In the beginning, there was the “brutal 1979 Pinto” — as her brother described it — that she drove to and from wedding and church singing gigs. These days, Deborah Voigt, one of the opera world's most in-demand leading sopranos, jets first class to engagements around the globe. All this may seem removed from Fullerton, but follow her opera roots back and they lead to her alma mater … and to a very persistent and wise teacher.
Prior to finding her 'voice,' Voigt recalls, “I sang primarily gospel music and Broadway show tunes, and it really wasn't until I got to Cal State Fullerton and studying with Jane Paul [professor emeritus of music] - I thought I was going to be a choral major, study choral conducting.”
Paul introduced Voigt to opera and had her singing some classical music, and then encouraged her to start entering different competitions. “I think one of the first ones I did was the Music Associates competition. I found myself winning them and entering them just as a way to make a little extra money for school, and thought, ‘Well, there must be something to this if I keep winning these competitions.’”
“She didn't have any top,” says Paul, recalling Voigt as a new student. “She had a lovely low voice, but no high.”
Voigt also hadn't yet developed the confidence and command that would become her trademark on stage.
“She often cried at the lessons, and I said, ‘For heaven sakes, let me teach you voice,’ instead of being a psychiatrist,” Paul explains. But, she was so confused. She said, ‘I don't know if I'll ever be anything, I can't do it’ — all the things one says when one is unsure. I said, ‘Be patient, be patient, believe.’ And she did!”
Of Paul, Voigt says, “She was a taskmaster. I think the thing I really respect about her is that musically, she didn't let me get away with anything. She taught me a lot of really good lessons that have done me wellover the years, things like being a good musician and being prepared, to being a good colleague.”
And what a musician she's become.
Since her early, critically acclaimed successes in Richard Strauss' “Ariadne auf Naxos” and “Elektra” with the Boston Lyric and Metropolitan Operas, respectively, Voigt's career, like her rich and lustrous voice, has soared.
The Wall Street Journal has described her performance as “seemingly effortless singing.” and USAToday says of her, “There comes a point in a Deborah Voigt opera performance, at the end of a difficult aria, when you think she has given her all. Suddenly, the voice hits overdrive - and a whole new level of vocal power. Audiences go wild.”
Many consider her unequalled in her repertoire of operas by German composers Richard Wagner — “Tristan und Isolde,” “Lohengrin,” “Die Walküre” - and Strauss. ”
Of this success and her reputation in these roles, Voigt points to former voice teacher and coach, Paul.
“Jane's own background was in German music. She worked extensively on my German diction.
“My voice is larger than most; the color is very bright, so it naturally lends itself to a particular category of music that includes many German roles. My first successes happen to have been in German roles, so I think I became identified with that. I also have that sort of Nordic, Germanic look, being blond and blue-eyed, so that also had something to do with it.
Voigt had enjoyed success with Italian operas as well, garnering raves for her performances in Giuseppe Verdi's “Aida” and “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Giacomo Puccini's “Tosca,” and most recently, in Amilcare Ponchielli's “La Gioconda” in Barcelona last fall.
“As I'm getting older, I'm finding that I'm enjoying the Italian repertoire as much, as in some ways more, so I'm really excited about the opportunity to do both.”
This ability to do so is what she says will go towards maintaining and extending her career.
“In German music, especially Wagner — where the part lies vocally is more in the middle part of the voice - you have to have high notes, but it doesn't sit high all night. The orchestras are very large and it order to project the middle part of your voice over the orchestra requires a lot of strength. If you take on too much of that repertoire, you can sometimes lose the top and lose flexibility in the voice.
“Italian music sits a little bit higher and requires a little more lyricism, and this is important in terms of longevity in the voice. You try, during the course of your career, to plan things in such a way that you don't lose your voice prematurely. That's the key, and why I try to mix in as much Italian repertoire and do a lot of concert work, as opposed to being on an opera stage all the time.”
Her recordings, too, have garnered acclaim, from such classical outings as “Obsessions: Wagner & Strauss Arias and Scenes” and “Wagner Love Duets” with Placido Domingo, to her second solo CD “All My Heart — Deborah Voigt Sings American Songs.”
During her undergraduate days, Voigt san in operas, including “Suor Angelica,” “La Traviata” and “Don Giovanni.” Dean Hess, emeritus professor of theatre and dance, directed the productions and recalled, “She had a glorious voice. Whether or not it would be world-class that it is, I had no idea — I'm not trained to tell. All I knew was that I could listen to her any time, all the time.”
Although not raised on opera, Voigt was open to it. “I think it was really curiosity more than anything else. I didn't have any idea what it was all about, so I didn't think of it as being an antiquated art form of another culture. Quite frankly, Jane could have asked me to sing the them song from “Gilligan's Island” and I would have done it — she's a very persuasive woman.”
The two have maintained close ties through the years — Paul served as Voigt's maid of honor. “The marriage didn't last, but our friendship has,” laughs Voigt.
Paul also has traveled to New York, Europe and San Francisco to see her former protogé on stage and is clearly proud of Voigt's achievements.
“We saw her perform in her first “Tristan und Isolde” in Vienna, and it was so exciting, because she got a 23-minute ovation. At the end of her big soprano solo, it was quiet at first; just as quiet as could be. And then the applause started and it grew and it grew. It was wonderful!”
