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Interview: Deborah Voigt's Celebrity Series recital at Symphony Hall

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Deborah Voigt, one of opera's most distinguished and beloved sopranos, makes her second appearance of the 2013-14 season with the Celebrity Series of Boston on April 27, 2014. Voigt, joined by pianist Brian Zeger, will perform songs for voice and piano by Beach, Tchaikovsky, R. Strauss, Bernstein, and contemporary composers Benjamin Moore and William Bolcom.

Whether singing opera, musical theater, or concert repertoire, Voigt has received continual praise not only for her vocal abilities, but also for her expressive portrayals. The colorful program showcases Voigt's versatility and facility with a variety of styles, languages, and personas.

The recital will take place on Sunday, 27 April at 3 p.m. at Symphony Hall.

Voigt shares her thoughts on her current recital tour and upcoming Celebrity Series program:

Melanie O’Neill: You’ve already appeared once this season with the Celebrity Series for your biographical work, “Voigt Lessons.” Is it nice to be able follow-up this very intimate show with a sort of culminating recital at the end of the season?

Deborah Voigt: It is. It’s kind of a singer’s dream, to be honest. First of all, I’m at a point in my career where I’m just happy to be inhabiting my own skin onstage and to allow my audience to get to know me a little bit better. I’m this person they've been watching in armor and other various costumes for 20 years and I now have the chance to be a little bit more approachable. To be able to come and do a more traditional recital is really exciting; although, I have to say that this recital, though it is classical in nature, all of the composers are classical--I have purposefully chosen to do lighter fare and to sing a lot of things in English. That’s a little bit selfish on my part, just because I want to be able to sing these songs, so I program them, but, again, it’s a chance to be a little bit more relatable. I also find that when I do these recitals, because they are a series—for example, I was just in Southern California and I did a concert at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert and I think Diana Krall was doing a concert 4 days later—when you’re programming, you know that people who have bought a subscription will have bought across the board in terms of what their musical interests are, so I try to appeal to the man whose wife bought the subscription and is happy to go see Diana Krall, but, “Who is this opera singer? Why do I have to go see her?” I try to program things that are appealing across the board.

MO: The program for your upcoming appearance is quite diverse. We get some of your signature Strauss, a little 19th century music, a set of songs by Leonard Bernstein and the works of 2 contemporary composers. Can you tell me a little bit about the flow of the program?

DV: It’s flowing really well. You never really know when you put these things together and, to be honest, these are all songs that I’ve had in my repertoire for a long time. It’s nice to be able to sing things that are more familiar, but, you never really know how it’s going to flow until you have it in front of an audience. Brian Zeger and I have been doing the program all fall and we’ve done it in the past, so we kind of know what works. Even as recently as a week ago, though, in Sonoma, we decided to change the order of songs because we felt like they weren’t flowing in the right way, that the audience wasn’t getting the humor of one, and that maybe he and I thought it was funnier than the audience is showing us that they think it is, so these things can change. I don’t like to change the program too much. They’re printed and I want the audience to have a record of what they’ve heard, but we do reserve the option to switch things up if we think it’s going to be better for their experience.

MO: Taking into account both your opera and recital repertoire, it’s a rare treat to hear you sing Tchaikovsky. I believe the Tchaikovsky songs you’ll sing are the same ones that you won the Tchaikovsky Competition with in 1990. What continues to draw you back to these songs particularly?

DV: Well, it becomes a matter of revisiting things that I’ve done in the past. They’re kind of off the beaten path, in terms of things you might hear in a vocal recital, they’re linguistically different from anything that I do, and they’re little gems of pieces. They also feature Brian a lot. The piano part is…I believe I will say, more difficult than the vocal part. He is such a fine pianist that I like the opportunity, myself, to just sit back and listen to him play—watch him sweat for a few minutes. [Laughs]

MO: Unfortunately, American art song often gets left in dust competing with things like the old Germanic tradition of Lieder, but there is a lot to be said for American song. You are singing works by 4 American composers and I think it’s quite likely that many audience members will be hearing some of these composers’ music for the first time. What are some things you find particularly vibrant or unique about the music of these American composers?

