On Deborah Voigt’s Twitter feed, amid the family and dog pictures and shout-outs to friends, you’ll find the occasional reference to her most familiar public identity.
“The women of the young artist program sang me the hojotohos!!” she writes about her late October visit to South Florida to be honored as the special guest of the Florida Grand Opera.
“Hojotoho” is the cry of Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, of course, but there will be none of that Friday at the Knight Concert Hall. Nor, indeed, will there be spears or helmets.
For her art song program that night, she’s sticking in large part to American composers.
“I just really want to sing in my own language, for one,” Voigt said by phone from her home near New York last week about her Miami recital. “I mean, I’ve spent so much time in German-land and slightly into Italian-land that it’s just really refreshing to be able to sing my own language, and also to sing composers of my nationality. That’s something I don’t do ever on an opera stage.”
What Voigt has done on an opera stage is make a spectacular career for herself as the leading dramatic soprano of her time, a standout in music of Wagner, most recently in the Metropolitan Opera’s controversial Robert LePage staging of the Ring cycle, and in the music of Richard Strauss, particularly in the title role of his Ariadne auf Naxos. Good dramatic sopranos are relatively rare, and ones who have the stamina for Wagner and Strauss even more so, which has made her the only singer legions of opera fans can imagine in throat-killers such as Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Still, in early September she withdrew from a Washington National Opera engagement in which she was to sing Isolde, a role she had sung to great acclaim for a decade. She released a statement saying she didn’t feel she could do the role justice, and says now that problems came to a head less than two weeks before the opera was scheduled to open.
“I had been doing very well in rehearsals. Everything was going fine, but there are a couple little sections in Isolde that are problematic: the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II. And I was just struggling with it,” she said. “In retrospect, Cesca [Francesca Zambello, artistic director at WNO] and I had this discussion about 10 days before opening night. And I wish that I had had the wherewithal, having been in this business as long as I have, to say ‘You know, give me a few more days to see how this really feels.’
“We had been on the stage, rehearsing, and prior to this particular day we had the discussion we’d been down in the rehearsal hall, and I have never been a singer who gives everything in a rehearsal hall. I’ve never done it, ever, in my career. I think her approaching me and saying ‘At the sitzprobe last night, you weren’t in the best of shape,’ that could have been because we started with Act II, and we really need Act I for Isolde.
“I don’t know; it was just something that felt like I was being — not pressured, but that I needed to make a decision for not only my interests, but the interests of the company,” Voigt said. “And I have a lot of respect for that company; I’m their artist-in-residence; I will be appearing with them again. I just thought, ‘Is this the best thing for all of us right now?’ And Cesca is my boss, but she’s also my friend, so it was kind of a perfect storm in that moment. But now I think, ‘Well, Debbie, should you just have brushed yourself off, had a good night’s sleep, and seen how I felt in the bright light of day, or the next day or the following day?’”
She doesn’t know whether she’ll do Isolde ever again, citing the long prep times for opera productions and her wish to try some other roles.
“I have to look at my life, too. I’ve given an awful lot, and I’ve received an awful lot,” said Voigt, who’s 53. “But I have to think: Do I want to go out on stage and sing a role that I have had so much success in, that I’ve recorded beautifully, that I’ve done in major houses, and try to re-create that again? Or do I put my energy into learning the Prioress [in Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmelites], or the Kostelnička [in Jánaček’s Jenůfa], or Ortrud [in Wagner’s Lohengrin]?
“It might be better for me to do that, and let someone else have the worries about the high notes and singing for four hours,” Voigt said. “I’ve done that, and there are a lot of other things I would like to do. A lot more of these recitals, for example.”
Friday’s recital is in the vein of her 2005 record All My Heart, a survey of American art song, and it contains some of the same material. Four American composers are represented — Amy Beach, Ben Moore, Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom — and there also will be a set of five songs by Strauss and two by Tchaikovsky.
Moore, a painter as well as a composer, had his new opera Enemies: A Love Story, based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, workshopped last season at Palm Beach Opera.
“Ben happens to be a friend of mine, and it was kind of a natural to start doing his music years ago. And I’m really happy to see that (his songs are) starting to show up on young singers’ programs here and there. He’s doing really well,” she said. She’ll sing four Moore songs: I Am in Need of Music, This Heart That Flutters, To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, and Bright Cap and Streamers.
She’ll also sing six songs by Bernstein, including Somewhere, the familiar ballad from West Side Story. But some of the other songs — Piccola Serenata, Greeting, So Pretty, Another Love and It’s Gotta Be Bad to Be Good — are not well-known.
“I never had a chance to meet him or work with him,” she said of Bernstein, who died in 1990, while Voigt was still on the singing competition trail. “I just thought, ‘Well, why not explore some of those songs?’ Some of them, nobody has ever heard of.”
The three Bolcom songs — Toothbrush Time, At the Last Lousy Moments of Love, and George — mark a return to Voigt’s repertory; she sang them last at her Carnegie Hall debut in 1988. “They’ve been on the shelf for a long time, and when we put together this tour, we asked, ‘What other American composer can we throw in?’ and we picked them up again.”
Voigt credits her pianist, Brian Zeger, with being a strong guiding hand in choosing repertory.
“Brian has such knowledge of this repertoire. He makes me look much smarter than I am when planning programs,” she said.
