don't mind telling you I went into my first big-time diva interview literally
throbbing with dread. I mean, I kept thinking of that newsreel footage
of the reporter who asked Callas a tactless question, and Maria suddenly
saying, in that deadly cold voice, "I don't want this to go forward." Well,
I was an idiot to worry. The experience turned out to be utterly painless
thanks to the wonderful Deborah Voigt, who really made me feel comfortable,
and, even better, answered every question I asked her directly and with
humor, and without a single "no comment" to be heard. A few days after
her overwhelming success as Sieglinde in the Met's gala revival of Die
Walkure, I got off the elevator in the building she's staying in while
in New York. A blond head popped out of a door down the hall. "Are you
James?" she called out. "I'm Debbie, come on in!" The diva (no press agent
in sight) was dressed casually in a pale blue silk blouse and jeans. Her
enormous steel-blue eyes and tousled blond hair lend her a striking resemblance
to-of all people-Ellen Degeneres. So, I asked my first question:
I want to start out by asking just how it feels to be a Gay Icon.
I'm really really surprised to hear that I am!
If you had been in the lobby after Act One of Walkure Monday night, oh, it was like a Barbra concert.
(laughs) I love it. I had no idea. I read your publication before-you did an absolutely fabulous review of an Ariadne that I did- it was great, it was funny the way it was written, but then I got this phone call from-is it the Times doing an article on you all -- and she said to me, "how do you feel about the fact that you seem to be very popular among gay men?" And I said, "I don't necessarily talk about my fans with respect to their sexual preference, so I'm really surprised to hear that." I'm totally flattered, and I think that it speaks quite a lot about what I'm doing, that people seem to be very enthusiastic about what's going on. I don't totally understand why, I'd be curious to know what it is in particular that excites this group of people more than another singer does perhaps.
So when we were all talking about the first act-and you understand this is THE gala event of the year…
I am so thrilled! Tell me, do you guys just all meet up, or-
The word went out to meet at the Aprile Pole-where all the Aprile Millo fans have been meeting for the past ten years---(she shrieks) so when we get down to the orchestra lobby, it looks like a cocktail party at Noel Coward's-there were like 30 guys hanging out there-and one girl! I even got a date out of it. I don't know if it's for me, or because I'm interviewing you, but I'm taking advantage of it! We are calling issue #25 Old Fashioned Girl because Ms. Voigt does things the old fashioned way, building an opera career by singing operatic roles on stage. You really have taken the serious route.
I have. Part of that because I am serious about making appropriate decisions so that I can be here 25 years from now, and still doing what I'm doing-maybe a little bit lower. Also, maybe because I am a big girl (not as big as I was) some of the opportunities for that sort of thing may not have BEEN there. For a long time I was resentful about it and said , why should I have to do this or that on stage, but in a way, I think it has protected me a little bit, it's kept me from doing some things that wouldn't have been good repertoire choices or the right sort of appearances to be a part of. But I've also surrounded myself with people who have very old fashioned ideas about a career. I'm studying now with Ruth Falcon, who is old-school in her approach. She's a really great teacher-
--who has built a long and enduring career for herself---
Exactly-and it works very well because we sing some of the same repertoire-not totally, but helpful in that respect. And she believes in the vocal technique first and foremost-and today we see some singers not putting as much time into that as maybe they should.
The Rosie O'Donnell Question: when you were in high school, were you in all the shows?
I was in all the shows. I was in swing choir, I was in chamber singers.
Were you in Bye Bye Birdie?
No, but I played Tzeitel, I played Marian the Librarian, I was one of the wives in Lil' Abner. all that stuff I was president of the Thespian group, I was in all the choirs…I was also very involved with my church at that point in my life, and I did a lot of church music-even dated the preacher's kid for a while. You know, I've been trying to get on Rosie's show, but so far no luck.
Maybe Rosie resents you because you were so happy in high school.
Yeah.. I was happy in high school but I was always kind of pissed, too, because nobody took it as seriously as I did. I was really into it, and even though it was fun, it was also Art, and I'd get very frustrated because my friends were just playing, and I was taking it very seriously.
So you were more Marcia than Jan.
Yeah, probably. But who I really wanted to be was Laurie Partridge. Or one of those girls who lived with Bobby Sherman on, what was it (sings) "The bluest skies you've ever seen, in Seattle"- Here Come the Brides! Yeah, lots of hours spent thinking about being one of those brides.
