Fort Worth — Deborah Voigt is the leading dramatic soprano of our day, taking on all of the huge Wagner/Strauss roles from Isolde, Ariadne and Brunhilde to the voice-of-steel Italian roles such as Minnie in Puccini's Girl of the Golden West. She is equally in demand as a recitalist and will sing a recital at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth on Tuesday evening as part of the Cliburn Concerts series.
But when talking to her, the very first impression you get is that there is absolutely nothing of the diva in her. She is fun, with a ready laugh, and enjoys a lively conversation. The word “ordinary” pops into your mind and you have to remind yourself that she is really someone extraordinary.
She was born Debbie Joy Voigt in 1960, into a strict Southern Baptist household in a town outside of Chicago. In a Feb. 12, 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said that she changed her name to "Deborah" because "in the ignorance of youth, I thought [Debbie] it sounded too much like a country singer. Now everyone calls me Debbie anyway."
This was our first interview. At the beginning, and during my preparation, she was Ms. Voigt, maybe Deborah, in my mind. It didn't take more than a couple of minutes for that to change to Debbie, a switch that happened so naturally that I didn't even notice it until later.
She enjoys doing recitals, in part because of the direct connection she makes with the audience. An opera singer is usually in a role, sometimes completely the opposite of the singer's nature, and on stage with an orchestra between the stage and the audience.
“I am fortunate to be having a good time with recitals,” she says. “Usually, you have your opera singers and then you have your recital singers. Usually, there isn't much crossover. That is part of why I put together an accessible program. You find yourself on a concert series that had Doc Severinsen last week and K.D. Lang next, and the audience is asking 'who is this Voigt person?' ”
The recital program is exactly that, accessible, yet there is much to intrigue the musical cognoscente. There are some songs by Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss, but there are songs by American composers Amy Beach, Leonard Bernstein, William Bolcom and Benjamin Moore. That last name even sent me scrambling to the internet with a huge “who?” in my mind. Turns out he is a composer whose songs are beginning to turn up in recitals by such vocal luminaries as Nathan Gunn and Susan Graham, in addition to Voigt.
Mrs. H. H. (Amy) Beach is a long-ignored American composer and concert pianist. She lived from 1867 to 1944 and was the first prominent American woman composer. She was a founder of the Society of American Women Composers and served as its first president. She was part of a group called the “Second New England School” and while their names may be slightly more familiar – Horatio Parker and George Chadwick for example – only Edward McDowell is still remembered, if not frequently performed.
“My pianist, Brian Zeger, helps me put these programs together,” she says. “He has a real feel for what works and what will be enjoyable for the audience. All of them are musically lush. That is where my heart lies.”
People don't quite know what to expect when Voigt takes the stage.
“Some of them have only seen me in my Brunhilde garb and here I am in an evening gown. But songs are still telling a story and you have to have ability as an actor to pull off even the simplest song. Of course, you can't be flailing around the stage either.”
Which is why there are no opera arias on the program.
“There are some opera arias that might be suitable, but most of the arias in my repertoire are either not extractable or would never work in concert,” she said. “There are some, such as 'Dich, teure halle' [from Wagner's Tannhauser] or 'Du bist der Lenz' [Sieglinde's aria from Die Walküre], but even they are really for orchestra and don't work nearly as well with piano.”
The Bolcom songs are a natural because they come from his set of Cabaret Songs. He wrote a number of collections of these songs in addition to another collection of what he called Theater Songs. All og these make for great recital programming. The Bernstein songs come from a work called Piccolo Serenta, which the composer wrote as a gift for the legendary conductor Karl Böhm. One has the intriguing Mae West-esque title “It's gotta be bad to be good.”
Her next operatic assignment is something completely different for her, or any singer for that matter: Marie in Alben Berg's atonal opera Wozzeck. Based on an equally dark German expressionist play by Geog Büchner, it is about the miserable lives of the poor and oppressed, who are carelessly exploited, and is as bleak a work for the theater as I know. Words like “brutal” and “stark” come to mind, as do the four paintings by Edvard Munch that are known as The Scream. But Voigt is upbeat and looking forward to the challenge.
“The more I am working on Marie, the more the beauty of the music reveals itself,” she says. “Dramatically, it is a great challenge, but it pulls you into its world.”
This Fort Worth appearance has something of a homecoming in it for Voigt.
Her dad and stepmother live in Dallas, as does her sister. You can bet they will all be in attendance, as well as her sister's children.
“It will be great to see them,” she says, just like the normal, non-diva and proud daughter and aunt that she is.
» TheaterJones has a few pairs of tickets to give out for tonight's concert. If you'd like a pair, email email@example.com. The first two emailers will win.