school productions. When Voigt was looking for a voice teacher, she happened upon Pat Fichtner, an opera singer married to her high school choral conductor.

"That is really how it started," Voigt says. "I had no idea what opera was. Because I had been involved in theater, I liked the combination of drama and music and I also enjoyed the study of voice from a technical perspective. And that is still very interesting to me, how any variation of muscle movement in the body or jaw movement or head turning can and will adjust the sound of your voice. And so that's a kind of logical progression to opera if you're trying to refine your instrument as much as possible."

Voigt attended Chapman College and Cal State Fullerton but dropped out to enroll as an apprentice in San Francisco Opera's Merola Program. Her breakout performance came in 1991, when she made her debut singing Ariadne with the Boston Lyric Opera. The role prompted the New York Times' John Rockwell to proclaim her "one of the most important American singers to come along in years."

Voigt, a divorcée based in Florida, warmly greets a visitor during a recent pause from her busy schedule to spend the holidays in New York. Simply dressed in black slacks and top and a bottle-green velvet jacket, she's still beaming from her recent triumph as Salome, which earned her a lengthy standing ovation every night. Performing the role in a staged production had been a goal of hers since she first sang the final scene in concert eight years earlier.

"I remember thinking, 'I'm going to regret my whole life if I don't sing this onstage,' because I knew that I had the voice for it and I knew I had the acting chops for it, but there was no way that anyone was going to cast me, and rightfully so," she says. "It would not have been believable in this day and age and the way that we are beginning to see opera and the way that opera is being marketed."

Much earlier in her career, Voigt's characteristic candor elicited a publicist's dismay. He chastised her for being too open and counseled her to create some kind of mystique for herself.

"I didn't give that much attention," she recalls. "And then he said, 'What you really need is a good scandal.' And I laughed at the time and we joked about what the scandal would be. But looking back, I think that of anything that I gleaned from that experience and that relationship, that was probably the most accurate. Because that's what's going to get people's attention. They're going to want to know, how's the girl who got fired from Covent Garden with the little black dress doing? What's going to stick in their minds is that story."

1 comment:

gaulimauli said...

So much I didn't know about deb voigt; a very informative article. Like her picture with the Yorkie.