Obviously you didn't jump straight from high school to Sieglinde. What were the bittiest bit parts of them all?
That would probably have been when I was an Adler fellow. I did things like, oh, the Lady in Waiting in Macbeth. Terry McEwen always put me in roles like that, like that one in Nabucco, not Fenena-Anna, which at least gave me a chance to soar a bit in some of the big ensembles. Don Carlo-the Celestial Voice. I think that was my SF debut, the Celestial Voice. Those were about the bitsiest, because I really came to opera late. I never even heard an opera until I was, 19 or something like that, so I really didn't have preconceived ideas about "leading lady" roles-I didn't even know who Tosca was until I was 21. So to find myself an Adler Fellow singing Anna in Nabucco with Grace Bumbry was OK with me, because I didn't aspire to be Abigaille.
And now you aspire to be Abigaille?
No. No thank you. But I do Lady Macbeth.
You seem like such a nice person, If there was one thing that was not completely to my delight in the Sieglinde the other night…
I wanted her to be a little harder, a little crazier I guess. I wanted her to get a little meaner…
What opportunity is there for that? I'm just curious that…
I guess when she really starts going crazy in Act 2. I wasn't frightened as much as I was feeling sorry for her.
Interesting. I'll think about that.
Maybe we're used to hearing so much screaming in the theater, and you don't scream… there are a couple of places in the role where I was saying, oh, that's what those notes are! That's your approach, within the music.
But that's also me in that role, that's what I particularly bring to that character, and maybe Ariadne as well, maybe I have more sympathy for her-but that's interesting.
You know that you are the only soprano at the Met this year who is prima donna to both Pavarotti and Domingo… You want to talk a little bit about these two gentlemen?
They couldn't be more different-which is not to say in terms of talent one is better than the other! I have to say that I have enjoyed working with Placido more, but that may be because of the nature of the roles we have done together. You can't really compare Amelia/Gustavo and what they have together on stage with what Sieglinde and Siegmund go through. I think working with Luciano there's always a bit more distance between you and he-and this is the second time I've sung with him-we've sung Ballo at Covent Garden as well. And Placido-what can I tell you-he gets out there and he sweats. Working with Luciano really is more the Luciano Show. But, frankly, I can't imagine what it would be like to be in his shoes. The pressure, especially now-I think everyone is waiting for something terrible to happen.
I could feel that at the Ballo-"is he going to try for the high C, and what will she do if…" I have to say you seemed most supportive.
I've been told that-by some of the Met administration, and that's important to me. Look, I do respect where Luciano is in his career, in his life. I sympathize with that, because I can't imagine what that would be like---
You may find out one of these days.
I don't think so, because I don't envision myself staying in it to the point where I don't love it, and I think Luciano doesn't really love it any more. I think he may love to sing, and he loves his stadium things, but to really be onstage and have to be concerned with what else is going on around him, I'm not sure he really LOVES doing that, and I can't imagine myself doing that. There are other things that I'm interested in, and I hope to move my career along in such a way that I can move on to other things when the time comes. I don't really love the traveling aspect, so I don't see myself like Miss Rysanek at whatever age she was still going on -though I say that to people who know me really well, and they say, oh please, you won't ever get off the stage!
Speaking of traveling, what's the groupie situation?
I have a nucleus of about 3 or 4-I hate to use the word groupie-let's say "fans" who tend to pop up hither and yon and I am beginning to notice as I go back to the various theaters that I see some of the same faces, who maybe don't travel to see me, but I do see as I go from theater to theater. I think its important to have people like this. They buy tickets, they do the right word of mouth, they send out good reviews and pictures and announcements that there's a recording coming out, whatever. It's really important to know people who are that dedicated. Now, once in a while I'll get a letter that's a little-strange. Up until this season, I walked everywhere, I mean, I walked all over the city-I would never think otherwise, but this last time I was in New York, after a show, I was out on the street and this very strange man came up to me and kept saying, "Miss Voigt, Miss Voigt" and-- well, he was VERY odd, and the point is, I think that crosses the line between "creepies" and "groupies." You know, this is new to me, I wish I knew more, that there are people who are that enthusiastic about me.
