Opera Divas Are Strange Creatures: “Voigt Lessons"

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 9 August 2011 | 8:11:00 pm


COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Opera singers have written their share of celebrity tell-all memoirs. The soprano Deborah Voigt recently sold her autobiography to HarperCollins, scheduled for release in two years. She has already gone public about her struggles with obesity, which led her to undergo gastric bypass surgery in 2004.

But for all her personal challenges, Ms. Voigt is a down-to-earth woman with an ebullient personality who communicates best through her music. So as a preliminary to her book, Ms. Voigt, working with the playwright Terrence McNally, the director Francesca Zambello and the pianist Kevin Stites, has created a 75-minute one-woman autobiographical program of life stories and song titled “Voigt Lessons,” which had its premiere here at the Glimmerglass Festival on Friday afternoon.

This summer at Glimmerglass Ms. Voigt has been winning over audiences in the title role of Irving Berlin’s classic musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” which opened two weeks ago. At Saturday night’s performance she seemed more confident in the role and sang with winning vitality and crisp diction.

In “Voigt Lessons” she gives a chatty, witty and sometimes painfully poignant account of her life, starting with her childhood as a daughter of devout Baptist parents in Wheeling, Ill., weaving in performances of inspirational songs, art songs, show songs and bits of arias accompanied by Mr. Stites: 18 in all. Early in the program she took the audience back to her high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” with, as she put it, an “all-goy” cast. Her family had moved to a Southern California town with a name that still makes her cringe: Placentia.

Mixed into charming recollections and performances were Ms. Voigt’s revelations about personal crises in her life. With disarming honesty she described the breakup of her 20-year relationship with “Mr. Wonderful,” as she called the man, five years her senior, whom she met at a car wash when she was just 16. They later married. As her career took off, he became, in a sense, Mr. Voigt, she said, tending to her needs. But they drifted apart and split up when he admitted to an affair with a friend of hers. “Why is it always a friend?” Ms. Voigt asked.

Though keeping the timeline a little vague, Ms. Voigt spoke courageously of suicidal despair, alcohol abuse and a low point of her life, when she “jumped into a bottle and went into a 35-hour blackout.” That is long enough, she said, “to fly around the world” or “to sing two ‘Ring’ cycles,” referring to Wagner’s epic four-opera “Ring des Nibelungen,” in which she has been appearing at the Metropolitan Opera. Ms. Voigt shared with her audience what she called the eight words that saved her life: “My name is Debbie, and I’m an alcoholic.” She followed this admission with an elegantly unsentimental account of the pop standard “Smile” (“Smile though your heart is aching”)
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The risk of a confessional concert like “Voigt Lessons” is that a much-admired, beloved artist will tell fans more than they want to know. For me the few squirm-inducing moments came not from Ms. Voigt’s stories of personal struggles but from some of her bawdy humor. Explaining why “Mr. Wonderful” was not turned off by her earlier physique, Ms. Voigt said that some men are what are called “chubby chasers.”

About halfway through the program Ms. Voigt said that up to that point she had been avoiding the subject of “fatness,” a condition she likened to an expletive. Before she underwent surgery, Ms. Voigt said, she was not “full-figured” or “Junoesque” or “heavyset.” She was fat. At her worst, her weight hit 333 pounds, three digits she will never forget, she said.

Though as a young woman she was a compulsive eater, she thrived during her “journeyman years” in the Merola Young Artists program at the San Francisco Opera and won the gold medal in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1990. When expected offers to perform did not come, her agent explained that companies were reluctant to hire her because of her appearance.

She spoke fondly of her breakthrough performance in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” with the Boston Lyric Opera in 1991, which received stellar reviews, including one from John Rockwell in The New York Times, who wrote that only a wrong career turn could stop her from becoming a significant Wagnerian soprano