Debra Voigt Recital

Review by Louis Fantasia

The last time Deborah Voigt appeared at th Los Angeles Opera was, I believe, in 2000 in a production of Verdi's AIDA. One of the great Verdi and Strauss voices of our time she was in full vocal command of the role, but, thanks to a weight problem that has spawned much too much attention, her acting left, well, much to be desired. I rather ungallantly, if aptly noted that if her Egyptian captors tossed the Ethiopian slave girl into the tomb to starve to
death, they would have a long wait.

Things came to a head in 2004 when London's Covent Garden fired Ms. Voigt from a production of Strauss's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS for being, not to put too fine a point on it, too fat to be believable on stage in a little black dress designed for the production. There were uproars and protests all around, but Ms. Voigt did what any spunky American girl would do, she went on a diet - or, to be more precise, she underwent gastric by-pass surgery and dropped 140 pounds.

This kind of tabloid gossip is the stuff of Oprah's yo-yo weight loss and gain, Lindsay Lohan's rehab residencies and the current fashionista guilt-trip of runway models being too thin. This sort of stuff usually does not sit well in the hallowed halls of high art.

But Ms. Voigt is something else, a force of nature, and American nature at that. A Chicago gal, she sang in her high school musicals, studied at Chapman College in the O.C. and exploded on to the opera scene in 1991 with a production of the aforesaid ARIADNE in Boston. Her weight "issue" resonates with her fellow countrymen, especially when she's being picked on by snooty Brits. And her comeback takes on epic dimensions - will the voice
be damaged by the weight loss and the operation? What does she look like now? Can she act? What will she wear?

Well, let's settle the tabloid issue first: Ms Voigt is now a certifiable BABE! She strode out on the Ahmanson stage on January 14th in a slinky black number that would have done any Strauss heroine proud. Her presence - and her voice - are still large enough to turn the cavernous opera house into an intimate recital hall, and she hand everyone eating out the palm of her hand (especially when, on her second entrance, she brought out a box of Kleenex, took one out to deal with a head cold sniffle, and stored it in her bosom for subsequent use!)

Ms. Voigt chose a perky, eclectic program, ripping off with a mini-Mozart cantata and then settling into song sets from Verdi and Strauss for the remainder of the first half. The Verdi material was, for me, second-rate at best, although she handle it with flair. The Strauss songs were a much better, richer choice, especially the haunting "Song of the Women", opus 68, No. 6. And they were a dead match for her voice!

The second was an even odder kettle of fish: a set of songs by Ottorino Respighi (best known for orchestral bombast such as "The Pines of Rome"), which turned out to be fairly charming in a Puccinesque sort of way. This was followed by the oddity of the evening, two songs by Amy Beach.

Ms. Beach, born in New England (1867-1944), was the first woman composer to have her work performed by major American orchestras. She toured Europe (after her husband died) giving concerts (her piano concerto was particularly popular). She writes in that European (Nadia Boulanger) influenced American better known through Piston, Copland and Gershwin, but she is her own voice and she is lucky to have Ms. Voigt as a champion.

The program (but not the evening) ended with a set of songs by Leonard Bernstein (himself in that same tradition), which included the painfully appropriate anti-war song, SO PRETTY, with lyrics by Comden and Green. There was a palpable chill in the audience when she finished - who says high art can't be political?

Ms. Voigt came back for two encores, one by Strauss, and one ("I Love a Piano") in which she capped off the night by playing four-handed honky-tonk with her accompanist, Brian Zeger. Ms Voigt was having too much fun - and so were we.

A fan from the balcony shouted "we love you" after the first encore, and I half expected Ms. Voigt to run up and get his phone number. She seems genuinely thrilled and surprised by the warmth and support her new self has engendered. She shouldn't be. It's deserved.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there were no second acts in American lives. Ms Voigt is here to prove him - and the snooty Brits - wrong... You go, girl!