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One On 1: Opera Soprano Deborah Voigt

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Opera superstar Deborah Voigt is not only known at the Met, but on stages all across the world. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One on 1" report.

Deborah Voigt has made quite a name for herself in the world of opera. But once while performing in Geneva, she needed a different name to keep the press from calling the hotel.

So she chose a musical pseudonym.

"I looked at the television set, and the Beatles were on the television. And I had always had a thing for George Harrison so I decided that I was going to be Mrs. Harrison for the duration of my Geneva stay. It was great fun,” says Voigt.

To her friends and family, she is Debbie. To opera buffs, she is one of the great sopranos, at home at the Met and other renowned stages of the world.

"One season at the met, I did two operas and I had two tenors, and one was Pavarotti and the other one was Domingo, and I was pretty much the envy of every soprano on the Met roster that season. That was a good season,” says Voigt.

She has reached these heights thanks to a brilliant voice. But Voigt also cites the value of life experience in helping her with some of opera's complex characters.

"I remember going through a very, very bad breakup and was just heartbroken. And the next engagement that I had, I was singing a piece by Beethoven about a woman who's been scorned and lost and, you know, feels just absolutely dreadful. And the review came out and said something along the line of Deborah Voigt must have had acting lessons because suddenly there was just, you know, pathos that they hadn't seen before,” says Voigt.

Young students often seek out Voigt for her advice, which brings her right back to her own early days.

"I'm always shocked that they come in so nervous. You know, ‘Hello Ms. Voigt,’ shaking in their boots. But then I look back and I remember what it’s like having a master class with Leontyne Price and just being absolutely terrified,” says Voigt.

Her concerts often include Broadway show tunes and popular songs. One such concert at Carnegie Hall last December had to be cancelled because of a last minute throat infection. Missing a show due to illness is a natural part of the job. What happened to Voigt in 2004 was anything but.

She was fired from a role in a production at the Royal Opera House in London because she couldn't fit into a small black dress. The controversy that ensued sparked attention inside the opera world and beyond, much to Voigt's chagrin.

"It was sad, on the one hand, that it takes something like that to have an opera singer try to be reached by People Magazine or be on Good Morning America,” says Voigt.

Voigt subsequently chose to have gastric bypass surgery. Not, she says, because of the firing, but because of her health. But concerns were raised about how the surgery might affect her voice.

"Of course I had concerns. But I was more concerned with keeping that extra 120 to 125 pounds on me. I knew that it was taking its toll. My knees were feeling terrible. I was feeling winded just walking across the street. So my fear was greater at remaining where I was than any of the risks that might happen going forward,” says Voigt.

She went from a size 30 to a size 14. She says the experience incident gave her a platform to talk about the problem of childhood obesity.

Last year, the Royal Opera House rehired her. In preparation for her return, Voigt got the last laugh, creating a spoof, co-starring the little black dress.

"We needed to try to put a period at the end of the sentence,” says Voigt. "I think it had like 75,000 hits and that's just ridiculous in terms of operatically."

Deborah Voigt has been a New Yorker for about five years, but her family almost moved here from Chicago when she was in high school. But there was one problem.
"We would have lived in Ossining and one of the things that the real estate agent told us was that on a still night in the summer you could hear the prisoners singing ‘At Sing Sing’ -- this was apparently his selling feature,” says Voigt.

But singing was a big part of her youth, like the music of The Carpenters and the Osmonds.

"Many people are horrified to hear that I didn't grow up, I didn't even know who Maria Collis was until I think I was 19. It’s really terrible to admit but it’s true,” says Voigt.

But she believes there was a benefit to that because young opera singers often try to mimic other opera singers.

"The fact that I didn't grow up in an opera household, maybe forced me to establish my own sound and my own way of singing and vocal mannerisms or gestures," says Voigt.

Her family moved from Chicago to southern California while she was in high school. She says it was a difficult transition, made easier by her involvement in theater and music. Eventually, her folks realized that her passion for music was not fading.

"It took them a long time to go from, ‘Oh Debbie sings for fun’, to ‘Wow, Debbie's actually being paid,’ to ‘Wow, she's not going to have to do another job and she's being paid’,” says Voigt.

She attended Cal State Fullerton, then apprenticed with the San Francisco Opera Company, where she took a class from one of America's most beloved sopranos, Leontyne Price.

"I noticed that she had the most incredible diamond on her hand, this rock. So I went to her after class and I said, ‘Ms. price, thank you so much for all of your phrasing and it was just such a wonderful experience, and I just have to tell you, that ring is absolutely gorgeous.’ She said, ‘Debra, I bought that ring for myself so no one could ever take it away.’ And I learned more from that I think,” says Voigt.

She won musical competitions in Moscow and Philadelphia and ascended to the heights of the opera world. But it's not been the life she expected. She describes herself as a nester. Voigt was married once. She says the travel makes any kind of romantic relationship or friendship difficult.

And with the joy of performing on some of the world's great stages comes sacrifice.

Voigt was preparing for a major role in Vienna when she found out that her sister, Melinda, had died of cancer.

"They knew that what I was doing, at the time, was my first Isolde, in the new production in Vienna, and they knew the significance of that in my career, so it wasn't even suggested that I leave,” says Voigt. "Those sorts of life experiences make one a much more well rounded person on stage, in terms of emotional content in characters and I don't think you can't get up on stage and sing a character whose heart's been broken, if you haven't experienced that."

Years ago, her first love was musical theater. Perhaps if her first teacher loved theater and not opera, Voigt would have initially gone in that direction. But her success in the opera world has given her the opportunity to sing whatever she'd like.

"I want to do an evening of the American songbook series and I want to sing cabaret things and musical things and that really feels good to me. And I said to a friend it feels like second nature, it's really first nature, it's really what you started out doing. But I'm meant to be an opera singer,” says Voigt.

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