When Deborah Voigt reveals that she was born Debbie Joy Voigt‹a name, she admits, that sounds more like Grand Ole Opry than Grand Opera‹she is opening a window to a completely new facet of her artistry. Voigt is arguably the preeminent interpreter of the Richard Strauss soprano roles today. But when she presents her Carnegie Hall recital debut on April 7 (with James Levine at the piano), the program will showcase two sides of her stage persona, and maybe then some. There will be a European, more classical first half, and an American, not-so-classical second half.
"I have another aspect of my personality, which the public doesn't necessarily see on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and I think a recital is a format to show some of that," Voigt says. "Hence my decision to do American songs, some of them very contemporary and very funny."
The American songs are also very diverse. Of the four composers represented in this portion of the concert, only Charles Ives (1874-1954) could be construed as less than contemporary. Two of the others speak directly to Voigt's lighter side: Stephen Sondheim (represented by two songs from the musical Follies) and William Bolcom (selections from his Cabaret Songs). Most novel, perhaps, will be several pieces by the 44-year-old composer Ben Moore, all of them New York premieres, set to lyrics by Irish and English poets.
"A Carnegie Hall audience is well aware of what I do," says Voigt, "so I don't think it will be disappointed if it doesn't hear two hours of 'heilige Kunst' (holy art). I may leave some things out here and there, but this is the direction I want to go at the moment."
Although the first half of the Carnegie Hall program, with songs by Schubert and Tchaikovsky and, of course, Strauss, seems more traditional, it is not all traditionally Voigt. "I have never sung any Schubert in my life!" she exclaims, as if surprised at herself. As for the romantic, expansive Tchaikovsky songs she has chosen, Voigt learned them when she prepared for the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990‹she won the gold medal‹but has never performed them in New York. The works by Voigt's "signature" composer will be some soaring, if lesser-known, Strauss lieder that perhaps come closest to her operatic element.
A Deborah Voigt-James Levine recital would seem a logical next step after the Wagner and Strauss collaborations they have done at the Met. In fact, the recital takes place between two performances of Die Walküre, conducted by Levine, with Voigt as Sieglinde and Plácido Domingo as Siegmund. Surprisingly, however, it is a first-time collaboration on the recital stage for the two artists.
"Jimmy and I have talked about doing a piano recital together for some time," Voigt says. "We have such a great musical rapport on the operatic stage that we wanted to see what a collaboration would be like on a more intimate scale." When the Carnegie Hall recital came up, she says, Levine agreed immediately. In fact, the Bolcom and Sondheim selections were his suggestions.
Indeed, the crossover repertory continues to fascinate Voigt as the recital date nears, even though the word "crossover" is a red flag to her. "I hate even to use the term," she says, "because I was introduced to the musical theater repertoire long before I became an opera singer. It's not always performed by opera singers as successfully as we might hope, but it's a question of style, and I'm fairly confident I'm on the right track with it."
Voigt has, in fact, already headlined two recent New York musical theater benefits: an AIDS fund-raiser last season that was titled "Deborah Voigt on Broadway‹Opera's Leading Lady Meets Broadway's Leading Men," and an evening of show tunes, "Debbie's Gotta Let Go," that raised money for the New York Theater Workshop this past December. Of the AIDS benefit program, Opera News wrote: "This wasn't an opera star condescending to her material, but a Broadway Baby at heart who was relaxed, sassy, and having fun."
In addition, Voigt sang and hosted a 2003 Christmas concert with the New York Philharmonic, which offered a rich assortment of lighter holiday fare. "I had a blast," Voigt says. "The more I do that repertoire, the more comfortable I become. So much of this career is difficult work‹the discipline, having to be gone all the time, singing when you're not feeling well‹I am just thrilled that I am in a position to go in different directions and make it interesting to myself, and, hopefully, to the public. Sometimes I think it would be nice to go around the world singing the same five or ten roles, but I think I'd get bored, and it would be less interesting to audiences as well."
Voigt has many options, but boredom will not be one of them. In April, Angel/EMI records will release the soprano's debut operatic recital CD, featuring scenes from Strauss and Wagner operas under the baton of Sir Richard Armstrong, the first in an exclusive recording contract. A Voigt Broadway album, as well as a vocal recital with piano, is slated to follow.
In announcing the contract with Voigt, Tom Evered, general manager and senior vice president of EMI Jazz and Classics, stated, "Of all of the American opera singers, she has the strongest grasp and appreciation of American popular and theater music. Her knowledge and skill in singing Broadway and popular repertoire made her irresistible to us."
We can thank Voigt's youthful, down-to-earth alter ego for this burgeoning new side of her artistry. Asked if Debbie Joy Voigt will make an appearance on April 7, Voigt laughs heartily and replies, "Absolutely!"
Tenor and stage director Michael Philip Davis is co-founder and managing director of the concert series Regina Resnik Presents....