I got a phone call from a friend who doesn't live here in New York, about 2 am after the Walkure and I picked up the phone and all I heard was, "What was she like?" I guess we expect to see you in diamonds all the time.
You know, I said to my press person, for the interview today I'm just going to wear jeans, is that all right, or should I get dressed up?
When I talked to the people who administrate your web page, they said, Debbie is really really computer savvy-very web savvy. I get this picture of you after the performance-you take off the wig and you take off the dress and you sit down at the laptop and type, "Tonites Ballo was a HUGE success…"
No, no, no. Not that, I do answer my email, and I do write Debbie's Diary-not as often as I should, but I do write it. I am loving this whole web thing, and it's true the web is not the first thing you think of when you think "diva", but I love hearing from people and answering their questions. I don't sit in my dressing room cruising the web, but something I do especially when I'm on the road in Europe is I check in with the opera newsgroup to hear what's going on. I was in Dresden at the time the decision about Forza vs. Ballo was being made, or had been made, and I was very interested to read the reaction to that decisions.
Right now on the net there's a lot of discussion of booing. Maybe that's not such a good question because you have no personal experience of that…
It happened once, in Florence, I was doing Macbeth. It was a terrible production. I took my call after the Macbeth and the reception was great but one or two people booed and I came offstage to James Conlon, and I said, "Did you hear them, they were booing!" and he said, "Debbie, didn't you hear the cheering?" Seriously, I think booing is cowardly. I appreciate that people have their opinions and that they are entitled to their opinions and I may even agree that they are right in some cases-which we won't go into here!--- however, it's so anonymous!
I can boo, and maybe a few people around me can tell who it is, but…
The artist you are wounding to his soul is NOT going to know it's you. I don't understand why one can't just stand with his hands by his side. Or write a letter to the theater's administration. Now, in terms of a production being booed, I don't have as much of a problem.
I felt that way at the Met's new Eugene Onegin…
I didn't see it, but I heard about the booing…
I got the feeling some the artists would have preferred a more traditional production…
That happened in Dresden recently. It was my first Kaiserin and the production was by Rosalie. I didn't mind it so much, and maybe I had a more open mind because I'd never sung this opera before. She did it very much, as she says, from a child's point of view, a child's idea of a fairy tale, very bright colors and basic shapes. It didn't bother me, but it did bother some of the other singers who had done their parts many many times, and when we came out for the curtain call, it was-well, I've never heard such booing. I felt bad, because, if you are a serious artist and you really want to make the best of every situation that you're in-well, that's what you do, you give your heart and soul to it for five weeks, and then when the audience responds that way, you can't help but take it personally, even if you're just the one who wears the costume-I mean, I didn't make the thing, even if I did have some specific things to say about it, I didn't design it! And yet, if an audience has specific tastes, and that is the opera house's audience, you have to listen to their response. But to boo a singer-if people knew how much it hurts…
Okay. So how is the Kaiserin?
The Kaiserin in great, she's super!
The funny thing is, am I right? she doesn't sing all that much, but…
But everything she sings is hard!
I think Lotte Lehmann, the first Färberin, said once, You sing and sing and sing for two and a half acts, and then suddenly it turns out the opera is about Maria Jeritza!
She's right! Susanna's the same way. And Aida!
I would think the Kaiserin is terrifically exciting to sing.
It is very exciting, very perilous-there are some real pitfalls. Having done the part with Sinopoli - that's one take on it-- I'm really anxious to do the part again, with someone who has a different sense, maybe a better sense of Strauss style.
You've recorded it.
Yes, during the performances, and that's going to be a bit of a snafu, because it was supposed to be released as a "live" recording--- and Mr. Heppner didn't show up. So the three of us recorded the final quartet-or I guess the final trio in this case---
And what else is coming out?
The next one to be released is Elektra, which I'm really curious to hear. It's a great cast. Did you hear, the Elektra is Alessandra!
It's interesting to cast the two of you together, since you're often thought of a being coeval…
I hope their will be enough contrast between us… you know, Maestro Sinopoli had approached me about singing Elektra, and I thought, it's not exactly my last chance at the role-I had just sung my first Chrysothemis at the time, and I really love the role. Anyway, he wanted me for Elektra and Studer for Chrysothemis. I held my guns, and he said, look, we may end up losing the whole project, so…
It seems like so much work to learn Elektra for a recording when it's not like you're singing it on stage right away.
