Operatic soprano Deborah Voigt is well known for her portrayal of the most demanding dramatic roles in Italian and German operas, but the Illinois-born and California-raised singer is hardly a newcomer to her native land's musical terrain.
Voigt's 2004 Carnegie Hall recital debut included songs by William Bolcom and Stephen Sondheim. Her most recent CD, All My Heart, is devoted exclusively to American art songs. This past January, she made her debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in a cabaret program of American standards. "It's a thrill to sing in English if it's your native language," says Voigt, in between performances of La forza del destino at the Metropolitan Opera House. And coming up next month Voigt will be appearing with the American Composers Orchestra for the New York premiere of Stephen Paulus's song cycle Erotic Spirits in Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium.
"Before meeting with Deborah, I bought some of her CDs and really listened carefully to her voice," recalls Paulus. "I wanted to find out what her likes and dislikes were. I myself like old English and Scottish texts, but Deborah was interested in 'something contemporary.'
"I wanted to write a piece for soprano and orchestra that uses texts expressing female points of view, so I chose modern translations of texts from ancient Greece and China, as well as passages from the Bible. All the poems are either by women or about women. I e-mailed them to her and got a reply almost immediately that said, 'Bravo, you really get it. Let's get started.'"
No matter what type of American music she has explored in recent years‹and that music reveals an astounding eclecticsm‹Voigt always approaches the work with a total lack of pretension. The singer's emotionally direct interpretations of the material show her affinity for it. Voigt basks in the charming lyricism of songs by Amy Beach and Charles Tomlinson Griffes as well as the wit of Leonard Bernstein. But she also gets down to earth in the folk-laced irreverence of Charles Ives, who has been called American music's Thoreau or Emerson. The American work with which she may be most at home is the unabashed tunefulness of Syracuse-born, Manhattan-based composer Ben Moore, whose songs she has been actively championing both on the concert stage and on CD. "I love what Ben does with melodies; you can walk away singing them after you hear them. And the same is true for Stephen Paulus."
Voigt's desire for music that communicates directly and emotionally has also led her to reject the walls that have separated classical music from other kinds of music making. "There are some opera aficionados who would never consider listening to jazz or a popular song, and then there are the rest of us," she declares. "I grew up singing gospel and Broadway music, so it comes somewhat naturally to me."
Thus far, Moore and Paulus have been the only living composers with whom Voigt has worked, but in both cases it has been a symbiotic collaboration. "I haven't had a lot of experience working with living composers, and I'd certainly like to do more," says the soprano. "It's not like working with music from a hundred years ago, where if something doesn't fit your voice, you don't do it. With a new piece, if something doesn't work, you can say to the composer, 'Can we try something else?'"
Since Voigt possesses a voice that can tower over a Wagnerian orchestra, Paulus was able to pull out all the stops. "There are a couple of spots where the music really becomes full, and she strides right out over the whole orchestra."
And what a difference it makes when a piece is written for a particular singer!
As for Paulus, the opportunity to have a singer of this caliber sing his music in such a high-profile setting is a dream that every composer wishes could come true. "To have a great singer like that stepping up to the plate and singing your music at Carnegie Hall," he says. "What could be better than that?"
Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and the editor of the American Music Center's Web magazine, NewMusicBox.org.