The Saga of the Opera Star And That Little Black Dress

“I could use a few more hours of sleep-I didn’t get to bed until 7 this morning,” the soprano Deborah Voigt said with a grin after she had welcomed me into the suite of her midtown hotel. It was the day after one of the biggest milestones in any singer’s career-a recital debut in Carnegie Hall-and though during the past 24 hours she had sung a two-hour program before several thousand people, gone out to dinner and stayed up all night drinking champagne with family and friends, she looked as fresh as if she had just come back from a week in the Bahamas.

“How do you feel otherwise?” I asked.

“Great,” she said. “It was a pretty big moment.”

Anyone who was at Carnegie Hall that night would have to agree-and not just because Ms. Voigt proved yet again that she has one of the world’s most thrilling voices, a sun-drenched soprano capable of filling a hall made for symphony orchestras with self-amplifiedbrilliance.Thiswasa Carnegie debut with an agenda. A month ago, Ms. Voigt was the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times : The Royal Opera House in London had fired her from the title role in an updated staging of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos for being too fat. The reason, allegedly, was that although she may look fine in the sort of toga-like garment usually worn by the opera’s heroine, her Junoesque figure just wouldn’t do in the slinky “little black dress” required for this production. Because of the trans-Atlantic brouhaha, the lady was out for blood.

Bette Midler’s arrival onstage in Clams on the Half Shell Revue paled in comparison with Ms. Voigt’s entry into the Isaac Stern Auditorium: She was trailed not only by her piano accompanist, Brian Zeger, but by a gray-blue train plumed with ostrich feathers. (“Carnegie’s stage has never been so clean,” a man behind me quipped.) The satin-doll couture, which was the work of the costume designer Robert Perdziola, was low-cut across the front and banded with sequins. It graced the singer’s ample frame with a bedroomy flamboyance worthy of Mae West.

The message was not lost on a cheering audience: “O.K., you Twiggy lovers,” it said, “want to see what New World glamour, big-girl style, is all about?”

Operagoers who had seen Ms. Voigt only behind the Met’s golden curtain were startled to discover a diva who could put over a wicked pastiche of lowdown tomfoolery, like William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s “Toothbrush Time,” or a Sondheim torch song like “Losing My Mind,” as effortlessly as a selection of shimmering lieder by Schubert and Strauss. She segued from the wrenching soulfulness of two Tchaikovsky songs to the quirky rambunctiousness of Charles Ives to the deft sweetness of the contemporary composer Ben Moore-all without ever lowering her sights. During one of her encores, a hilarious lament written for her by Mr. Moore about the perils of being a Wagnerian diva, she brought down the house with a reference to “the little black dress.” A few minutes later, she delivered Brunnhilde’s octave-leaping “Hojotoho” from Die Walküre with bull’s-eye accuracy and power. It could be read as a signal to her fans that at the age of 43 she’s prepared to tackle the most daunting of Wagner’s heroines-and also as a “Take that!” to those twitty Brits.

The next afternoon, when she greeted me at her hotel, she was dressed casually in a pleated red cotton shirt over black slacks. Offstage, she’s unimposing-a hefty woman with the blond, blue-eyed, honey-complexioned good looks one associates with a girl who grew up mostly in Orange County, Calif. Settling herself into a chair and holding a little Yorkie named Steinway, she was just as warm, direct and quick-witted as she appears to be onstage.

She made her debut at the Met in 1991, as Amelia in Verdi’s A Masked Ball , thanks to her most important mentor, artistic director James Levine. This was after she received glowing notices earlier that year for singing what would become her signature role-Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos -at the Boston Lyric Opera. During her rapid rise to international stardom, she took on several of the most demanding Verdi heroines, including Aida and the Leonoras in Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino , as well as the Wagner and Strauss heroines who are splendidly celebrated on her first solo CD, Obsessions , which has just been released on Angel/EMI.

Three and a half years ago, Covent Garden contracted Ms. Voigt to come to London this June for Ariadne, a role she’s performed so many times that she’s described herself as “Ariadne Inc.”

