Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the American soprano as she comes to The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for one of her most famous roles…
Echoing the title of Greta Garbo’s last film, one could call Deborah Voigt a two-faced woman, for this American soprano is one of the few artists equally at home singing Broadway songs and appearing in opera. But in so far as that description can often be applied pejoratively it doesn’t fit Deborah at all. When you meet her you find yourself in the company of a woman who is bright, sassy, without conceit, self-critical at times, frequently humorous and always engagingly honest. Politics being irrelevant to our talk, I have no idea what her stance is there, but when looking back on the interview it strikes me that Deborah epitomises the kind of person that we used to think of as quintessentially American until President Bush came along and tragically transformed the way in which for the time being we see that country.
Commenting on her early days, Deborah is immediately direct and to the point. “My interest in classical music didn’t become important to me until my early twenties to be honest, but I did start to take voice-lessons at the age of fifteen or so. I come from the mid-west, from Illinois, but that would have been in Southern California. Being interested in Broadway tunes I did sing a lot of them and also growing up in a church-family gospel music featured too. But it so happened that the wife of my choral-music teacher was an opera singer and that’s how I started to go down that path, but it could easily have been something else.
“During high school I thought that I wanted to be a choral conductor or a teacher of choral music so when I first went to college that was my major. Later I left school – I was never a good student – and found myself working for a few years as a computer operator but took lessons at night. My teacher at that time asked me to pick out an aria to work on and I had to ask ‘what is an aria?’! By then I’d seen one or two operas and was vaguely aware who Maria Callas was, but it was still something that had not really grabbed me. We worked on an aria – I had chosen ‘Nessun dorma’ of all things unaware of it being a piece for a tenor – and when I decided to go back to school I decided also to buck up and be an opera major. That’s how I started to work with a woman named Jane Paul. She’s the one who properly introduced me to opera and to classical music. It really started from there because she ignited my interest in opera. She’s a real friend and someone with a great work ethic who gave me lots of practical knowledge and helped me so much in matters of technique that I shall be eternally grateful to her. She has just turned eighty now but she still teaches a bit.”
Again speaking of Jane Paul, Deborah comments that although she herself had no idea of how her career might shape up Jane read her voice well and even then knew where it was going to go. Valuable experience came Deborah’s way when in 1985 she joined a programme for young artists at San Francisco Opera. “They even had some fencing lessons and I’d say, ‘When does a future dramatic soprano have to fence? But OK I’ll do it’. During that apprenticeship I found myself surrounded by people who were just as talented as I – if not more so – and who had a far more extensive knowledge of opera and a wider repertoire. I felt very green, but I remember being very excited by some of the masterclasses – especially when Leontyne Price came there – by then my awareness of the opera scene had increased and I did know who she was! We worked together on an aria and it was a remarkable experience, and when I thanked her afterwards I couldn’t resist commenting on the absolutely gorgeous diamond she had on her hand. ‘Honey’, she replied, ‘I bought this ring for myself so nobody could ever take it away’. So I immediately made a memo: ‘buy your own jewellery’.”
As Deborah’s career blossomed she first concentrated on Italian opera but today she is turning more and more to Wagner while Richard Strauss is already central to her repertoire from Salome to Ariadne auf Naxos, the latter she was rehearsing at Covent Garden when we met. “I think we knew the direction that things would take but how and when was a matter of sheer luck and good fortune. The roles seemed to present themselves at the right time, although that sometimes led me to very scary public places. A really big challenge was my first Chrysothemis in Elektra because it was in a new production at the Met with Leonie Rysanek, no less, as Klytemnästra. Actually Tristan und Isolde in Vienna did come up a bit early. Only two years before I had been looking at it with my teacher and recognised that it was too much for me then, but the Vienna offer was with Maestro Thielemann and it was a new production with Tom Moser whom I adore and there was a nice long rehearsal period too. Opportunities like that are rare, so I grabbed it. But I told myself that I would not accept any other performances in that role until that engagement had been completed which meant in the event that it took five years to schedule it again. But that was fine by me and now Isolde is going to be a big part of my calendar in the next couple of years.”
Richard Strauss being a composer whose operatic work is remarkably varied, I ask Deborah if she feels that she can link the fiercely dramatic Strauss of Salome and Elektra with the creator of such works as Ariadne auf Naxos and Arabella? Is there a common factor? “Well, he writes beautifully for women and he gives you a lot to dig into, because his subject matter is always very rich. Also in most of his works you are required to sing very long phrases. The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier is a bit more chatty than most of his girls, but it’s one of his most personal characteristics as a composer that you must be able to spin air through a phrase. Finding the arc of a Straussian phrase is different from anything I have to do when singing Verdi or other composers.”
In speaking up for Strauss, Deborah is keen too to stress the interest she has found in his less frequently performed pieces. “I think they deserve greater fame and attention than they get, but part of the problem is that they can be very hard to sing. Frau ohne Schatten is one where you have to have such extraordinary singers that it’s hard to cast them, and Helen in The Egyptian Helen is difficult, while the tenor role there is merciless, so that’s a reason why we don’t often see works like that.”
