Few Sopranos in recent times have mastered the Wagnerian Repertoire with the apparent ease that Deborah Voigt has displayed over nearly two decades in the dramatic Fach.
Here vocally so consistent in Manon Lescaut:
Here head-to-head with the legendary Pavarotti and she reigns:
And here one of the most vocally balanced and musically refined readings of “Dich theure Halle” in recording history and live:
Another superb example of her technical mastery is this All-Wagner concert in São Paolo ending with the taxing Liebestod from Tristan. She sounded as fresh at the end of the concert as she did at the beginning, except for a slight loss of support in the final phrase (this is worth mentioning later).
Technically of the highest water, musically irreproachable and dramatically convincing! So what went wrong?
We cannot point to a singer doing too heavy repertoire too soon as is testament here. The voice was ready and the technique was solid.
Therefore, we must point to the obvious reason why things went wrong lately!
After the surgery, this performance started fights on the various opera Forums between diehard fans and those who sought reasons to criticize:
There is a definite change in quality in the tone, that any experienced teacher would attribute to a slight glottal squeeze due to inadequate breath support. It is not severe and even at this stage she sounded better than most other sopranos singing this repertoire.
Singing better than the average is not the modus operandi of a singer at this level, nor would it be of a world class athlete. Yet as much as some in our midst would like to refer to opera as a sport, few truly understand why that is. An opera singer does not need to look like a bodybuilder anymore than a golfer does. But there are specific muscles in both cases that need to be developed to prevent breakdown. Besides the laryngeal muscles (which in Ms. Voigt’s case were ideally developed) the breathing apparatus must be developed to extraordinary levels particularly in the case of a Wagnerian singer.
Why had Ms. Voigt been so successful if her breathing was not developed? Most singers know the fact that additional fat assist in the breath support of a singer. With the fat tissue as a cushion beneath the diaphragm, maintaining constant breath compression is much easier than without. The downside is that it takes great effort to take a deep breath. Nevertheless, Ms. Voigt managed quite well.
But indeed even in a singer who is obese, the fat is not the only part of the breathing process. The muscles of exhalation are still a part of the process. And at the end of the São Paolo concert, the exhalation muscles gave up in the final phrase. Her vocal folds compensated by pressing together (via Interarytenoid Muscles) to make up the pressure lost from the support muscles. However the medial pressure added time to the vibration cycles and the pitch lowered. An unexpected occurrence in an otherwise almost flawless concert.
Indeed this occurrence in São Paolo signaled what was to become more problematic post surgery. Once the fat was removed, the muscles had to work harder to create the compression that the voice was used to. Ms. Voigt was back on stage 8-weeks after the surgery according to her recent interviews. This was not enough time to develop the necessary muscular strength to maintain compression at the level se was used to. When that compression is lacking, the vocal folds responded again as they did in São Paolo, but this time chronically since the old support system was no longer there.
I work with singers who come out of pregnancy and even if they sang during the pregnancy, they require more than 8-weeks to be back to normal. Dramatic voices require even more time. In her recent interview with the NY Times, Ms. Voigt attributes the change in her vocal quality more to age and the requirements of very difficult repertoire than to the surgery. Age and repertoire are real factors of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore the obvious. The voice did not sound the same after the surgery and that is a fact.
The more important question is not just why this occurred but how does one recover from it? The technical side of it is not so difficult. Ms. Voigt would have had to maintain the sound expectation from before the surgery. Why? Because it was healthy and balanced. There is no fat tissue on the vocal folds. They do not change when one is slim or obese. The breath compression system is what changed and she should have taken the time to work the breath until her sound returned to its pre-surgery color. This is still possible! It is not her technique that needed to change but rather a “vocal fitness level” that would compensate for the sudden weight loss.
Why “vocal fitness”? Because the fitness of the breath compression system that is needed should be totally relative to how it brings her larynx to its old balance. In short, this is not about perfunctory fitness, but rather a specific fitness related to the voice.
Yet the work that would need to be done to get Ms. Voigt her old voice back is not only physical. Ms. Voigt spoke of alcohol abuse in her NY Times article and dealing with it head-on by attending regular A.A. meetings, etc.
Ms. Voigt is a very strong and determined woman who has fought many battles.
1. She rose to the top of the operatic world and no matter what anyone tells you, that is not accomplished only because God gave you a talent. Success has so much more to do with dedication and hard work.
2. She was publicly humiliated by that ridiculous black-dress incident and she came through it triumphant and reinvented herself.
3. She is dealing with this crisis head-on and honestly and she is to be admired for that.
Was her decision to have gastric bypass surgery wrong? At the time I thought so. But in retrospect and perhaps with a little more wisdom, I realize that it was a decision that she had to make and she knew better than anyone what the stakes were. As she explains in the recent interviews, she had to chose her health over the potential ill effects on the voice. I would say she chose well. She may still recover her old voice.
The question is whether she has the emotional strength to fight any more battles. Is it then a wise choice to take on easier roles that do not demand the precision of technical balance required for the Isoldes and Brünnhildes? We should trust her in that regard. She has other talents which are being developed and perhaps her career will now take a more diversified outlook.
As a singer and a fan of Ms. Voigt’s I would love to see her recover her pre-surgery voice. More importantly, I would like to see Ms. Voigt transition from this crisis and reinvent herself again. I would hope the operatic world would not treat her like yesterday’s great dramatic soprano who has lost it. That is the noxious air that wafts through conversations with singers and other business types, whether at cafés or on the blogosphere.
She is as close to the Birgit Nilsson of her time as one can get. In the old days, when a great singer had a crisis (I am reminded of Leontyne Price’s 1962 Anthony and Cleopatra), it seems there were important people in the field who felt it necessary to help the singer find real solutions. If not from the business, I hope Ms. Voigt has a team of caring people around her who will help her make a triumphant return to the stage and to her life, as she so richly deserves. God knows she has given us enough to enjoy for generations to come!