Q&A: Opera star Deborah Voigt writes of turbulent life
Jan. 27, 2015
NEW YORK (AP) — Soprano Deborah Voigt keeps a picture of herself performing alongside tenor Placido Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera — both as a treasured memory of a great triumph and as a stark reminder of her emotional troubles. They were playing twins, Sieglinde and Siegmund, in Richard Wagner's "Die Walkuere," but Voigt seems nearly twice Domingo's size.
"I look back at the picture, and I'm enormous, I'm absolutely huge," she said, "and while I know and remember the joy of being in that moment, I see the illness there, too. And I was walking around with it. I wasn't at a point in my life where I was anywhere near ready to deal with it."
That point wouldn't come for more than a decade. But now, at age 54, Voigt has gained enough perspective to write about her battles with obesity and binge-eating, as well as other destructive behavior that included alcoholism and a series of troubled relationships with men.
Her autobiography, "Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva," published Tuesday by HarperCollins, is a startlingly frank look at the life of one of her generation's most prominent operatic stars.
From the moment she burst on the scene at the beginning of the 1990s, Voigt thrilled audiences with a wall of golden sound that soared effortlessly over the orchestra in operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss. She was in demand all over the world and performed more than 250 times with the Met, appearing every year from 1991 to 2014.
But many critics felt that from the time she underwent weight-reduction surgery in 2004, her voice seemed to lose some of its luster, though Voigt cites other factors like the natural aging process. In recent years she has struggled with roles that once came easily and has increasingly turned to pursuits beyond the opera stage.
Voigt talked about her book in an interview with The Associated Press at the Met last week.
AP: You write about the Royal Opera House in London buying you out of your contract for Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" because the production called for you to wear a "little black dress," and then how you used the money to pay for gastric bypass surgery. How much did you weigh at your heaviest and how much have you lost?
Voigt: I started gaining weight at the end of high school, when I was attached to the man who would become my husband, and I just got bigger and bigger and bigger. At my worst, I was up to 333 pounds. Right now I weigh more than most people would guess, 195. But I'm very dense (laughs), and of course I've got a lot of metal in me now (from one hip and two knee replacements).
AP: After you lost weight, you describe losing yourself in a series of unhealthy sexual relationships. What prompted that?
Voigt: It was just another thing, another avoidance. Yes, I'll go in, and I'll work my ass off onstage, and then when I'm gone I can't sit with myself. I still have to work at it. I don't know why. ... I had never experienced what it was like to be a woman who was attractive to men. And for the first time in my life I was getting looks, and thought, 'Wow, what's THAT like?'
AP: You make it clear that a lot of your insecurity and poor self-image stemmed from your parents' troubled relationship. Have they read the book?
Voigt: They're reading it right now. Writing honestly about my childhood was a very difficult decision. But how do you talk about where you came from if you don't talk about where you came from? I have a phenomenal relationship with my parents now. ... Now, that being said, I know that some of it is going to hurt them. Some of it is going to shock them. I don't think they know about some of my behavior. So, I hope they're going to be OK, but there's nothing I can do. Before I mailed it to them, I called each of them ... I told them, 'It's my story, everything's fantastic in the end, it's been a bumpy road, and I love you with all my heart.'
AP: In addition to your book, you're working on a one-woman show, radio show and hosting Met HD broadcasts. Does that leave time for performing opera?
Voigt: The thing I have to figure out is what I want to sing, and who will let me sing what I want to sing where I want to sing it. The only role I haven't done that I'm dying to do, and I don't think it's going to happen, is Elektra (in the Strauss opera). It's come up a couple of times and fallen through for reasons beyond my control.
AP: You had a disappointing experience in Washington in 2013 when you withdrew during rehearsals for Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." What went wrong?
Voigt: I had a crummy orchestra rehearsal. It happens. (Washington National Opera artistic director) Francesca (Zambello) was there and asked me, 'Well, what's going on? I'm the head of this theater now and it has to be a success.' I was just out of rehab and raw, very vulnerable. Looking back I wish that when I had the conversation I had said, 'Wait a minute, we have 10 days, and I have never been an artist who performs well in rehearsal.' Will I sing Isolde again? She's not on the books at the moment, so I would be surprised. What I would love to happen is for someone to get sick somewhere and I could just go in and save the day and have some fun with it — you know, without pressure.