I was privileged this week to hear from my client Ms. Voigt. "How are you feeling, Deb?" I asked. "I'm not feeling any pressure at all," she said. Then she let out a laugh that communicated something akin to, "You've got to be kidding!"
In general, opening nights make Deborah Voigt nervous. It's that way for many if not most opera singers with high-profile careers. But behind the nervous laughter, I also sensed that she was in a good place and genuinely looking forward to Friday's big (understatement!) role debut.
"I hope people aren't coming to this performance expecting to hear a seasoned Br‹nnhilde," she said. "That's not the case. Instead, they are seeing someone exploring this character in a public and open way, and I hope they'll approach what all of us are doing with this new production with an open mind." I liked that she was sounding so feisty. She continued: "People shouldn't be hung up on all the comparisons. I hope they can look at the whole piece, and the production, as something new and exciting, and that includes my new Br‹nnhilde."
I tell Debbie that insider sources reported to me that she sounded fabulous in the dress rehearsal, and she replied that while she was happy with that feedback, she didn't feel like things completely clicked for her yesterday. But conversations with the Met's music director, James Levine, who will conduct the new production, and director Lepage lifted her spirits greatly.
"Jimmy is always looking to challenge singers and there's nothing in the world like working with him. I consider him a 'singer's psychotherapist' because he can reach into Deborah Voigt's head and see what her next hurdle is! This is a new and very taxing role, so pacing is an issue, and we talked about how to make sure I had enough gas for the final scene. He also pointed out that I was still too focused on the technical aspect of things. He really nailed it when he reminded me that focusing on the emotional content would give me more energy. Focusing on technical aspects takes so much energy from you, compared to the emotional adrenalin that provides you with energy."
Did he offer specific advice on what to do between now and Friday? "Yes, simply read and re-read the texts and keep the focus on the meaning and feeling of the words. He's right." She paused for a moment, then continued: "I really want to play her now. The difference between an okay performance and a great performance is to stay out of my own head and live moment to moment in the character I am bringing to life on stage."
And what were Lepage's words of advice? "He has been extremely supportive. After the rehearsal yesterday he told me that I was luminous on stage and loved what I was doing. That really felt good to hear."
One of Debbie's close friends is Jack Doulin, a casting agent who Debbie met through his work with New York Theater Workshop. She told me that she had been having some interesting conversations with him about the differences between how the theater world mounts a production compared to how it's done in the opera world. "In the theater, the company has weeks of previews before a paying audience before they are critiqued. But in opera, we get less than half the rehearsal time, and no chance to sing it for an audience and take their temperature, and we are critiqued the night that it is done before a paying audience for the first time. It's really not fair! Wouldn't it be nice to have this wonderful cast rehearse on the Lepage set for three weeks for an audience and then invite criticism?"
A soprano can dream, right?
I didn't want to take much more of her time, but before we hung up the phone she made a few last points.
"At the Met and elsewhere, opera is being taken in the direction of theater. Directors and impresarios are seeking productions and performances that are more theatrical. But is this really feasible given the technical aspects of being an opera singer? On a complex stage with lots of moving machinery, and now cameras sending what you're doing to movie theaters, we are certainly asking a lot from today's opera performers!"
She quickly turned from fired up to wistful, and even serene: "I feel like so much has happened and changed in my life, some of it very difficult and much of it in the public eye. But perhaps it's all coming together for me now. I honestly hope I'm entering the most significant part of my career, and I mean that in terms of my life as a performer as a whole, and not just operatically."
And that Valyrkie she's bringing to life starting Friday?
"I really want to be Br‹nnhilde. The homework is done. Now it's the matter of performing it and inhabiting the role."
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's Die Walk‹re opens on Friday, April 22. The final performance of the run, on Saturday, May 14, will be simulcast live into movie theaters worldwide as part of "The Met: Live in HD" series.
A preview of the Met's new Walk‹re is available here.