No! Plus, if I record Elektra, what's left after that?
The big I?
There's some talk about Sir Georg wanting you for a new recording, possibly based on concerts of one act at a time…
Actually, I am recording Isolde with Solti, and Mr. Heppner, more details I don't know. You know, Solti kept me hanging for a year, making up his mind between me an Alessandra. Originally it was to be concerts, but that's gone out the window, and now it's only the recording, which by itself is going to take us over two years because of all the schedules. We start with Act 2. I'm a little worried about what people will say, you know, recording it before singing it on stage. We really tried to fit in a concert here and there, but there just isn't time. I knew when he asked me and I accepted I was opening myself up to criticism, but I just don't care, because it's such a great opportunity to learn that role with him- who knows this music better? I'm just going to roll with the punches.
And then, one of these days, Isolde on stage?
Actually, I was asked to do it in Houston in 1999. I thought about it seriously, because I already know a lot of the role, and I think eventually it will be great for me. But Maestro Levine thought maybe 1999 was a little too soon, and I already had some reservations, so that was the catalyst, and I said no. There's no hurry.
Again, where do you go after Isolde?
There are other avenues I still want to pursue-Aida and Trovatore, and I want to sing Tosca, but if I push myself into the German stuff too soon-you get typed. And there are ladies out there who are ready and willing to go out and sing the [German] repertoire, and I say good for them. What I think is, the world will always be interested in a new Isolde, whenever you decide to sing it. So for right now, I'll wait and let--- someone else-get out there and do it.
So, what' s the deal with Bayreuth?
What's the *deal* with Bayreuth? (she is silent for a moment) Bayreuth offered me Senta, a contract for two seasons, without negotiating, and I had already accepted engagements in Seattle and San Francisco, and I don't like to back out. And Bayreuth wanted a picture-I guess they were concerned about the physique they were putting on stage, and I didn't have a photo that was representative of the weight that I'd lost-and besides, I think photos are not very fair-I mean, I move very well on stage, maybe better than some of my large lady colleagues, and you can't see that in a picture.
Maybe you should send a video…
I don't think there was a video then…
Oh, you'd be surprised. I bet there's even a video of last Monday's Walkure. I know there's a video of you out there with Miss Rysanek and Miss Jones..
With Jones? Oh, it's a pirate….
Apparently someone smuggled a video camera into the balcony.
Interesting. How's the quality?
Oh. Well, anyway, I thought that someone from Bayreuth could come hear me in Dresden, and that didn't happen, and apparently you don't get into Bayreuth unless you audition-and send a picture… so right now I'm not singing at Bayreuth.
So, what's the title of the crossover album?
(We both scream)And what's on it?
Jerome Kern songs, Victor Herbert songs. Chestnuts.
You'll use a lot of chest.
And some nuts!
And a picture of you on the cover in a turban.
Not a turban. I hate turbans. Big hair!
Can we talk more about roles? What about Gioconda?
Yeah, that's something we've sort of knocked around too. It's a possibility. Probably it would be a good idea for me, say, 5 years from now.
Interesting you should ask that, because I've just been offered a production in Europe. I'm really tempted to say yes; unfortunately the offer comes at time that would really screw up my schedule. Actually I was offered a new production in Verona 2 years ago, and I said, "I don't think I'll sing my very first Norma in Italy, thank you very much!" -not to mention singing it outdoors with all the bugs! So then I was thinking about doing it in Baltimore, but I realized that's just too close to the Met-all you guys would be on the train to Baltimore!
By 2 the next morning the word would be all over town.
And I'd be consulting my laptop to see the reactions. You know, I noticed there wasn't so much talk on the web after Walkure because most people were at the musical comedy thing at Avery Fisher, which everyone is still talking about ad nauseam…
The smart people were at the Met, and there's going to be a tidal wave of email after tomorrow's broadcast.
About Norma. I worked on it some a couple of years ago and it felt pretty good. And then last week I took it in to my teacher and after we sang through it she said, you're crazy if you don't sing this. Meanwhile you have to take a look around the business and see who is being cast as Norma right now. The ladies who sing it now, aside from Jane, they all tend to be more lyric. I mean, June Anderson is basically a lyric voice…
But there's always two ways of doing a part. The Tosca who looks really good in the dress, and the Tosca who can really sing it.
