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Opera star Deborah Voigt lends an ear to 2016’s American Traditions Competition

A household name in the opera world, Deborah Voigt has been astounding audiences for thirty years with her stunning soprano.

The “down-to-earth diva” will visit Savannah this weekend as an esteemed guest judge in the American Traditions Competition. With her incredible resume (first Carnegie Hall appearance in 1988, Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991, countless title roles in opera houses worldwide) and years of training and experience, she’ll be an excellent critic of this year’s young vocalist lineup.

Recently, Voigt released a memoir, Call Me Debbie, a delightfully accessible and frank recollection of Voigt’s struggles with food addiction, alcoholism, and her highly-publicized 2004 gastric bypass surgery.

Connect chatted with the genial Voigt about the spirit of vocal competitions, her singing roots, and her foray into writing.

How did you learn about the American Traditions Competition?

Vale Rideout is a friend of mine; I’ve known him for a long time and respect for him as an artist and human being. If Vale is associated with it, I know it’s good.

You recently published a memoir. What was it like exploring a different art form?

It was very difficult process. I didn't want to write a traditional opera book. I didn't want to say, “For this production, I wore this costume and sang with this person”—it's been covered in plenty of articles and magazines. There’s more to my story than just that and those particular issues. There are things a lot of people could relate to beyond the world of opera. I set out to be as honest about life and challenges as I could be, and it ended up being very revealing.

That kind of openness seems unusual for an opera book—or at least how we see opera culture from the outside.

I did some research into books; of those that have been written, some have delved into addiction issues, though not with a certain level of visibility. Weight, food, alcohol, and bad relationships plague careers, and opera has so many preconceived ideas about it and its perception of being sort of elitist. This was a way of showing while, yes, it's a lofty art form in terms of what it requires of the people performing it and working in that world...they are people too.

And a lot of these stories have been so highly publicized—did it give you a sense of personal power to be able to tell the whole story, in your own words and context?

Yes, it was cathartic to finally put my word on it.

When you were coming up in the vocal world, did you participate in competitions similar to American Traditions?

By the time I started doing the competition circuit, I had really stepped into the classical world field. Most requirements were operatic or song literature, but the first competition I ever won was in junior high school. ‘Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’’—I sang that and won.

I understand you came around to opera a few years into your singing career.

I didn't grow up in a household where opera was present. I’m someone who very much enjoys doing it, but would much prefer to put on the country channel while I’m driving through the city. That’s why I'm looking forward to this competition: it’s outside the traditional repertoire. I want to hear some kind of a show tune...this will be a nice break from the traditional competitions.

How can participating in a competition like this help a young star?

Well, young singers are always looking for opportunities to have recognition.

I did a lot of them in my early career; I have a really good nervous's a different set of muscles, performance muscles. And also there's a cash prize, and young singers have to pay their American Express bill! Money is always an issue.

But the keyword you said there is ‘star,’ and sometimes the individual who may seemingly have the best vocal technique and is smartest in their repertoire choice may not necessarily be the winner. They may not have that particular thing that's indefinable and can't be taught. I'm looking forward to having a chance to look for that in young singers.

You’ll be teaching a master class while you’re here. Any hints as to what you’ll be covering?

I really don't know yet, because I haven't received the repertoire the singers are performing. They'll sing something, I'll go back and correct things. I assume the literature will be more American, not necessarily German—that will be a lot of fun for me.

I’m always intimidated doing master classes; I worry the students are so far advanced, I won't have anything to say.

But I talked to my former teacher who's almost 90, and she said, ‘Honey, just remember you always know more than they do. You can't beat 30 years of experience!’

Is there a single piece of advice you’d offer to the competition contestants—or to beginning singers in general?

I think the thing that would be most valuable is to really try to stay in the moment and not try to figure out what we're thinking, what the audience is thinking, how the last note went. Just stay focused in what you're singing in that moment. It’s very difficult to do as a singer, particularly when you’re young, and you will spend rest of careers trying to do it!