The Diva Decreased

Deborah Voigt shocked the world when she revealed that the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden had fired her because she was too hefty. The seductive diva has slimmed down and is speaking to Chicago.

One of the world’s foremost operatic singers, Deborah Voigt shocked the world when she revealed in 2004 that the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden had fired her because she was too hefty. The Des Plaines–born soprano subsequently underwent gastric bypass surgery and slimmed down from a size 30 to a 12. In October, Voigt, 46, arrives in Chicago to sing the title role in Richard Strauss’s Salome , in which she plays the teenage sexpot who asks for-and receives-the head of John the Baptist as thanks for performing the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils. Chicago spoke to Voigt, who lives in Florida, about the upcoming Lyric Opera of Chicago production, how it feels to wear an average dress size, and posing nude in the publicity photos.

Photograph: Peter Ross
Deborah Voigt

Q: Because Salome is a seductress, many people have said that this part is only now open to you because of your surgery. Do you think this is true?
A: Probably yes. I think that it would be unrealistic of me to say that my repertoire potential hasn’t broadened. Salome is one of those roles I’ve sung quite a bit in concert and never considered I’d get to do in a stage production. And now I didn’t have to suggest it-they came to me. It’ll be a big story of personal triumph for me.

Q: The publicity photos for Salome are, ahem, provocative. Are you nude behind those spilling cloths in the Lyric’s pictures?
A: I am nude behind the cloths.

Q: What was that photo shoot like?
A: Kind of surreal. I didn’t know the photographer. I was excited to be going there, but the first picture on the wall was a picture of David Bowie and Iman, and she’s stark naked. I thought, Well, I guess he knows what he’s doing.

It was a little nerve-racking, and then having them decide to put an air machine behind me to blow my hair. There was a guy back there, and I thought, What must the view be like back there? You know, typical female stuff.

I’m pleased with the photograph. I was a little worried about my parents seeing it for the first time. They never thought they would see their daughter like that.

Q: Are your parents [her father lives in Texas; her mother lives in northern Wisconsin] prepared to see whatever happens onstage, with the Dance of the Seven Veils?
A: I’m not even prepared for it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Francesca Zambello, who’s directing, has been really great. I knew that she would take good care of me and be sure that whatever happened, it would be artistic.

Q: That sounds like the old Hollywood cliché, “I’d do it if it were artistic and in context.”
A: Well, but that’s really true. In that particular moment, the unveiling-if you want to call it that-I’m setting myself up no matter what. If I don’t take off my clothes, it’ll be “She’s lost a bunch of weight but she’s still not doing it.” Or [if I do] “There’s Deborah Voigt showing off that she can take off her clothes.”

Q: The Royal Opera House in London fired you from Ariadne auf Naxos because they thought you were too large for the costumes they had chosen for your part. How do you look back at that episode now?
A: With a bit of irony. When they fired me, I had six or seven weeks off suddenly, and that’s when I had my gastric bypass surgery. Because they paid the contract, you could say they paid for the surgery as well.

The decision [to have surgery] had nothing to do with that event. But the circumstances were definitely a result of that cancellation.

Another little bit of irony: about six months ago, I was doing a production of Ariadne in Dresden. The costume was really long on me, so whoever it was made for was a really tall woman. I asked the costume designer, “Who would this have been made for? Who was the original Ariadne?” And he said, “Well, it was Anne Schwanewilms.” Anne Schwanewilms was the person who replaced me at Covent Garden. And the costume is too big.

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