Deborah Voigt remembers being delighted when she got the call from the New York Philharmonic: "I really wanted to work with the Phil and David Robertson." After all, she has had a rich history with the Orchestra since her debut in 1995 in Beethoven's Fidelio, and enjoyed working with Robertson some years ago on the Rossini Stabat Mater in Spain, saying, "I've sort of kept an eye on what he's been doing and I'm excited at the chance to work with him again."
Then she asked what piece they wanted her to sing. She groans as she recalls the moment, "because Erwartung is so-o-o-o difficult!" But with the courage of many of the heroines she has portrayed, Ms. Voigt declares, "A challenge is a challenge."
This brilliant soprano has excelled in some of the most difficult works in the literature (by Beethoven, Wagner, Berlioz, and Mahler), and has even sung Schoenberg's mysterious "Frau" previously, conducted by James Levine and by Daniel Barenboim, but, she explains, "It's one of the pieces that doesn't stay in your head. You have to restudy it." She adds that this monodrama "is a sticky piece to pull off. It's so atonal in nature, and then the character ... she is a bit of a nut job."
The composer described Erwartung as a "nightmare" in which an unnamed woman wanders a wood at night, coming across the body of her slain lover. Ms. Voigt admits it's also "a thing of nightmare" in terms of being tough work for the singer: "There's no harmonic corner to hang your hat on. The orchestra is of little help in finding pitches. If you get off at all, you're really off. You have to memorize intervals and pick notes out of the air."
At this stage of her career Ms. Voigt feels "if a character doesn't have a journey or an arc to it, I find it a long evening. If I'm not engaged on a psychological-emotional level, the character doesn't really work for me." Her stage personas have accordingly run the gamut from tortured and even twisted ladies to those offering Julie Andrews-like sweetness (she loves Andrews!). Chrysothemis's dysfunctional family in Richard Strauss's Elektra and the strange desires of the title character in Strauss's Salome are challenges quite opposite to the bravery of Minnie in Puccini's La fanciulla del West or the innocence of Senta in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. Wagner's Br‹nnhilde and Isolde suffer painful situations involving men, although perhaps neither of these signature roles ratchets up with such continual intensity to the level of the Frau's.
Does the character's distress stay with Ms. Voigt afterwards? "No, I find it all rather fascinating. I'm not the sort of actor who carries it home with me." Still, she does think a bit about the work's Freudian aspects: "What is she really imagining?" she wonders. "Did she really kill her lover or not? I think she is a sympathetic person, though she's clearly delusional: what's she doing tripping around at midnight in the middle of nowhere?"
The soprano thinks of the Final Scene of Richard Strauss's Salome (which she'll be singing with the Philharmonic on September 21, 2011) as comparable, in terms of "the intensity of the character, the questioning, going from one extreme to the other, ranting and raving about why he didn't want her : you never looked at me, you would have loved me. The character in Erwartung does the same sort of thing, but with a more reflective dialogue. It is a lot of intense information and musical expression in a relatively short amount of time."
Deborah Voigt adds: "This is the first time I've done it when they will have titles, and I'm really excited." She believes that the texts above the stage are a big help to audiences for complex pieces, even though her diction has been highly praised. "It doesn't matter how good it is," she protests. "Even in English it can be problematic. One of the first things I did with titles at The Met was Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, and I was amazed by how much more enjoyment the audience got, how much more laughter there was. Even if you speak German fluently, you can't catch everything."
The nearly half-hour Erwartung ends inconclusively. "With the orchestra's glissando chromatic scale at the end, the audience is never quite sure if it is over or not," Ms. Voigt observes. "I think that is all intentional: it leaves you wondering about the character, and the piece as well."
While the work may end with a question, there is nothing unclear about the soprano's future, particularly with the New York Philharmonic, based on their past together and the plans that are already in place.
Jeannie Williams, author of Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life, is planning an exhibit on the famed tenor, to be presented at a major Toronto arts institution and elsewhere.