Finding Her Feet

One of the singers who is waltzing and warbling beside world-famous American soprano Deborah Voigt in The Merry Widow spoke of his delight in working with her, gushing, “She’s such a human being.” The news seems unsurprising—we are yet to discover any other species that can sing opera. Perhaps it is not so obvious, though, to those in Detroit who have come to know Ms. Voigt from screenings of her soaring across Valhalla as Brünnhilde, daughter of the gods, in the Metropolitan Opera’s new Ring Cycle; or to those who rightly hail her as a top diva, which is, after all, from the Italian for “divine.”

But as her just-published autobiography, Call Me Debbie, clarifies in its subtitle, this is a “Down- to-Earth Diva.” The same admiring Widow cast member, David Moan, said of Ms. Voigt, “She makes dirty jokes along with the rest of us.” She kept it clean when we chatted with her a week into rehearsals, but did reveal to us the richly human sentiment behind that heavenly soprano.

Q. You have had a very eclectic career, from Wagner to Annie Get Your Gun!, from your one-woman show Voigt Lessons, to now, with us, operetta— and everything in between. What keeps you bouncing between repertoires?

I feel like I have a lot of performance muscles. I’m only now, having given the bulk of my life and career to opera, having the opportunity to exercise some of them. When I was a kid, I was first introduced to musicals and gospel. That I became an opera singer was just a result of circumstances. I worked very hard, but I often wonder if my first voice teacher had not been an opera singer, what would have gone differently. Or if I had not become really chubby in my late teens and early 20s, when I convinced myself that being a Broadway star was not going to happen. I think I’ve been frustrated, to a certain extent, by the confines of opera. In my repertoire, you don’t get to be funny that often. A few places here and there, but very rarely.

Q. You’ve certainly had some of the most dramatic, tragic roles.

Which is great. I think that if I’d had the voice of a soubrette [a lighter, sweeter voice, often featured in lighter, sweeter roles], with my personality and temperament, I would have gone crazy. But now I’m at the point where I can say, “Do I really want to do Tosca again? I’ve done her several times, I’ve done her well. Take a leap of faith, and maybe leave that time open to do recitals, or Voigt Lessons.”

Q. Or Hanna, your role in The Merry Widow!

Or Hanna! Although she’s not so simple. She’s fun to play, but she’s complicated. I’m right now trying to “find the funny.” While there are these one-liners and zings, which can be played very snarly, it also has to have this light touch. I’m finding my feet with it. But finding your feet with Hanna Glawari is not going to be as hard as finding them with Brün hilde.

Q. What brought you to Detroit in the first place?

I knew David DiChiera when he was running Opera Pacific [a company in Orange County, CA], and I sang a Trovatore there. Years later, we were seated together at a luncheon and he asked, “Would you come to Detroit?” I said, “Sure I will.” So he asked me what I would like to sing. I said, “Well…what about the Widow?” So many times you have conversations with people and nothing ever comes of it. But bless his heart, he followed through.

Q. We are lucky that he did. Any surprising part of the process so far, a week into rehearsals?

The most fun has been the costume fitting! The dresses are a thrill for someone who’s been in Wagner- land and Strauss-land. Much more colorful—and feathers! And I have never waltzed onstage! Which will probably be evident when you see it (laughs).

Q. The Widow is new for you. Is there a role you have played before with which you really identify?

I would say Minnie [the saloon-owner heroine of Puccini’s La fanciulla del west]. She’s American, and she reads the Bible, as do I. There’s something about her spirit that I find really touching and endearing.

Q. An audience can sense when a performer is truly connecting to her role on an emotional level.

It can, and that connection is really hard to teach. I remember doing a master class with a young mezzo who was singing Carmen. And there was nothing wrong, it was beautiful, the French was good, she was a pretty young woman, 27, 28 years old. But I asked her, “Have you ever been in love? Have you ever been through a really bad breakup? Have you ever tried to flirt?” I told her that the best advice I could give her was to go to Italy and have a really hot torrid affair. The audience was shocked. But it’s true. I went through a bad breakup myself; it was incredibly painful. And I was doing a concert of Beethoven’s “Ah, perfido!” [meaning “O, faithless one!”, a short dramatic piece for soprano and orchestra] with the New York Philharmonic. A review came out that said, “Deborah Voigt must have been taking acting lessons.” And I thought, “No, she just got her heart broken.” When that happens, those emotional memories are in there just as much as muscle memory is. They are interwoven. When you can get them all lined up—vocals, stage experience, and life experience—you’ve succeeded.

By Michael Yashinsky