Throughout her career, dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt has taken on some of opera’s most challenging roles. But her new memoir focuses on her private struggles – with food, alcohol, and unhealthy romantic relationships.
“Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva” recounts in telling detail the battles Voigt waged offstage, even as she sang major roles in opera houses around the world.
Voigt, whose appearances at San Francisco Opera have included roles in operas by Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Puccini, comes to the Jewish Community Center Feb. 17 to discuss the book. It’s a revealing glimpse into the private life of a public artist.
As a young girl, Voigt believed that her voice was a gift from God. Singing became central to her life.
It wasn’t easy – in her Midwestern home, her strict fundamentalist parents condemned as “prideful” the pop songs and show tunes she loved to sing. She was confined to the church choir until teachers encouraged her to pursue opera as a goal (Voigt received part of her training at San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola program.)
Her weight was an issue from childhood, and her father often criticized her generous figure. She began a lifelong habit of bingeing that increased as her career took off; eventually, she topped 330 pounds.
In 2004, what became known as the “Little Black Dress” episode put a spotlight on it. Engaged to sing the title role of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” at Covent Garden, Voigt was fired for being too fat. The incident ignited a very public debate about opera, singers’ bodies, and double standards (in the book, Voigt dryly observes that the hefty tenors she often partnered with escaped the same kind of scrutiny.)
She underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost over 100 pounds, but her personal life spiraled out of control. Her marriage had failed, and she began drinking heavily. She dated men who ranged from irresponsible to abusive.
Yet Voigt maintained her career. In 2011 and 2012, she sang Brunnhilde – the Mt. Everest role for dramatic sopranos – in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Ring” cycle.
Although Voigt touches on other career highlights – she adored singing with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo – opera fans might wish a little more detail about her artistry than Voigt provides. But her private journey makes compelling reading. Currently clean and sober, living alone in New Jersey, she frequently hosts the Met’s HD broadcasts and is reviving her one-woman theater show, aptly titled “Voigt Lessons.” Throughout her life, she’s learned some powerful ones.
Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva
Published by Harper
Note: Voigt appears at 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F.; tickets ($45-$55) include a book. Visit www.jccsf.org/arts for details.