The Moore, Bernstein and Bolcom songs are on the second half of the program, while the songs of Beach are on the first half with Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Beach (1867-1944) was the first prominent American woman composer, a fine pianist whose music is very much in keeping with the late Romantic style she grew up in. Voigt said the songs, all set to texts by Robert Browning — The Year’s at the Spring, Ah, Love, But a Day and I Send My Heart Up to Thee —“are a good fit for me,” and align well on the first half with the other Romantic material.
“The first half is more Romantic in style and delivery, and the second half gives me a chance to be more playful. I do have that aspect to my personality; I’m not always the spear-toting, helmet-wearing Valkyrie,” she said. “It’s nice to have outlets like this … and possibly break down the still-existing barriers between the average guy, who has never even thought about going to an opera because the thinks the artists involved are pretentious, and would never envision them doing their own vacuuming unless they were wearing their Brünnhilde costume at the same time.”
She points out that she is often programmed as part of a concert series that features a wide range of celebrities, some of them in very different fields of musical endeavor.
“You may have someone who is coming to see this person Deborah Voigt they’ve never heard of, because really, they bought the (series) tickets to see K.D. Lang the week before,” she said. “I try to offer up a program that is going to have the lush, Romantic pieces that people who know me would associate me with, but then also things that the guy whose wife has dragged him to this program might actually enjoy as well.”
After the Miami recital, she heads to Switzerland to sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Neeme Järvi, then goes to Utah to sing four concerts with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; she’ll also do a Christmas concert on Dec. 7 with Vero Beach Opera, with whom she conducts a yearly mentoring program for a young soprano.
In March, she returns to the Met in a new role, starring as Marie opposite Thomas Hampson in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, a violent Expressionist masterpiece with a very difficult score.
“It’s just really thorny. The more I spend time with it, the more I hear the melodic aspects of it, but learning it — I’ll think I have the line down perfectly, and then I’ll put the piano underneath it , and it’s like ‘Where the hell did it go?’” she said. “That’s at the moment, the challenge of it. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be the acting of it, because that’s the fun part of it. It’s going to be difficult musically. And it’s going to be conducted by James Levine, which is wonderful but daunting at the same time.”
A native of suburban Chicago, Voigt moved with her family to Southern California as a teenager and studied at California State University-Fullerton. Raised in a strict Southern Baptist home, her singing talent was discovered during church services, and her key operatic training came when she joined the prestigious Merola Young Artists Program at the San Francisco Opera.
She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991 in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, and thereafter added the world’s major companies to her résumé, singing operas such as Verdi’s Aida and Strauss’ Salome and Elektra. She became well-known to the non-operatic world in 2004 when she had weight-loss surgery after being removed from a production of Ariadne at London’s Royal Opera House.
But her operatic triumphs only continued after that, with her first Isolde at the Met in 2008 winning exceptional reviews, and last year, the complete LePage Ring was released on Blu-ray and DVD. She has occasionally sung musical theater, including Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun at Glimmerglass Opera, and in 2011 premiered a one-woman show about her life, Voigt Lessons, which she developed with playwright Terence McNally.
Early last month, she sang a benefit concert in San Francisco for the Sing With Haiti project, an effort to rebuild that country’s Holy Trinity Music School, which was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. Next year, Harper Collins will publish her memoir, the writing of which she found cathartic.
“It’s going to be revealing in a way, shocking to some and enlightening to others,” she said. “If you’re going to write a memoir and tell your story, then you have to tell your story, you know?” She’s been thinking about doing a memoir for some time, but when she first tried it, “it was too soon. I felt there were some issues in my life that hadn’t been negotiated and had to be dealt with before I could write the book.”
She also struggled with what to put in and what to leave out, given the sensitivity of some the stories in her life. “But you finally have to say, ‘OK, I just have to tell the story, and let the pieces fall where they may.’”
She has reached out in other ways, most notably as a Twitter paragon; the Los Angeles Times named her one of 25 cultural tweeters worth following.
“I didn’t get the whole Twitter thing (at first), and I don’t know that I do get it for people who aren’t trying to build an audience and get people to come to concerts,” said Voigt, who has almost 11,000 followers on the microblogging site. “My publicist said, ‘You have to do Twitter,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to do Twitter. People don’t want to know.’ But as it turns out, they do want to know. And I have actually made a couple friends through Twitter, people who are actually friends of mine now.
“It’s very touching to me that people really are genuinely interested in how you feel about something … It’s been kind of nice. We’re not as removed as we used to be, and that’s not the time we’re living in,” she said.
She also relishes the chance to take part in things such as the Haitian relief effort.
“Opera has blessed me in many ways, and I’ve been very, very fortunate. But it has consumed so much of my life that the opportunities to give back have been few and far between, simply by virtue of what it demands both professionally and personally. And so I’m at the point where I can say, ‘I think I’m going to take a week and go down to Haiti and teach those kids.’ I think that’s just part of the cycle of having a really enriched, God-given life.
“I don’t think I was given this talent at random. That’s not part of my spiritual makeup,” she said. “I think I was given this talent for a reason, and it’s time for me to acknowledge that and give some of it back.”
Deborah Voigt appears at 8 p.m. Friday in the Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami. Tickets range from $50-$130. Call 877-949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org.