La Scena Musicale

Friday, 6 March 2015

Review: Call Me Debbie

Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva
Deborah Voigt
With Natasha Stoynoff (271 pp.)
New York: Harper Collins (2015)
ISBN: 978-0-06-211827-1

Confession time: when it comes to reading singers’ biographies, I’m a bit of a junkie. Like many passionate opera lovers, I am interested in the artist, but also curious about the person behind the artistry. A sub-genre is the autobiography or memoir, never mind a lot of these tomes listing a co-author or ghostwriter – one needs to read these volumes with a generous helping of salt. During my undergraduate, my first memoir was an old, dusty university library copy of Australian prima donna Nellie Melba’s Melodies and Memories (1926). Ghostwritten by her secretary, the book comes across as formal, stately, ladylike and not terribly interesting. A much more rewarding read was the wickedly funny Men, Women and Tenors (1937) by fellow Kiwi-Aussie diva Frances Alda. After plowing though this thick, 300-page volume, I was hooked.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the changing times, the generally staid classical singers’ memoirs have evolved into something more daring, with more revelations and exposés and less of the nitty-gritty, boring bits that read like a tedious chronicle of past performances. To be sure, many are still not quite tell-all tales, or the narrative is so reverential that it sounds like something written by a publicist. The cynic in me couldn’t help a smirk at the title of a well-known Italian soprano’s memoir called “…More Than A Diva.” Industry insiders will easily recognize the ones that have been sanitized for public consumption, or the presence of glaring omissions regarding private lives, such as the recent book by a great African-American diva. Some artists use the memoir to settle old scores, such as the one by a famous Russian soprano. Perhaps it’s understandable why a singer gets evasive when it comes to personal details - after all a memoir is a sort of “performance” and few artists would willingly expose the underside of a life for scrutiny. For the few more forthcoming, the result can be a riveting read - Christa Ludwig, Barbara Hendricks, and Galina Vishnevskaya come to mind.

Now we have a new book that sets the tell-all bar very high indeed: Call Me Debbie by American soprano Deborah Voigt. One of the most celebrated sopranos of our time, Voigt in her prime was a superb Wagner and Strauss singer. To those lucky enough to have experienced her on the opera and recital stages, it likely left an indelible impression. (I use past tense because her instrument has changed with the passage of time, and she seems to have given up her core Wagner and Strauss repertoire in favour of musicals and one-woman shows) Before this book, we knew nothing about her private struggles as an artist and a woman. Born to a devout Southern Baptist, but sadly dysfunctional, family in Illinois, Voigt’s talent was recognized early. She recounts an epiphany at age 14 when she heard God telling her, “You’re here to sing.” To her religious parents, singing belonged only in church for the glory of God. This was just the first of many inner conflicts in her young life that likely contributed to her multiple addictions – to food, alcohol, and men.

In the book, Voigt chronicles in detail the ups and downs of her relationships with her parents, her struggles with an increasingly serious weight problem, and her tendency to fall in love with the wrong guy. To deal with all these issues in her life while juggling a demanding international career, Voigt developed a dependency on alcohol that became increasingly dire. While she managed to keep her alcoholism from interfering with her work, she wasn’t so lucky with the weight issue. The matter came to a head in 2004 when she was released from a Covent Garden Ariadne auf Naxos for being too heavy for “The Little Black Dress.” With a signed contract, she had every right to sing. Royal Opera chose to release her with full pay, and Voigt used the fee to pay for gastric bypass surgery. But a medical intervention is not a cure, and her old pattern of behaviour persisted. The narrative on how she passed out for thirty-six hours and woke up with unexplained bruises all over her body is chilling. The book graphically details her addiction issues and the slow climb out of the abyss through recovery, attending AA meetings and various rehabs. Reading her travails might satisfy the voyeur in some of us, but it also makes for decidedly uncomfortable reading. One gets a true appreciation of the fact that great singers like Voigt may have the voice of an angel, but many of them have feet of clay.

If there is a downside to Call Me Debbie, it has to do with having focused so much on the singer’s personal issues that there’s little room left in the book on her art – what made her famous in the first place. Other than some discussions of her signature roles of Brunnhilde, Sieglinde and Ariadne, heroines that are somehow tied in with the singer’s relationship and self esteem issues, there’s precious little about anything else musical. We learn little about Voigt the musician, about her approaches and insights into the music she sings. Yes there are the occasional tidbits on colleagues, all treated in a surprisingly genteel fashion – for example she adores Domingo and makes allowances for the great Luciano. Comments on Jose Cura’s oversized ego is about as catty as Voigt gets. The two evil mezzos with whom Voigt crossed swords remain nameless. At the end of the day, the book really isn’t about music, but addiction and recovery. Its tell-all style, written in a relaxed, archetypal American lingo (no profanities spared!) will endear it to the general reader, even if the person has little interest in opera. It makes the absence of an index and performance history almost irrelevant. It’s an absorbing and interesting read for anyone curious about Deborah Voigt, the woman and the artist. 

- Joseph So

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