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Debbie Joy Voigt: La Fanciula del roulotte

In a year riddled with financial ills, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening night had a near-death experience last week when a threatened Kimmel Center strike could’ve shut down the gala fundraiser and guest soloist Dawn Upshaw canceled due to a death in the family. However, the gala decamped to the University of Pennsylvania campus and Upshaw was replaced by Deborah Voigt, who took off from rehearsing Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera to sing George Gershwin (among others) in Philadelphia. Voigt used a microphone – except for “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess – and didn’t change her voice at all. From Eileen Farrell to Kiri Te Kanawa to Jessye Norman, opera singers retreated to the bottom of their range for pop. Not Voigt. And it worked.

Having fit her genie into a sub-Salome-sized bottle, Voigt also showed what we’re missing in so many other operatic crossover attempts. Renee Fleming and Thomas Quasthoff may have the style down right to the smallest detail. But in the former’s Dark Hope and the latter’s new R&B disc Tell It Like It Is, neither singer reveals their inner selves. And such revelations are what pop music is about. You are your own icon. You don’t assume an archetype. You create it. But that’s complicating matters. What made Voigt mesmerizing is that she simply sang, and drew from her own experience to do so.

Prior to that, she gave me 10 minutes between rehearsal and performance and revealed that country music is one of her roads not taken.

Q: Aren’t you busy enough without popping down to Philadelphia for a concert?

A: I was thinking that myself. But I havn’t sung here for a long time. Fifteen years easily. And to be really honest, since Brunnhilde is only in the final scene of Siegfried there’s not a lot going on [in staging rehearsals] for me in the next few days. The timing turned out to be perfect. I haven’t worked with Maestro Dutoit in a long time. Things can get pretty heavy in Wagner Land. There’s not much to connect the dotes between the two but it makes a nice vocal getaway for me – as well as a psychological getaway.

Q: Dawn Upshaw was planning a Great American Songbook program, so are you. But she seems to sing a bit more of that than you do. Are any of your selections new to you?

A: I’ve done them all in the last six months at some point or another. I did a concert at Carnegie Hall with the Collegiate Chorale.

Q: What kind of vocal adjustment is required?

A: Not too much. I just sort of sing the way I sing regardless of Wagner, Strauss or Kern or whatever. I don’t chest it up….I’m not able to make as much sound in the middle part of my register than in the higher range.

Q: Will you be doing more pop music?

A: I hope so. It’s really what I grew up singing. The problem is that opera managements book so far out in advance. I’m doing a week next year at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. It’s a leap of faith to say I won’t take an opera engagement and see what comes up.

Q: What about musicals? How do you feel about last summer’s Annie Get Your Gun at Glimmerglass Opera in hindsight?

A: I knew that me doing a musical could be really wonderful or really ridiculous. Not a lot of middle ground. But it was very well received. And it was the most like me that I’ve been onstage. The character is outgoing, friendly and funny. I don’t get a chance to do that in my opera life. I had no choice but to be silly and do my best Lucille Ball imitation.

Q: What about other musicals?

A: Not a lot of titles really fit. I’m not going to wear a novice nun outfit and run across the hills singing The Sound of Music.

Q: You also did a one-woman show at Glimmerglass in which you came out as a recovering alcoholic. Have you had any bad reaction to that?

A: If there are negative things I haven’t heard them. I felt that at this point in my life and career it’s an opportunity to share my journey and what I’ve come to. It has opened up some conversations with fans that have been very interesting. Lots of identification with struggles, whether with weight or alcohol.

Q: I know a fair amount about that subject – I’m Irish – but never knew about the strong connection between between food addiction and alcoholism.

A: Cross addiction after gastric bypass surgery is more common than you’d think, especially with women. Life is so interesting. You always learn something new about yourself.

Q: So is it hard to just be Deborah Voigt onstage? I saw Ethel Merman in concert near the end of her life and she was rather impersonal.

A: Well there’s no orchestra separating you from the audience. They’re very close. It’s a little disconcerting. By the way, my legal name is Debbie Joy Voigt. I changed it because thought it sounded like a country singer. If only I’d been a country and western star.

Q: But wouldn’t you have to live in a trailer?

A: No darling. I said star.

an ArtsJournal blog