Opera superstar Deborah Voigt will do something Friday night that she has never done: perform a solo recital in Miami.
As the final event of a four-state tour of Indiana, Texas, Missouri and Florida, Voigt appears at the Adrienne Arsht Center with pianist Brian Zeger in a program spotlighting American composers including Amy Beach, Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom.
Three days before kicking off her tour, the vivacious soprano spoke excitedly by phone about it. “The recital is always a nice format for me because people are accustomed to seeing me doing very dramatic ladies on the opera stage,” Voigt said.
“Much of this program is in English, which is nice, and something I never get to do on an opera stage. It gives me a chance to show a side of my personality that doesn’t come out when I’m singing all these very serious heroines.”
Although she’s singing plenty of English songs for this program, Voigt says her favorite works on the program are two songs by Tchaikovsky that she learned for the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1990, in which she won the Gold Medal.
“I put them away for a while, exploring other areas. When Brian and I were putting together this program, we thought, ‘Let’s pull those out again.’ They really showcase Brian’s piano skills. Plus, he has an incredible knowledge of recital repertoire. He always makes me look very clever, when I’m really not,” she says self-deprecatingly.
“Opera lovers may think they know Deborah from her appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere,” says Zeger, artistic director of the vocal arts department at Juilliard and executive director of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. “But the recital format gives you a 360-degree perspective.”
Voigt will reveal yet another aspect of herself in Voigt Lessons, a one-woman theater piece she will present in Boston this month in which she tries to dispel people’s preconceived ideas about opera.
“I’ve been through challenges that the general public can relate to, and that they wouldn’t consider an opera singer to having gone through,” Voigt says. “I think they still think of us as sitting around eating bonbons all day and not speaking to anyone. We are very much human beings, who walk and talk among everyone else.”
Voigt’s battles with weight, alcoholism and changes in her voice and stamina have played out publicly in the media. In September, she stepped down from Isolde, one of her signature roles, in a production of Wagner’s opera at Washington National Opera directed by longtime friend Francesca Zambello.
Voigt still questions her heart-breaking decision to relinquish the role. “It was a very difficult decision. In retrospect, I think, ‘Did I make the right one?’ I still had 10 days of rehearsal, but it was a decision that I made with Francesca.”
Zambello is quick to note that Voigt’s career is still going strong, and she expects the soprano to be back often at WNO in various roles. In fact, Voigt Lessons was born of a collaboration between the two women.
Economic factors played a part, Zambello said. “We came up with the idea during the market crash of 2008 to make a one-woman show that didn’t need an opera house and a big stage but could work for any venue. We brought in Terrance McNally, and we three spent time at the MacDowell Colony creating the show, and doing workshops at Glimmerglass later to refine it.”
Voigt had kept a list of “random” songs that she liked, including a Carpenters song, Moon River, and a Brahms song. McNally added Voigt’s story to the music, creating the 75-minute piece.
“We take some liberties with my story here and there, but basically the nuts and bolts of it are all true and very revealing,” says the singer. “Now that I’m writing a memoir, ‘revealing’ is becoming my middle name,” Voigt jokes.
“As I began to write my memoir, it just became too difficult to hedge around things. I can’t find a way to talk about my life honestly and not be honest. And let the leaves fall where they may.”
Voigt returned to Washington in October as WNO’s first artist in residence for their Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
“The program allows Deborah and the young artists time to not just work on vocal issues but really have a mentor who talks about the realities of the business,” says Zambello.
"I’m very excited but a little nervous,” says Voigt. "By the time singers get to a young artist program they already have so much under their belts,” she says. “I’m answering questions they have about what it’s like to be a singer in today’s world, which is very different from the world where I began. They face challenges that I didn’t have to face.”
Voigt recently took on another challenge to benefit young musicians, one that is dear to Miamians. In October, she hosted and performed at the “Sing With Haiti” Gala, a benefit to rebuild Holy Trinity Music School, heavily damaged in the 2010 earthquake.
“This school was really pivotal to the lives of the children in that area, because it’s the only outlet they have for musical studies. They lost so much —everything in the school: instruments, teachers, and students. And yet, two, three, four days later, they were picking up their instruments and practicing in the rubble, getting together and starting to play in the community to rally spirits.
“I feel really strongly about trying to build this school back, because they need it so much. Not only to nurture whatever musicians might come from Haiti, but because it’s such an intricate part of their spirit, so vital a part of that community. Rebuilding is going to be a huge task. They need to raise 10 million dollars.
“How many operatic superstars, Yo Yo Mas, or Joshua Bells will come out of Haiti? We don’t know. The primary goal is to get these kids back to a place where they can really study and bloom as human beings and as musicians as well.”
Voigt herself shows a remarkable resilience of spirit. Although she may never sing her famous Isolde or Brünnhilde again, she is already slated to play a new role, Marie in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Met in March.
“I thought I had reached the point in my life where I wouldn’t be learning new repertoire, but not so. The roles I’ll be taking are a little lower and don’t require four hours of stentorian singing but do require a musical intelligence and wherewithal.
“Marie is going to be a challenge. Dramatically she will be something I can really get my teeth into, but the music is very thorny. I’m enjoying the process and nervous about it at the same time, and that’s probably a healthy place to be.
“You know, life is huge, and being an opera singer is an enormous part of my life, but being happy and being comfortable and not being fearful is much more important to me at this point.”