In her current incarnation, she’s a lean, mean vocal machine.
But it wasn’t always that way for soprano Deborah Voigt - at least not the lean part. It wasn’t that long ago that Voigt, regarded as America’s leading dramatic soprano, was donning a size-28 dress on a 5-foot-6 frame.
Though opera singers are the least likely of all stage artists to be taken to task for their weight, Voigt suffered the humiliation of being fired from a Royal Opera House production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” at London’s Covent Garden three years ago.
She was let go because she could not fit into the small black dress to be worn in the contemporary version of the opera, one that called for a young and thin Ariadne and not a Greek goddess in a toga.
But gastric-bypass surgery, an operation of last resort for the obese, has the 46-year-old soprano down to a trim size 14.
Voigt’s lifelong battle with weight, her surgery and the effect it’s had on her career are things she’s not hesitant talking about.
“The day of getting away, as I did for a very long time, with carrying enormous amounts of weight - that’s not going to work anymore,” Voigt said on the telephone from New York City.
Voigt said she opted to have the surgery for her health. Another soprano, Andrea Gruber, had the same surgery in 2001. Gruber was fired from the role of Elisabetta in the opera “Don Carlo” at Salzburg in 1998 because of her weight. At the time, she weighed more than 300 pounds, according to Opera News.
Voigt is well aware that the opera world is changing and that one of those changes is a predilection for sexier and more lithe singers. But it’s a change she believes may have drawbacks for the art form.
“I am slightly concerned that we are bypassing more beautiful voices while we look for the right hip size or the right hair color,” she said.
“At the same time, I see the art form changing and having to compete harder for entertainment dollars. If that means casting an appealing sort of woman, that’s great, as long as the man is held to the same standard.
“I don’t think that the same requirements are made of male singers.”
For opera singers, the fear with sudden weight loss is diminished singing power. Famous soprano Maria Callas dropped 80 pounds between 1953 and early 1954. Some critics argued that her sudden weight loss hurt her singing. Others contended that her new figure added an extra touch of glamour to her unpredictable stage persona.
But if reviews are any indication, it seems as if Voigt has dodged the proverbial bullet.
Voigt contends that the weight loss has added to her stage confidence and acting range. The rave reviews she has garnered from critics and opera company directors reinforce Voigt’s contention.
David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, can be counted among those who think her post-surgery singing is blossoming. Voigt is well-known in San Francisco - she was a member of its Merola Opera program and an Adler fellow during the mid-1980s - and she returns frequently to sing in productions.
Gockley saw Voigt sing in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Strauss’ “Helen of Troy.”
“It was a glorious performance,” said Gockley. “I thought she had more comfortably grown into her new body, and she looked exquisite.”
In her most recent local appearance, she sang the role of Amelia in San Francisco Opera’s production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” last summer. She affected a magnetic stage presence and was in full command of a lush soprano.
A focus on acting and an appealing stage presence are becoming an almost mantra-like edict among opera companies in the drive to cultivate new and younger audiences. That is most evident in the big marketing push that the stunning sopranos Anna Netrebko, 35, and Danielle De Niese, 27, are enjoying as part of their opera companies’ current and upcoming seasons.
With its audiences graying, trying to attract a younger crowd might not be a bad idea. The median age of U.S. opera patrons is 48, according to the latest National Endowment for the Arts study of public arts participation, in 2002. That median jumped by three years since the NEA’s last survey in 1992. During that same period, the share of attendance by adults ages 18 to 34 has declined.
The focus on youth and stage attractiveness was thrust into the spotlight recently when Metropolitan Opera general director Peter Gelb decided to cast the zaftig soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, 47, in only four of nine “La Traviata” performances for next year instead of casting her for the full run. He also shortened Swenson’s run in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” and subbed in de Niese.
A recent New York Times article reported that Gelb was dissatisfied with Swenson’s past performances. In that story, Swenson took issue with Gelb’s casting by saying, “I’m not skinny enough for him.”
Those developments are not lost on Voigt, who considers the Met her artistic home. The issue of her stage presence crossed her mind more than once before the surgery.
When she was 145 pounds heavier and performing title roles like Helen of Troy, Voigt questioned whether she was the most appropriate singer for a role that calls for the most beautiful woman in the world.
“I’d be lying if I did not say that there were moments of doubt,” said Voigt. “I’m a pretty girl, but I’m really not thought of as traditionally beautiful.”
That self-doubt took a toll on Voigt.
“To have that kind of angst removed from me is very liberating,” she said. “It makes it easier for me to sing roles I could not have sung before.”
One of those is the title role in “Salome,” which Voigt sang in a Chicago Lyric Opera production last October. The Salome role demands a singer with sexual qualities so powerful she can ask for the head of John the Baptist and get it. And then there is the tricky issue of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which typically involves some nudity.
To properly capture the physical aspect of the role, Voigt spent hours toning up at the gym. “I threw myself into that role, and I have the bruises and torn ligaments to prove it,” she said. “The physicality of the part was certainly something I’ve never experienced.”
She drew rave reviews for the performance, including a a nod from Anthony Tommasini of the Times, who described her performance as “a personal and artistic triumph.”