DV: Well, Amy Beach is a woman and that right there, you know--out of the bag! You don’t hear a lot of female composers and her music is very lush. Brian is an absolute genius at knowing repertoire for all voice types, so he introduced me to these songs and they really just hit me immediately. Ben Moore is someone that I came to know several years ago. I’ve actually recorded the pieces that I was doing in recital and I really just love his music. It’s very melodically driven and I am melodically driven, and, while he’s a contemporary composer, he really knows how to spin out a beautiful medley and how to set text really well. Bolcom, again, was someone that Brian introduced me to and I just fell for these songs. “At the Last Lousy Moments of Love” is one that I just added for this tour and it’s just a great song about the trail and, sadly, I can relate to that.
I had just never sung any Bernstein and I thought “it’s about time!” He’s one of our American treasures and I never had the chance to meet him or work with him, so it’s a little bit of a tribute to someone who’s been so central to American song for such a long time. Of course, I grew up dancing around to “West Side Story,” so I thought “let’s visit him and see what’s out there” and we came up with some things that people will absolutely recognize for the final piece of the program. You know, that’s a little dangerous in a way. Is it too sweet? Is it too sentimental? But, I like sentiment so I’m doing it. [Laughs]

MO: When you sing these American songs, do you feel a cultural connection to the music being American yourself?

DV: I do… probably more so than in anything I’ve sung in my career, to be honest. Part of that satisfaction comes from spending 25, almost 30 years now, singing an art form that is not mine, in languages that are not mine, and playing characters that I relate to, certainly on an emotional level, but—it’s hard to think of yourself as a goddess… although there are those moments. [Laughs]
Anyway, I am really feeling very blessed and fortunate to be where I am in my career, to feel like I’ve done pretty much everything operatically that I’d like to do. There is one role that I haven’t done that I’m still dreaming about and that’s Strauss’ Elektra. Other than that, I’ve done quite a bit and I’m just really enjoying looking at other things, other options. There’s a musical theater piece in my future that is very interesting for me and a lot of fun. It’s nice to have made it this far so that I have choices and can still exercise performance muscles that have been dormant since I performed musicals in high school…which was more than a few years ago.

MO: The music you will sing by William Bolcom has a sort of cabaret style. What are some of the technical or stylistic challenges of this music and do you approach it differently than some of your other repertoire?

DV: I don’t really. I spend a lot of time with the text, but really I don’t think about having to do anything vocally or having to manufacture anything. It is really just putting my voice into songs that works for me. Part of working with Brian is finding what pieces work for my voice. I may love it, but it doesn’t work or it may be a great piece, but I don’t like it. We go back and forth as to what really works with my voice. I mean, I would love to be able to sing “Glitter and Be Gay” in the Bernstein section, but that’s not going to happen. You have to think about what’s realistic within the confines of your own voice.

MO: Coming back to Strauss, his works have played a big role throughout the development of your career. After years of experience with the music, in what aspects do you think you’ve grown the most in your interpretation of Strauss?

DV: I would say that I certainly pay more attention to text and the way that it’s set. Strauss wrote really beautifully for women in particular, and each of those pieces are a little story in and of themselves, as are all the pieces on the program, so really focusing on “What is the character saying? Who is she?” and not having to sustain it for 4 hours, is a lot of fun. There is something to be said for that, to be able to switch gears from one delivery to another.

MO: Looking at the whole program, is there a piece you find particularly rewarding to sing?

DV: I do, and it’s probably not one that people would necessarily choose. It’s one of Ben Moore’s songs and it’s called “This Heart That Flutters.” From the minute I heard that song I loved it. I’ve been singing it for years now and I still love it and it has a beautiful piano part. It’s just one of those songs that stirs me for some reason. Part of it is that I can see how the audience is responding to it as well and that’s rewarding, to think “Well, we’re all on the same page with this one!” I'm having a lot of fun on the recital stage. I hope this is something I can do for many years to come.

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