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A diva goes deep about art, weight, and addiction

The opera world's friendliest diva is about to become much more so - and not just because Deborah Voigt's new autobiography is titled Call Me Debbie.

Soprano Deborah Voigt appears at the Central Library Monday to discuss her autobiography and sing. (Dario Acosta.)
Soprano Deborah Voigt appears at the Central Library Monday to discuss her autobiography and sing. (Dario Acosta.)Read more

The opera world's friendliest diva is about to become much more so - and not just because Deborah Voigt's new autobiography is titled Call Me Debbie.

In a weight-obsessed world, the 54-year-old Wagnerian soprano created a stir in 2004 when it was learned that she had been fired by London's Royal Opera House from her signature role in Ariadne auf Naxos because of her weight, and created another one later that year when she acknowledged having gastric bypass surgery.

But what she hasn't widely discussed, and what will be explored at her appearance Monday night at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia - which will include both talk and song - is the full-blown alcoholism that sometimes follows that surgery.

"I'm very resilient," Voigt said in an interview, referring to her ability to go straight from the emergency room to the rehearsal hall. "Reading through the whole book again, I realized that God gave me some kind of inner core belief in myself that has just kept me going and going and going. I don't know what else it could be."

Such was the case after a particularly horrific binge in Beijing. "It's what I do," she wrote. "And an IV drip in my arm all night plus a pot of coffee didn't hurt."

One of her few public defeats was her 2013 withdrawal from Tristan und Isolde in Washington. In retrospect, she says, she could have pulled it off, but she was only days out of an emotionally wrenching alcohol rehab in Florida: "I was just too vulnerable."

No wonder her book is subtitled True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva. "Sometimes I'd stop and say, 'I can't say that, but I can take it out in the edits.' But when it came down to it, it all fit," she said at her Fort Lee, N.J., home. "There's no way that you can explain how you got from here to there and have it make sense if parts are left out."

That includes membership in Alcoholics Anonymous - despite the organization's policy of anonymity. Her defense is simple: "It saved my life."

Did she leave anything out? "Oh, yeah," Voigt says.

So the reality was even worse? "That'll be my big question when I get to the Pearly Gates," she said quietly. "Why so hard?"

(P.S.: "Names [mostly ex-boyfriends] have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.")

None of this, from the grand to the lurid, was supposed to happen to this good Christian girl from Wheeling, Ill. Opera stardom hardly seemed a possibility, though looking back, an eating disorder manifested itself early on, amid the incongruity of a strict religious home that was periodically ripped apart by philandering. Nonetheless, Voigt had a "burning bush" experience early on: She heard a voice (not hers) saying, "You are here to sing."

The first part of the book deals with learning to do that; the second is about the cost of owning a great voice. By age 31, she was singing at the Metropolitan Opera, though it took a few years - and a cataclysmic onstage kiss from Plácido Domingo in Die Walkure - for her to acquire the extra confidence of a star presence.

All along, she knew she was losing roles due to her weight, which topped out at 330 pounds. The famous "little black dress" incident - in which she was fired when she couldn't fit into her elegant Ariadne auf Naxos costume - came when one diet after another had failed.

"I started to feel my knees starting to go. I was losing wind while going up stairs," she says. "If you're going to keep singing, you do the next thing in order to keep singing . . . so you can be a more viable Brunnhilde [the warrior maiden in Wagner's Ring cycle] . . . so that you can sing The Egyptian Helen [about Helen of Troy] and not cringe when they say you're the most beautiful woman in the world. Without the surgery, I would be in very poor health. I think I dodged a bullet."

Some might say she also dodged some of the surgery's side effects, too. Her voice is now less commanding, though it's hard to say whether that's just her natural evolution.

"I've a had a couple of students who had the surgery, and with every one of them, their voices were affected . . . and their careers compromised," said Bill Schumann, voice guru at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, the renowned opera training ground. "It was very sad. It's too fast of a weight loss." Singing is a muscle-dependent activity, and losing those muscles can be fatal to the voice.

Suppose, as in Voigt's case, the decision is a health-saving last resort? "It's a very tough question," he said. "Addiction of any type is tough."

"The only relevant thing for me is if someone is taking care to be in the best health possible," said Philadelphia Orchestra's Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who frequently conducts at the Metropolitan Opera. "But this is not easy for anyone, let alone singers."

"But if I may be so bold," says Voigt, "my underlying emotional issues . . . have helped me to be a compelling artist onstage. Most writers and poets have had some internal struggle . . . and I think that helps in a way."

She still sings Brunnhilde's demanding "Immolation Scene" in concert, though she's joining her fellow divas of a certain age (Susan Graham and Renee Fleming) in taking the lighter-weight Merry Widow into her repertoire. And she is convinced she would never have been cast as Minnie in Girl of the Golden West - "a role that I was born to sing" - without weight loss.

So camera friendly is Voigt that she has also become the host of choice for the Met's HD simulcasts. And she's so adept at on-the-fly interviews, one wonders whether Katie Couric should be worried about the competition.

"I love that stuff," she says. "I'd give my left arm to do more."


Deborah Voigt:

Call Me Debbie

7:30 p.m. Monday at the Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: $15, students $7. Information: 215-567-4341 or EndText