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On the Beat

On the Beat

She'll cry tomorrow: Voigt writes a memoir about the hazards of a high-pressure life in opera.

On the Beat Voigt thmb 714
Voigt: from stage to page
© James Salzano 2014

ONE OF THE BIG CHALLENGES faced by any journalist who covers opera is that almost no one — not most conductors, not most singers, not most directors, and certainly not most managers — ever wants to say anything even mildly controversial. Creative conflicts are inevitable when one is rehearsing a major new opera production, yet unlike a lot of their counterparts in film or theater, most people in Operaland try not to let a discouraging word escape their lips, for fear of losing a job opportunity down the line. There are a few exceptions, but most top-line opera personalities prove themselves depressingly skilled in the game of music-biz politics when they sit down to give an interview. This antiseptic point of view — or lack of one — is often reflected in singers' memoirs as well. Of all the hours of my life I'd like to have back, I put at the top of the list the ones I've spent paging through all the star autobiographies that reveal very little about the bloodsport of opera; we can always feel the subject tiptoeing around the truth, taking care not to offend — trying to preserve the image of opera as a world populated by really nice, humble people whose only concern is the selfless serving of the composer's art. There are a few exceptions: RÉGINE CRESPIN's Onstage, Offstage is a fascinating and moving glimpse into the inner life of this brilliant, complex woman; ditto MAUREEN FORRESTER's Out of Character. The truths revealed about performing in TITO GOBBI's My Life are essential reading for anyone interested in stagecraft. There are a few more. There aren't a lot. 

That's why I perked up when I spoke with DEBORAH VOIGT's publicist recently and heard him say, "I've just read the first few pages of Debbie's book. It's not just Debbie spinning and putting a pretty diva image out there. It's the naked truth." Singers' publicists tend to be a bit breathless in their support of their clients, but as a lover of naked truths, I was eager to hear from Voigt herself about what led her to write her memoir, tentatively titled Call Me Debbie, which HarperCollins has scheduled for publication in early 2015. We met in her publicist's office in late March. 

Voigt's book deals with the pressures of her life in opera and the accompanying struggles she had with alcohol, food and the wrong men. "Part of my wanting to write this is for cathartic reasons," says Voigt. "Also, I want people to know me more than they can given the venue of the opera house. I think there are a lot of things about my story that the average guy will be able to relate to. And maybe, with opera being in the terrible situation it's in at the moment, and with audiences dwindling — maybe people will say, 'Oh, she's the same kind of person I am. She's struggled with weight and alcohol.' And maybe they'll think this opera thing isn't as off-putting as they originally thought it was. I've never been unhappy about what opera brought to me. But if opera didn't create whatever issues I've had, trying to deal with opera created them. There are pressures, and did I use those things to escape from it? Yes. No wonder! Dealing with people telling you, 'You're too fat, you can't do this, you can't do that' — it's a very stressful profession." 

One thing that many generic "as told to" memoirs miss is the subject's individual voice. Voigt's collaborator, NATASHA STOYANOFF, had a lot of e-mail exchanges with the soprano, so she could study the rhythms of the way Voigt wrote and spoke. Voigt admits that as she and Stoyanoff worked on the book, her worries about the reactions of people close to her occasionally intruded on the story she was telling. "My real concern is, how will my family react to this?" she says. "But when I think about leaving a particular part out because I'm concerned about their feelings or their own issues, then I feel I'm not really being true to myself. Part of me feels that I should send excerpts I'm concerned about to various people. But if I do that, I'm allowing a chance for them to input their concerns and potentially change the story. I'm still sort of on the fence about that."

We segue into talking about some of her recent reviews. There's no question that Voigt sounds less glorious today than she once did; the robust core of her voice has diminished. Most critics know precious little about the physiological aspects of the human voice, and I wonder how Voigt feels about the press speculating that the weight-loss surgery she underwent in 2004 has led to a vocal decline. "I'm kind of tired of it," she sighs. "I think that any changes they may have heard in my voice may have more to do with the progression of a woman in a career that is more than ten minutes long. If you open your mouth at twenty-four and fast-forward almost thirty years, there are bound to be changes. I've been through menopause. I'm not sure that difference means 'worse.' SUSAN GRAHAM sounds different. RENÉE FLEMING sounds different. We are all girls of a certain age. It's inevitable. 

"I think also that people can't understand that anyone would have any changes — 'How could she have weight-loss surgery when there's a possibility that something might change?' I knew I had to do something. My joints were hurting. I was winded walking across the stage. I was worried about diabetes. I didn't want to end up like poor Luciano, staying heavy until the end. I think people who still worship at the altar of MARIA CALLAS cannot understand that anyone would submit to surgery. Well, that's life, folks. I wanted to have a better life." spacer

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