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Diva Deborah Voigt on the ‘lonely business’ of opera that led to addictions

February 19, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: hitting the high notes through the ups and downs of life.

Jeffrey Brown sits down with an opera standout.

JEFFREY BROWN: Deborah Voigt has made headlines for her star performances on the world’s greatest opera stages.

DEBORAH VOIGT, Author, “Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva”: When everything’s working, you don’t feel it at all. It just happens. You’re very much in the moment. The voice is working, the acting is working, you’re playing with a character, and you’re not thinking about anything else.

JEFFREY BROWN: She’s also made headlines for something else: her size, most famously in 2004, when she was dropped from a London production because she couldn’t fit into what became known as the little black dress.

DEBORAH VOIGT: When I walked out on stage at that time, I was, as I say in my book, a poster child for obesity. It wasn’t just, oh, she’s a big girl. I was a big girl. And that’s something that I realize now they decided they didn’t want in their production.

JEFFREY BROWN: Voigt’s new book, titled “Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva,” takes readers through her ups and downs.

Growing up in Illinois, she was a child who loved to act out and dress up, a challenge for her strict Southern Baptist parents.

DEBORAH VOIGT: They were, as you mentioned, very conservative in their beliefs, in their religious beliefs. And they wanted me to use my voice to the glory of God, and not to be perhaps a trollop dancing across the stage, is probably what they thought at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you grew up somehow to become — to play mythical goddesses, larger-than-life figures, put yourself on the stage before audiences around the world.

DEBORAH VOIGT: It’s true. It’s true. There was a transition time, though, when I was just beginning to do lead roles. And when I knew my parents were in the audience, I always had to stop and think, OK, now don’t pay attention to the fact that your parents are out there. It’s OK to make out with this tenor. You’re expected to. It’s all right.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: She would become one of the most prominent singers of her generation, heralded for performances such as Brunnhilde in Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” at the Metropolitan Opera. She played Salome in the Strauss opera of that name here at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

She told me those were two of her favorite roles.

DEBORAH VOIGT: I always just say, oh, I just fell into opera. Well, the truth of it is that I worked my ass off. It was really tough.

Brunnhilde, of course. I mean, we see her in all phases of her life. The first time we meet her, she’s a young tomboy, and she discovers love. And, you know, it’s just — the journey she takes is incredible. Salome, the tempestuous 16-year-old, that’s quite an acting stretch, but a lot of fun nonetheless.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Much of the book, though, delves into times of far less fun, recounting the depression and insecurity that led to addictions to alcohol, bad relationships, and binge-eating.

DEBORAH VOIGT: It’s a very lonely business, and you go home at the end of the night and it can be just you in your head. And if you are a person that has some issues with depression, or self-esteem, those tapes go, and it becomes something that you really feel the need to quiet, and my first trick was through food.

JEFFREY BROWN: When did you realize that it was a problem?

DEBORAH VOIGT: Well, it stared me back in the mirror for a long time before I finally decided I didn’t — I tried everything, for one thing. I tried every diet. My knees were starting to hurt. I was getting winded walking across the stage. And it was keeping me from the ability to portray roles on the stage that I wanted to play.

I did Tosca, who is supposed to be this beautiful opera singer, when I weighed 300 pounds, and I was always uncomfortable about it. I always felt a little, you know, sticky about these issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: The weight problem was overcome with the help of gastric bypass surgery, the rest, she writes, through sobriety programs and a recommitment to her faith.

She’s still singing, while also performing soon in a one-woman show she helped develop called “Voigt Lessons.”

DEBORAH VOIGT: If there’s one thing I learned about myself in writing this book, and looking back, and reading it, is that I have an incredible sense of resilience that I didn’t really realize I had.

Things would happen in my life, and I would pick myself up, and dust myself off, and go about it. But when I read event after event in the whole package, I think, wow, how have you managed to do this? How have you managed?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Deborah, or Debbie Voigt, thanks so much for talking to us.

DEBORAH VOIGT: Thank you, Jeff.

 

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