Like a character in a Mozart or Strauss opera, Deborah Voigt has undergone a transformation. She's lost weight and added glamour. At her Los Angeles Opera recital Sunday evening in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she was a walking, talking, flirting, singing advertisement for gastric bypass surgery.
Fans of America's most admired dramatic soprano are, of course, watching her like a hawk and listening to her like obsessive canary fanciers. Does a 100-pound weight drop diminish lung power? After half a century, many Maria Callas devotees still contend that her dieting had lasting vocal ramifications, however much the celebrated soprano insisted that she, in fact, gained better endurance.
More likely in Callas' case was the fact that her new body empowered her to become a daring stage presence, which ultimately took its toll on her voice. Might the same happen to Voigt? At this point, no one knows, but Sunday there were good signs and bad ones.
If you are worried about power, don't be. Voigt's calling card is her big Wagnerian and Straussian sound, her ability to just open up on high notes and let a clarion sound rip. That she can still do. And if there was an occasional and slight edge to her voice, especially in the break between her blazing high range and smoky lower one, there were other plausible explanations. She walked on stage carrying a large box of tissues and joked about her head cold.
What was immediately apparent at this recital -- which worked its way through lesser-known Mozart, Verdi, Strauss and Respighi until reaching American music -- is that Voigt is no fluke of nature. She is a technical singer, superbly trained. Her voice is not impressive for its bigness (although it is not small) as it is for its focus. The thrill of her high notes is that of a considerable athletic feat.
Until recently, she was a large woman with a lively personality who stood and belted. Now with less, she is much more. Clearly comfortable with her new frame, Voigt is finally able to use her body expressively, to become a complete singer. She always had a flexible voice, but now it means something when she can employ a compliant physique.
But Voigt is also unpracticed in the art of suppleness. She chose an interesting and challenging program but she didn't necessarily choose well. She began with a wonderful Mozart curiosity, a short Masonic cantata ("You Who Honor the Creator of the Infinite Universe") written around the same time as "The Magic Flute" and full of ringing utopian sentiments. But in this and in some dramatic but dull Strauss songs, she offered little more than conventionally emphatic sentiments.
Some charm, and lots of lovely, buzzing rolled Rs (which she does really well, especially in the lower range where she sounds like a cosmic lawnmower), went a long way in helping give lesser (a lot lesser) Verdi and hothouse Respighi impact. But Voigt didn't really come into her own until she reached the songs of two Bostonians -- the Victorian Amy Beach and the very un-Victorian Leonard Bernstein. Beach's "The Year's at the Spring" to Robert Browning's all's-well-with-the-poem rang out with unfettered enthusiasm.
She got cute, too cute, in Bernstein's "It's Gotta Be Bad to Be Good" and the doo-wop "Piccola Serenata." But she brought exactly the right, brave, understated touch to the antiwar "So Pretty." "Somewhere" had only a smidgen too much sentiment.
But my sense of the evening was of a singer whose real potential is untapped. Her accompanist, Brian Zeger, was just that, an accompanist. She needed someone to play off, not who plays for her, however well. She actually blew Zeger away when she sat down with him at the piano bench for an encore and rocked at the keyboard.
She also needs musical substance. Strauss and Wagner might be her meal ticket, but her soul is in American music and music of our time. Yet she is, instead, turning to trash. Now that she has the looks, she says she wants to sing "Adriana Lecouvreur," "Andrea Chenier" and other cheap Italian operas. The time has come for her to make Strauss, Wagner and Verdi relevant and to inspire new opera. She could do it.