In contrast Ariadne auf Naxos is often staged even if it rarely fills the house and it is an opera in which Deborah Voigt has taken the title-role many times. Such is the nature of the piece that in its long ‘Prologue’ (which can really be thought of as Act One) she sings the role of the Prima Donna who is to appear as Ariadne in the ‘opera’ which follows (call it Act Two). The ‘Prologue’ not only satirises singers and artists but also shows them at the mercy of patrons. Indeed the explanation of what follows is that the richest man in Vienna has commissioned both a serious opera and an operetta for his entertainment (cue disputes over the running order) then has a whim that both should be performed simultaneously. This accounts for the odd combination of that which follows when the tragic story of Ariadne grieving for her lost Theseus is interrupted by scenes featuring Harlequin and the soubrette Zerbinetta. However, any idea of a simplistic contrast between the serious and the comic is wide of the mark. Even the ‘Prologue’, which is essentially humorous, is making serious points about artists, audiences, artistic compromises and attitudes to art.
We discuss the ‘Prologue’ first, which although featuring Deborah as the Prima Donna actually presents that role as a small part in an ensemble piece. “Without question the leading role here is the character of The Composer, with Zerbinetta probably second. It can be a tricky balance because in my role you do nevertheless have to make an impression, one that will help the contrast with Ariadne in what follows. The Prima Donna has only a few lines to sing but she’s there quite a lot hanging around and observing. Every detail for the role is very much thought out. In showing how a diva can behave it’s really a caricature but, as one who loves Broadway songs, I am aware that even if they can call for skills akin to what is needed for Lieder there are certain singers today who look down on that sphere. I can think of a couple like that who carry themselves in a certain way, but you won’t get any names from me! In this age, though, arrogant condescending divas are not tolerated as they once were. Mind you, I have seen a few fits! As for the comedy here nothing tops that moment when the Dancing Master declares, ‘There are more good tunes in the heel of my left boot than in the whole of Ariadne auf Naxos put together’. That’s a great line and it just cracks them up in the audience every time”.
If serious points are being made comically here, it’s also the case that the ‘Prologue’ reveals that, while Zerbinetta accepts a love-life in which men let you down and you move on to the next one, she is at heart dissatisfied. This is no longer the world of the soubrette in operetta but something deeper. “I agree. The division is more complex than it may at first appear and what Zerbinetta and The Composer express is quite as interesting as anything in Ariadne’s role in terms of text.” Of course, Ariadne becomes the central figure as the evening progresses and her depth of commitment is such that The Composer is heard to declare in the ‘Prologue’ that she is one out of a million. In other words, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto may invite you to identify with Ariadne if you believe that such a love as hers is possible, but the work is also aware that for many it is easier to identify with Zerbinetta who believes that you can always surrender to a new love.
“That’s right. It’s not a case of condemning one at the expense of the other. It’s just that Ariadne is capable of a different commitment level and the work is about her pining away for her lost lover and waiting for death but needing to get over that. Yet when Death seems to come it’s the god Bacchus who appears and she passes beyond what she had expected and achieves a new relationship. But she’s now as committed to Bacchus as she had been to Theseus so death becomes transfiguration. In some sort of way I can relate to her because I’ve been waiting for my Bacchus to come along while pining not for death but for a relationship that would be committed. I’ve been married and it didn’t work out because I don’t think that I had any idea what that kind of commitment meant, but Ariadne does.”
In a past interview Deborah spoke of the challenge of playing in another production of Ariadne which had the great Natalie Dessay as Zerbinetta and of how envious one can feel listening to her wow the audience with the lively aria that always stops the show. Here in contrast Deborah is appearing with a debutant, the Ferrier prize-winner Gillian Keith. “It’ll be a huge success for her I’m sure. She’s using her time really well, singing out and flitting across the stage like a butterfly. In this particular production unlike any other I’ve done Ariadne remains on stage for Zerbinetta’s aria. That made me feel so awkward because it’s her moment, and I said something of this to Gillian but she said that she was actually going to be glad that I would be beside her. So I just thought: ‘oh bless your heart’.”
It would appear that (the recently knighted) Mark Elder has wanted to conduct this opera for many years. He clearly didn’t need to be won over but, since this work is not an audience favourite, I conclude by asking Deborah how she would sell it to a potential customer. “Knowing that many people think that all opera is as serious as Wagner, I would say this: you’ll have a great time because it’s very funny, but it also has absolutely beautiful music, a wonderful love story and a happy ending – and what’s more it’s short: 45 minutes for the first part, 80 for the second and you’re out of there. But you do have to sell it because with the general public it’s a very underestimated piece.”
- The opening night of Ariadne auf Naxos is 16 June 2008 at 7.30 and runs until 1 July (21st and 28th at 7 p.m.)
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera