February 16, 2017
By Peter Alexander
It will be a week of superstars in Boulder.
First will be famed Wagnerian soprano Deborah Voigt, presenting her one-woman show Voigt Lessons at Macky Auditorium on Saturday. Then the University of Colorado Boulder’s own superstars, the Takács String Quartet, begin a spring series of concerts in Grusin Hall with some of the stars from the CU Boulder music faculty Sunday and Monday. And next Wednesday, Feb. 22, Yo-Yo Ma presents a concert in Macky that, alas for latecomers, has been sold out for months.
Voigt’s one-woman show was written for her by Terrence McNally, the Tony-, Obie- and Emmy-award winning playwright, screenwriter and librettist for musicals and operas. A brutally honest retelling of her struggles during her career, the show is, Voigt says, “very much a story about a Midwest girl who turns out to be an international opera diva.”
The script includes songs that are especially meaningful to Voigt — most of them not operatic or art songs. “When people come to the theater, they’re not given a list of songs,” she says. “I want them to be surprised.”
She does reveal that she opens with a Carpenters song, “because I was a huge Karen Carpenter fan, and that’s the music I listened to. There is an art song and a definite nod to opera, of course.”
If you don’t know Voigt’s story, you might remember the “little black dress.”
In 2004, Voigt was removed from the cast of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos at London’s Royal Opera House because she could not fit into the costume — the “little black dress” — that the casting director wanted her to wear. Although Voigt did not comment for several months, the story eventually leaked out and became a flash point in battles about female opera singers’ appearance and weight.
Voigt herself has been open about her struggles with weight. After the black dress incident, she had successful gastric bypass surgery and lost more than 100 pounds, which she has discussed publicly. In fact, she wrote frankly about all of her struggles in her 2015 book Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-To-Earth Diva.
The idea for the one-woman show came from Francesca Zambello, Voigt’s friend and an operatic stage director. Voigt was surprised when McNally quickly accepted Zambello’s suggestion that he write the script.
“I had been keeping a list of random songs that I happened to like, and I shared that list with Terrence,” she says. “We sat down and talked, and he was able to work these songs into a narrative about my growing up in the Midwest and becoming an opera singer.”
Both the book and the show are remarkably frank about Voigt’s problems with weight, addictions and relationships. “I just wanted to be honest about everything that had happened,” she says.
“It became a matter of deciding I couldn’t tell this part of the story without telling that part. I knew my family would understand, [because] they were always supportive, and I knew that it would help people who struggle with the same issues.”
Today, Voigt is mostly retired from the operatic stage, teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory. “I’ve come to the point in my life where I don’t want to put myself through that any more,” she says of performing around the world. “I’m tired of the constant travel.”
She does travel for Voigt Lessons, as a way of reaching people who might not otherwise think much about opera. She’s pretty sure everyone will enjoy the show. “It’s going to be an entertaining evening,” she says. “There are some laughs, maybe a couple of funny expletives, there’s some drama. It’s a very intimate show.”