Persevering Through Thick & Thin

Soprano Deborah Voigt in
Soprano Deborah Voigt in "Aida," above left, in 2001, and this spring, above right, at a New York gala after having gastric bypass surgery. This week, she'll sing a concert version here of "Salome," the title role of which she performed in October in Chicago, below. (By Charles Rex Arbogast -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 14, 2007


Deborah Voigt, a reigning American diva, is sitting in a corner couch in her Manhattan pied-a-terre, enjoying what she jokingly calls "lunch." Actually, it's a Starbucks-only repast -- one of those soaring caramel, whipped-cream-laden creations -- and it's a well-deserved indulgence for an artist who daringly laid her career on the line to wage a final battle against her weight and came out the resounding victor.

Voigt, 46, who sings the title role of Richard Strauss's "Salome" in concert with the National Symphony Orchestra starting Thursday, has become a leading interpreter of the dramatic soprano roles of Wagner and Strauss since a breakthrough performance in Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" more than 15 years ago. Yet her well-publicized battles with her figure sometimes gained as much attention as the gleam and voluptuousness of her voice. She reached a nadir in early 2004, when the Royal Opera House Covent Garden released her from a production of "Ariadne" when she did not fit into the "little black dress" the director had in mind.

It's a topic she doesn't mind discussing: There is no arrogance or irritability in her demeanor, traits so commonly associated with the prima donna. (Her terrier Steinway, however, jumps around and intermittently yelps.) "I understand people's curiosity about it," she says. "But, no, I anticipate hearing about it for quite some time."

After Voigt underwent gastric bypass surgery, rapid weight loss ensued. Shedding almost 150 pounds, she went from a size 28 to a size 14. Her voice changed but ultimately was not diminished. She won acclaim for the role in "Salome" -- Strauss's smoldering 1905 exploration of sexual awakening -- in a fully staged Lyric Opera of Chicago production last fall. Not only singing the part with the kind of splendor for which she was long known, she convincingly portrayed the manic adolescent girl who does a sultry burlesque -- the famous "Dance of the Seven Veils."

Portraying Salome confirmed for the soprano that her radical approach to her weight was the right thing for her career and artistry. "I think it would be extremely naive to assume that the golden age of 'It doesn't matter what you look like' is going to help maintain and make opera prosper," she says. "Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in."

Will singing Salome in concert be a letdown from playing her onstage? "I will still feel it," she says with self-assurance. "I sometimes find when doing a concert performance that I can't get to the same energy level. . . . But having just done it, I think it will probably be more immediate than it would be six months from now."

Voigt will join an extensive cast at the Kennedy Center, including several members of the Washington National Opera's young artist program, in the three performances under the baton of NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin. The Jokanaan -- whom Salome so fatefully desires -- is American bass-baritone Alan Held, who took the part in Chicago. "Alan is a very down-to-earth, approachable, funny kind of guy offstage," says Voigt, "and he's a complete and total beast -- a stage animal -- on the stage. I may have some rotator cuff issues to discuss with him."

If Washington audiences will miss some of this intense physicality, they will get more of Voigt's interpretive approach. "Debbie brought a remarkable passion, yearning and hurt to the part," the director of the Lyric's production, Francesca Zambello, says. "The story of Salome is a young woman's discovery of her sexuality and her journey from adolescence to womanhood. Debbie was going through a similar journey in feeling what it was like to be free onstage. She was like a girl discovering a new world."

Says Voigt: "I think that part of what made it so exciting for the audiences was to hear it sung by a voice we hear singing other heroic Strauss and Wagner roles. In the age of the director, more and more emphasis is put on the fact that Salome is supposed to look like a nubile young thing, and so the role has been cast that way, and also by women who are phenomenal singing actresses, but maybe not Straussian, Wagnerian dramatic sort of voices."

When she hits a crisis, such as the one the drastic weight loss triggered, Voigt works with her vocal teacher of the past 15 years, Ruth Falcon. Voigt equates the problem she faced when her body started changing to the debilitating vocal challenges that periodically plague every singer, whether for psychosomatic or physiological reasons.

"It's such a mental game," the diva says. "Singing is so much about what flashes through your mind before you have that perilous high note to hit, and, if your head is not working, your voice is going to have some problems as well. . . . My tendency since losing weight is to work too hard. I feel like I don't have as much body and think I don't have as much support. I make it much more difficult than it should be."

Voigt talks amusingly about her own path and how she "fell into opera" after singing in church in Illinois as a child and taking formal lessons after she moved to California with her family. She remembers one teacher after she finished high school "telling me to go to a music store and pick up some sheet music for an aria. " 'An aria? What's an aria?,' I asked. . . .

"So, I bring this music back to her and say, 'This is what I want to learn.' She takes a look at it and kind of smiles. She says, 'Well, that's normally sung by a tenor, but if you would like to sing it, you can.' It was 'Nessun Dorma,' " from Puccini's "Turandot," one of the most difficult arias in the repertoire.

Today Voigt can choose her roles, and she has a packed calendar. She gives recitals throughout the year, including one in May at Carnegie Hall and several around her Vero Beach, Fla., home. In March she takes on the title role of Strauss's "The Egyptian Helen" in a new Metropolitan Opera production.

The Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, revealed last week that Voigt will sing the ultimate dramatic soprano role -- Brunnhilde from Wagner's "Ring" cycle -- in a new production scheduled for 2010-2011.

Yet with all her onstage commitments, Voigt, single since a 1995 divorce, finds little time for dating. "My personal life is much like most of the female singers that I know," she says. "It's incredibly difficult -- no matter what you look like -- to meet people. Our lives are so transient. I have a couple friends that I see, but nothing to write home to Mom about."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company