Among Voigt's greatest fan is her younger brother, Kevin, who used to tag along with his big sis in that '74 Pinto to her various singing engagements. “Even then, I thought I was pretty cool to be 'with the singer,'” he says.
“As an adult, it's even more overwhelming to be backstage in some opera house in Europe listening to my sister sing these beautiful pieces. To this day, when I hear the ovations Debbie receives in various houses the world over, I just cry during her curtain calls.”
Last summmer, Voigt made her Hollywood Bowl debut, where she sang Wagner and Puccini, as well as Loewe and Lerner's “I Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.” When Hollywood Bowl Orchestra maestro John Mauceri introduced her, he presented her as Debbie Voigt.
Asked about the seemingly informal intro, she says, “The funny thing about that is, it's legally not Deborah. It's Debbie Joy Voigt, and about the time I started entering those contests at Cal State Fullerton, I thought, ‘Well, Debbie Joy Voigt sounds like she's going to be appearing at the Grand Ole Opry instead of grand opera, so I changed it to Deborah. All my friends call me Debbie. Even I had a preconceived idea of what opera was at that time.”
Not that she's opposed to Nashville; in fact, Voigt's musical taste runs the gamut. “It's kind of what ever comes across the radio. I've been on a big Norah Jones kick, because she reminds me so much of Karen Carpenter. I was an enormous Karen Carpenter fan. I could sing you any Carpeneter song backwards or forwards, and I just adore her.”
The appeal of opera, she says, is “I like the challenge of it. I think being an opera singer, in terms of studying the technique of singing, is sort of the highest level of vocal ability that one can try to attain, and I was always fascinated by the technique of singing — how to sing, how to make your voice work.
“I love the grandness of it. I love the music, the live orchestra. I love trying to find a new way to sing a line on any given night. The roles I've done many times in the past, I tried to do a little differently.”
And, at times, it all comes together in great and unexpected ways.
“There are sort of pinnacle performances. The first time I sang Sieglinde from “The Ring Cycle” was at the Met and my tenor was Placido Domingo. I had a moment on stage when I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘I can't believe I'm standing on stage at the Metropolitan Opera singing to Placido Domingo!’ I mean, it was just surreal. Then, when we went out for our applause at the end of the act, you could just feel the applause in your chest, it was so enormous.
“But it comes at various moments. I could be in the middle of a performance and a particular phrase goes well and you just know that this is what you're supposed to be doing, and I know that God put me on this earth to be an opera star. I'm not sure why…”
That's not to say that there haven't been less-than-divine moments.
“I got a call in New York for a performance in San Francisco. The woman who was supposed to sing fell ill, so I came out, but I had no rehearsal on stage. My first entrance was fine, and as I went to leave the stage, I had to walk out of a door. When I stepped out, the light was very bright and I thought I was stepping out onto a landing. It was a stair and I fell, which was fine — that can happen, but I said, ‘oh, expletive.’ Part of the opera house heard and started giggling like mad. That was pretty bad.
“When I made my debut in Vienna, I was doing a role where I was playing a prima donna. My dressing room was upstairs on the stage, and to get down there was a little spiral staircase. I had this great mammoth dressing gown on with a big, long train. So, I come down the stairs and hear this giggling from the audience, and I thought, ‘What the hell was that?’ What had happened was that when I came downstairs, my dress stayed behind my upstairs. I didn't pull the train with me, so I flashed the entire left corner of the Vienna State Theater. That was pretty horrifying. But you learn — you only do that once.”
Voigt's 2005-06 schedule alone includes opera, concert and recital dates in Berlin, Barcelona, Dresden, Boston, Sante Fe, Valencia, Moscow, New York, Vienna, Minneapolis, Lucerne, Japan and Fullerton — she recently performed the inagural concert for the new Performing Arts Center. Backed and accompanied by the University Orchestra and Titan alumni and student performers, Voigt sang Broadway show tunes and arias, to the delight of the sold-out, black-tie audience.
Quite a jet-setting lifestyle, and a fun one, too.
“But I have to admit,“ she says, “the travel part is a bit of a downer. When you look at it from a more pratical perspective, you are basically living away from your home for 10 or 11 months of the year and living with the same clothes that you packed two months ago. Yes, it is glamorous, and I get to see really exciting places and meet interesting people, but it makes having relationships difficult and makes keeping relationships with your family very difficult — it's kind of a mixed bag.”
Voigt has a condominium in Vero Beach, Florida, but spends more time in her apartment in Manhattan. “I try tell myself that my home is wherever I am with my dog, a little Yorkshire terrier named Steinway. He's been to Europe many, many times; he's been in the diva's dressing room in all the major opera houses of the world. He's very cute and very good company.”
Looking ahead, Voigt's plans include singing Brünhilde, the leading soprano in Wagner's four-opera epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” or “The Ring Cycle.” It is a part she's been working up to, career-wise, vocally and mentally.
“I'll probably start singing her in 2009. I'm sort of looking forward to it and daunted by it at the same time. I'm not sure if I should be excited or running for the hills!”
What a ride it's been, literally and figuratively, for Deborah Voigt. From a former teacher's admonition to believe in herself, to developing and honing her formidable talents with what her brother describes as “an incredible work ethics,” she has achieved a stature that very few enjoy. That she's only recently entered her prime years may indicate the best is yet to come.