I want to be both!
So, what do to make the luck work backstage, what kind of rituals?
When you're Southern Baptist, that stuff is of the devil! So I never really grew up thinking of luck, or… the only thing I'm absolutely panicked about not being on stage on time-I have that recurring nightmare, where I'm late, or at the wrong theater, or in the wrong opera. So I tend to get to the theater really early. At least I think it's early. I arrived at the Met at 4:15 for a 6:30 curtain, and then I found Hildegard had been there since 3:30 and she doesn't come on until act 2. Another time, I was singing in San Francisco, and I went into my dressing room, and there's a hypodermic needle with red fluid in it lying on the dressing table, and on the piano, there's red candle wax just blown all over the keyboard. So I called my dresser, and I asked, who was in this dressing room last night? And the dresser said, Miss Millo. And I started to think, is she a witch or… well, the hypodermic was apparently vitamin B-12, and the candle wax is a votive candle, which I guess is part of her ritual. I look at Aprile and I think, God, that's really a diva, that's what people think of when they say "diva". Sometimes my press people say to me I should be more aloof, or mysterious, but I can't do it. To me, that's artificial. For Aprile, it's real, it comes from inside. I laugh when I try to envision myself burning a candle in front of the piano.
So, I guess you have heard some of the jokes about "Debbie's Diet Book", and "Doing it Debbie's Way".. But, honestly, I hope you don't mind if ask: what do you do?
Well, first of all, I worked on my head for a long time. I had this enormous chip on my shoulder and thought that "I'm an opera singer, and it should be about the singing, it should be about the voice…" Well, then I tried moving into the society we really live in, and so I got myself a very good shrink, and I lay on the couch for a few years, and worked through a lot of garbage. Finally I got to the point when I was almost ready to do something, when I had a horrendous experience with Solti, that just pushed me over. When I went to audition for him for this Isolde recording, I sang "Dich teure Halle", and he was working on the Beethoven Ninth at the time, so I sang some Beethoven Ninth. So I get out the music to "Mild und leise", and Solti gets off his chair and walks over and puts his hands on my shoulders and he says, "Why are you so fat?" I was devastated. I just didn't see it coming. I really was hurt, and he says, "Is it the food?'' You know how they look at heavy people, and they think we're slovenly, or lazy, like it's just a matter of overeating. If it were only that simple! And I tried to explain to him how it's an emotional issue, and I realized, he doesn't care-nobody cares-he cares about what he sees! That particular experience, and realizing I might lose a recording over a matter of weight, well, I thought, I'm tired of this. I went to a diet doctor here in New York, Dr. Louis Aronne, and I started taking some of these new diet drugs for about three months about a year ago, and it really helped me get on track. Then I noticed the drugs were not working so well, and I was having a problem with dryness, so now I exercise on the bike, at least 3 times a week -- and when I'm really concentrating 5 times a week-- and I just don't eat fat and sugar. I'm still not finished. I want to take off another 50 pounds if I can, but I feel so much better-and I feel like I can give more on stage. These Walkure performances are much more rewarding to me than they were a year ago.
This is just a personal impression, but the voice sounds better too. It's even all the way up and down, even those low B's.
That's the idea. But when I think of those B's I don't think of chest-that's still in mix. For full chest I wait until low A-flat: "Totenreich!" I think the weight loss has freed up my air, my breath. I don't get winded any more. So far, there's no kind of vocal problem, which I'm always on the lookout for. Something I saw on the internet after Jimmy's gala last year: they said, "I see the diet police have gotten to Deborah Voigt. If that's the case, it's the end of a great voice." I will admit there is a definite change in energy level about every 20 pounds, but I allow for that. Don't you think that, when you see singers who've lost weight, and then had a vocal crisis, those might be singers who were having vocal problems even before the weight loss, who were singing things they had no business singing-and the diet just made it worse?
You have to sing Sieglinde tomorrow, so let's wind up. Would you care to say something to shock and astonish our parterre box readers?
Other than that I am so totally jazzed that I am on the cover of parterre box… Hmmm. Something to shock and astonish your readers… I don't think that's possible!
James Jorden is the creator and editor of parterre box, the queer opera zine.