“I was hardly a new commodity,” she said. “I’ve sung there twice before. In any case, I was not being asked to sing the premiere of the production, only its revival.” About 18 months ago, she said, her management was informed by the Royal Opera’s casting director, Peter Katona, that she was unsuitable for the production’s concept, in which Ariadne-the diva/heroine of the work’s opera-within-an-opera-is costumed in modern evening dress. “My size was the only issue mentioned-there was nothing said about my stage abilities,” she told me. “And nobody called me personally to explain or apologize. I didn’t like it, but what could I do? My management was furious, perhaps more than I was. What upset me most was all the time wasted. I very much wanted to sing at the Royal Opera-it’s one of the few houses that hires the world’s best available singers-and my manager got back to them about my availability for other roles. Nothing’s happened, so I can only assume that there are other issues involved besides my weight.”

Last month, she went to London to make her recital debut at the Barbican Centre. In an interview with a reporter from the Sunday Telegraph , she was asked when she would be returning to Covent Garden. “I said, ‘I have no plans to come back at this time.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ I thought, do I give him a line like ‘We haven’t been able to come up with something mutually agreeable’ or ‘I haven’t found time in my busy schedule’? But then I thought maybe it would stir up a little something in England, and that’s not a bad thing-so I told him what really happened.”

She remains puzzled by the whole affair: “I still don’t get why Covent Garden did it. I mean, people who go to opera houses on that level are aware of the tradition of large singers. I’m sure that the thinner Ariadne they replaced me with, whatever her name is”-a German soprano, Anne Schwanewilms-“well, she may be wonderful. But we don’t know who she is. They had a chance to present-if I may be so bold as to say-one of the best Ariadnes around. What I really feel is that they’re robbing their public. But maybe they think that their public isn’t sophisticated enough to look beyond what some people might consider ‘normal’ beauty.”

She took particular issue with a remark by Peter Katona, who was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying that some opera singers use their profession as an excuse to eat too much, rationalizing that the greater the weight, the greater the power of the voice. “I don’t buy that,” she said. “Yes, the extra weight that some of us carry around in the middle does act as a sort of natural engager of the abdominal muscles-it makes it easier to tighten them up. During the times when I’ve succeeded in dropping 15 to 20 pounds, I haven’t felt quite as grounded, and my support isn’t quite as strong. But that’s only a temporary feeling. After you’ve lost the weight, of course you feel better. Believe me, if what Covent Garden did made me get thinner, I’d go down on my knees and thank God.

“The idea that being an opera singer gives you a license to eat too much is nonsense. What Luciano [Pavarotti] suffers from and I suffer from, and Jessye [Norman] suffers from, and Montserrat [Caballe] suffers from and Jane [Eaglen] suffers from, is an addiction to food. You can say, ‘Well, just stop eating,’ but it’s not that easy. I’ve done shrinks and I’ve done pills. I lost a lot of weight on Fen-Phen before they took it off the market because of the side effects. At the time I didn’t think so, but when I look back on it now, I was really nuts. I was vacuuming at 2 in the morning. I suddenly took up calligraphy. Calligraphy ?

“Eating too much,” she said, “is like drinking too much: Food can be a companion, a celebration, an anti-depressant. Is over-eating, on some level, about self-protection, about keeping your distance, about hiding? Absolutely. The only difference between obesity and alcoholism is that one has to eat to live, and one doesn’t have to drink to live. With food, it becomes more difficult to put parameters on what is and isn’t appropriate. Which isn’t to say that I’m making excuses for myself, that I can’t lose weight. There are a lot of young singers struggling with this issue, and I don’t want them to use me as an excuse. I don’t want them to go through their training thinking that it doesn’t matter if they’re too heavy because look at the success of Deborah Voigt!”

Whatever happens, she’s not going to change who she is. “I used to be represented by Herbert Breslin”-Luciano Pavarotti’s longtime manager-“and one day Herbert got me in his office and said, ‘You know, we need to create some sort of persona for you.’ And I thought, persona ? First of all, what do you come up with? How do you maintain it throughout a career? And anyway, what is so unengaging about me that we have to make me into somebody else?”

She went into the bedroom and came out grinning as she held a T-shirt in front of her. “Look at this,” she said. Above a drawing of a strapless evening gown, the legend on the shirt read, “It ain’t over ’til the little black dress sings.”

The Saga of the Opera Star And That Little Black Dress