SAN FRANCISCO — It was visitors' day at Merola, the San Francisco Opera Center's training program for young singers, and the hallway was crowded, the practice rooms were full and a concert was under way in the chorus room.
Soprano Deborah Voigt was supposed to meet her voice coach in five minutes and she needed to warm up. Out of options, Voigt ducked into the ladies' room.
One hand on the towel dispenser, she leaned against sink and began to practice her scales. "Ahahahahahahahaha," she sang, her powerful voice turning the small bathroom into an echo chamber and startling an elderly woman who walked in .
Voigt is a determined and --her teachers say--brilliant young singer. But although this 24-year-old soprano from Anaheim has won some major awards, there is no guarantee that she will succeed at what she hopes will be her life's work--singing with the top opera companies of the world.
"It's a very small field and only a handful of people, maybe 100 or 200, are actually making a living singing," said Steve Brown, manager of the Chicago Lyric Opera Center, which along with the San Francisco Opera Center offers one of the best training programs in the nation.
"A lot of people teach school and sing opera for the local company," Brown said. "But the ones out there earning a respectable living are very few."
Gene Boucher, executive secretary for the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union for the nation's 3,000 opera singers, agreed. "In this business, there are no guarantees. Even if she got a starring role with the San Francisco Opera, there's no guarantee beyond those two little vocal cords. In something as precarious as opera singing, a lot hinges on your performance from day to day."
Right now, Voigt is still, as she and her colleagues jokingly explain, a "diva-in-training." For the next year or two she will be refining her technique, spending eight to 12 hours a day studying voice, foreign languages and stagecraft at the San Francisco Opera Center before trying to launch a career here and abroad.
Whether Voigt will leave Merola to become a star depends on her health, her stamina, her luck--and on whether she overuses her voice, her teachers at Merola said. Still, they called her voice--a very powerful voice, midway between a lyric and dramatic soprano, that is sometimes termed a "spinto" soprano--remarkable.
"It is one of the most beautiful voices we've ever had in this program," said Jimmy Schwabacher, president of the 28-year-old Merola Opera Program.
"It is a very, very good voice," said Kurt Adler, the former general director of the San Francisco Opera who has coached Voigt. "If she handles it right . . . yes, she may make it."
Added Jeff Goldberg, one of Voigt's voice coaches: "It's a staggering talent. . . . It's clearly a voice for the big Italian sounds, a Verdi voice or a Puccini voice. She'll sing it all. The only problem is that she sounds like she's ready for the enormous parts and there's a real danger."
If Voigt at 24 were to sing some of the demanding roles before her voice reached its expected maturity in five to seven years, she could permanently injure herself, developing nodes on her throat and a rough, scratchy or strained sound, Goldberg said. "But Debbie's blessed with intelligence. She's studying and keeping control."
She's also winning prize after prize. Since Voigt began to study opera seriously at Cal State Fullerton four years ago, she has won the 1984 Metropolitan Opera's auditions for Orange County and the Met's 1985 auditions for Orange County, the Western region and the nation. In April in New York, she was one of 11 winners selected from 2,000 singers who earned a $5,000 study grant. Also this year, she was one of 21 singers chosen from 840 to win a spot in the Opera Center's 10-week Merola program. She also won a $2,000 third-place award in the Loren L. Zachary Society Opera Awards, and won--but declined--an American Institute of Musical Studies scholarship to study in Austria. And, two weeks ago, she won a second Opera Center grant, the Adler Fellowship, financing another year to two years of training in San Francisco.
All this is heady stuff for Debbie Voigt, a pretty, self-assured young woman with ash-blonde hair and blue eyes, who only five years ago worked as a computer operator in Irvine.
In those days, if she were to think of a career in music--and mostly she didn't--she thought she might sing "Christian contemporary" music--not opera.