Interview: Deborah Voigt, Author Of 'Call Me Debbie' In a frank new memoir, soprano Deborah Voigt reveals her troubles with obesity, alcohol and bad relationships, along with her many triumphs in opera houses the world over.

A 'Down-To-Earth Diva' Confronts Her Flaws And Good Fortune

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One of the most famous performers in the world was once fired because they thought she was too large to wear a little, black dress. Deborah Voigt was set to star in Richard Strauss's "Ariadne Auf Naxos" at London's Royal Opera House in 2004. It's one of her signature roles.



SIMON: But producers canceled her contract. They said she wouldn't meet the theatrical demands of the role. Deborah Voigt is just fine today. She wound up using her settlement to pay for gastric bypass surgery and ultimately slimmed down and glammed up her career. But there were a lot of operatic swan-dives along the way. Deborah Voigt, who has performed with Pavarotti, Placido in auditoriums around the world, has written a memoir of her trials and triumphs onstage and off, "Call Me Debbie: True Confessions Of A Down-to-Earth Diva." She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

VOIGT: It's a pleasure, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Your book opens with a particularly distinguished voice telling you you're here to sing.

VOIGT: That's true. It does. It was a very special moment that I still think of very often. And I, at that time, thought it was the voice of God telling me that I was meant to sing.

SIMON: Is it fair to say your parents weren't saying the same thing?

VOIGT: My parents encouraged me to sing in church, but the idea of pursuing something professionally was certainly not on their radar.

SIMON: Did you always have what I'll term a difficult relationship with food?

VOIGT: I think the difficulty of the relationship didn't really present itself until I began to gain weight and had to look at it more seriously. I just liked to eat, like anybody else does. But I had parents who were very weight-conscious, and my mother struggled with her weight quite a bit. And the more you tell someone that they can't have something, the more they want it. And years would go by and food became, really, my best friend.

SIMON: Could you tell me about your audition for Sir Georg Solti? And it - you know, I really admired him as head of the Chicago Symphony all those years, and - I don't know - made me like him less.

VOIGT: I understand where you're coming from, and it certainly made me like him less, as well. But to a certain extent I understand where he was coming from. He was considering having me be his Isolde for a recording of "Tristan Und Isolde" that he was making, and he asked me to come and audition for him. So I went. I sang. I sang very well. Finished. He liked what I had sung. And he got up, and he walked across the room, and he said to me, why are you so fat? Is it the food? And I - my mouth fell open because I thought, well, what a question to ask because you're considering me for a recording, so what difference did it make?

We had a performance of Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" coming up in about six months, and he said to me, Ms. Voigt, if you will lose the weight, I will take you for the recording. And I did. I went on a diet. And the next time I saw him I was down maybe 45, 50 pounds at the most. And it was enough for him to convince me - or convince himself, rather - that I could appear on this recording. And sadly, Georg Solti passed away before we were able to make this recording.

SIMON: We sketched in the by now very famous incident at the Royal Opera House. I'm intrigued by this. They knew who you were. You're one of the best-known opera stars in the world. Why did they sign you?

VOIGT: Well, that was ultimately the question. They signed the contract and engaged me in good faith. I had been there twice before. They knew it wasn't a secret that I was a big girl. So that was where the problem lie. But in opera, if, for whatever reason, when a contract is fully executed and a designer or a director decides that you're not appropriate to the part, that discussion is had, and then the opera house gives you something equivalent to that role. But in this particular case, the Royal Opera House didn't have anything else available, and that was where the problem really came to the forefront, that this was a bigger issue than just this particular director.

SIMON: So you had the surgery, as we noted, and a lot of the book is what happens thereafter. Did you discover that slimming down is not all you thought it would be?

VOIGT: Well, no, it certainly has been life-changing. And the problem was that gastric bypass is a tool to losing weight for somebody who is morbidly obese and has not had any success. But underneath that is some sort of emotional problems that have to be dealt with or the problem will reoccur. And those were never dealt with.

SIMON: Deborah, if I might call you that.

VOIGT: Why don't you call me Debbie?

SIMON: Debbie. Well, I believe that's the title of a book I read recently.

VOIGT: (Laughter) Yes.

SIMON: Debbie, what was going on as you look back on it now?

VOIGT: I think it was a feeling like I couldn't be in my own skin. And it's not for any reasons that I'm able to really define. It is what it is. And I felt the need to escape from that. For whatever reason, I have this uncomfortability when I'm with myself.

SIMON: Still?

VOIGT: Still, yes, much, much easier these days with much greater success.

SIMON: Singing all over the world - I mean, from small towns to great concert stages - do you recall a moment, maybe one night, when you thought to yourself, boy, that voice was right?

VOIGT: There have been a few. I think often about performances that I did of the role of Sieglinde from Richard Wagner's "Die Walkure," and she has a very, very difficult life. Her husband is very abusive to her, and she's very unhappy, but she has an incredible amount of hope in her. And I happened to be singing this role on stage at the Met for the first time, and my tenor was Placido Domingo. And I just remember being onstage, and when the curtain went down after the first act, and we went out to take our bows, the applause from the audience was something that was so enormous; it had an actual presence to it. It was like a sort of a rush of air over our bodies. And it was just one of the most amazing experiences of my life. That was something really, really special.

SIMON: Deborah Voigt, her new book, "Call Me Debbie: True Confessions Of A Down-To-Earth Diva." Thanks so much for being with us.

VOIGT: It's been my pleasure. So very nice to meet you.


VOIGT: (Singing).

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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