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Away from the opera hall

The dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt returns to an early love as she performs a program of show tunes at UCLA.

January 18, 2008|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Deborah Voigt, whom many consider our reigning Wagner and Strauss dramatic soprano, took time off from opera to sing Broadway songs Wednesday at Royce Hall, UCLA.

Appearing with Tony Award-winning pianist-conductor Ted Sperling and a combo made up of violin, bass and percussion, she sang familiar show tunes, resurrected forgotten gems and chatted amiably with Sperling and the audience, even saying "gesundheit" to a man who had sneezed loudly during her singing of "Goodnight My Someone" from Meredith Willson's "The Music Man."

Voigt has explored this musical territory before. Her second solo disc, "All My Heart," was a recital of American songs. Two seasons ago, she appeared in the "American Songbook" series at New York's Lincoln Center, and she's set to return there Wednesday. She also devoted much of her 2006 concert inaugurating Cal State Fullerton's Meng Hall to this repertory.

Still, the 90-minute set, presented on the UCLA Live series, didn't quite jell.

The idea was to transform the Royce stage into a kind of cabaret. But the amplification was off. Percussionist Mark Converse was reduced to supplying minimal strokes of color. Tim Christensen's bass was underutilized. Songa Lee's violin was almost annoyingly prominent.

Although the balance between Sperling and Voigt was better, the idea of miking a soprano who can fill New York's Metropolitan Opera House took some getting used to. And for all her friendly bantering, the formal divide between stage and audience wasn't often bridged.

The program was partly a trip down memory lane, Voigt said from the stage, a return to Broadway musicals she sang during her high school years in Fullerton. That was before she headed off to the Merola Program at San Francisco Opera, a breakthrough performance of Strauss' Ariadne for Boston Lyric Opera in 1991, her subsequent conquest of the opera world and the infamous firing by London's Covent Garden in 2004, ostensibly because she was too fat to fit into Ariadne's little black dress.

A gastric bypass and the shedding of 100-plus pounds led to her rehiring for the same London production this June.

Now looking much more svelte, Voigt retains a strong and luminous voice with a blazing top that is only occasionally, however, called for by pop songs.

She paid more attention to singing long, smooth lines than interpreting individual words in an upbeat "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" (from Kern and Hammerstein's "Show Boat"), a vivid "Gooch's Song" (Jerry Herman's "Mame"), a tender "Willow, Willow, Willow" (Forrest and Wright's "Kean") and a hard-edged "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" (Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill's "One Touch of Venus").

Generally, though, she didn't quite make the songs individual and personal. The notable exceptions were her versions of "Some Girl is on Your Mind" (Kern and Hammerstein's "Sweet Adeline") -- which involved duetting with Sperling -- and "Blame It on the Summer Night" and "Children of the Wind" (from Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz's "Rags"). All three were intense and memorable.

She sang two encores: Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano," for which she joined Sperling to jam at the keyboard, and John Bucchino's "This Moment."


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