Debbie Joy Voigt was born into a religious Southern Baptist family in 1960 and raised in Wheeling, Illinois, just outside Chicago. At the age of five, she joined the choir at a Baptist church and began learning the piano. Her mother sang and played piano at church while her two younger brothers sang in rock music bands. Those early experiences in church inspired her interest in music. When she was 14, her family moved to Placentia in Orange County, California. It was traumatic to Voigt, then in her teens, to adjust to Southern California, "land of endless sunshine and impossibly perfect bodies."
She attended El Dorado High School, where she was a member of El Dorado's Vocal Music and Theater programs, starring in musicals including Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and Mame. At that time, Voigt recalled in an interview, she did not seriously consider becoming an opera singer and was unaware of the existence of the Metropolitan Opera. Upon graduation in 1978, she won a vocal scholarship funded by the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California so that she could enroll in the voice program at California State University, Fullerton, where she met the voice teacher Jane Paul Hummel, under whom she trained for about eight years. Voigt was the finalist of the Met National Council Auditions for Young Singers in 1985. She won awards from many prestigious singing competitions (see below) and made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1988. Named an Adler Fellow, she apprenticed at San Francisco Opera's Merola Program for two years, studying seven major roles. There, she also took a class from Leontyne Price, the internationally acclaimed, American soprano.
Voigt slowly but surely established her career, entering the professional opera world after winning several first prizes from music competitions. Her breakthrough role was Ariadne in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at Boston Lyric Opera in January 1991. The performance was praised by noted arts critic John Rockwell in The New York Times, who said "it introduced one truly remarkable singer in Deborah Voigt." He predicted that she would soon become an important Wagnerian soprano comparable to American soprano Eileen Farrell. Ariadne first brought her to public notice and international success and remains one of her greatest achievements. Later she often refers to her operatic career jokingly as Ariadne Inc.
When Voigt made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on October 17, 1991, in the lead role of Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, critic Allan Kozinn stated that she had come to the Met with a big reputation. He noted that "Voigt's deep, mezzolike darkness brought impressive range of color to Amelia's music". He also commented on how well she conveyed Amelia's feeling of urgency and despair in the second act soliloquy, sung with a warm and golden tone. Although Kozinn criticized her acting, which did not match her singing, he emphasized that she did not lose any clarity or smoothness in her big voice. In March 1992, Voigt returned to the Met to sing as Chrysothemis in Strauss' Elektra.
In the same month, she won the coveted Richard Tucker Award from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. The prize for winning was to participate in the annual gala of the foundation held on November 22, 1992, at Avery Fisher Hall. Critic Bernard Holland noted that her "Ozean, du Ungeheuer", a long sequence from Weber's Oberon, brightened the mood and elevated the gala. He complimented her performance as "the Tucker gala's most satisfying". Her big, beautiful soprano was not only agreeable to the ear, but also showed splendid evenness and developed emotion. Two months later Holland, reviewing her substitution for Aprile Millo at the Met, said that her attractive singing in the opening sequence as Leonora in Verdi's Il trovatore, "reached out and settled comfortably in every corner of this big hall." However, he pointed out that she did not fully immerse herself in the passion of the heroine.
In May 2003 she sang and recorded (for DG) the role of Isolde at the Vienna State Opera.
Since then she has regularly appeared at the Met and at other major opera houses around the world such as San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Opéra Bastille in Paris.
In 2004, Voigt was removed from the role of Ariadne at the Royal Opera House when she could not fit into one of the costumes, a "little black dress." The casting director, Peter Mario Katona, wanted her to wear it instead of the typical period costume used in such operas, letting out the dress with tailoring, or replacing it with another costume. She was replaced by Anne Schwanewilms, a German singer of slimmer appearance. She was "very angry" about the incident, but kept silent about it for several months. When the decision became public, the Royal Opera House received significant criticism in the media. It was pointed out that many notable sopranos, such as the Italian Luisa Tetrazzini, American Jessye Norman and English Jane Eaglen, had been "large-boned, the zaftig, even the enormous", and Voigt had merely "followed in their heavy footsteps."
The decision was also criticized because of the popular stereotype that female opera singers have to be heavy anyway, in order to do a good job. There is the old expression that "in opera, great voices often come in large packages". and the well-worn saying about opera that "It ain't over till the fat lady sings". She was headlined in the British tabloid press as "The show ain't over till the fat lady slims." There was also an outcry because, it seemed at the time, that high culture performing arts, such as opera, should not emulate low culture Hollywood images of thin female stars.
By a strange twist of fate, the incident may have helped her in the long run. Voigt had tried many well-known diets, such as Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, unsuccessfully over the years. Maestro Georg Solti, "who never minced words", had once expressed concern about her weight. She underwent three-hour gastric bypass surgery in June 2004, which she has discussed publicly. It is highly risky for any person, but especially for a singer, who depends on a strong thoracic diaphragm "to support the column of sound". The operation, performed at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, was successful. She lost over 100 pounds (7 stone), and went from a size 30, to size 14. She has refused to reveal her exact weight before and after the surgery.
Voigt has said she went through the surgery not only because of the Royal Opera House but also because of her concern about health problems caused by the weight. In other interviews with The New York Times in 2005 and 2008, she said the fees that she was owed from the Royal Opera House paid in part for the surgery. Her concern was that the firing was done so cruelly. In several interviews over the past few years, she has expressed relief and delight in the weight loss.
Since her dramatic weight loss, Voigt has been rehired by the Royal Opera House for the role she was originally fired from in 2004. The public reaction was positive. Voigt said in 2005 that she felt "good will from fans and the public." She said in 2008 that she "assumed" the "rapprochement" did not happen until they had new management.
In April 2006, she performed her first Tosca at the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera; her first fully staged Salome at Lyric Opera of Chicago premiered in October of the same year. She performed Ariadne in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos for the theatre during the 2007/08 season, to rave reviews.
In January 2006, she sang Broadway tunes and other popular songs at UCLA's Royce Hall. She performed a similar concert from "the American songbook" in January 2008 at Lincoln Center. This included tributes to Broadway sopranos Barbara Cook and Julie Andrews.
Although Voigt's Fach is that of the dramatischer soprano, she has recently—overlooking the 2003 Vienna performances as Isolde—made the transition into singing the hochdramatische soprano repertoire with her interpretation of Isolde from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. She sang the role in the 2007/08 season at the Metropolitan Opera and in the 2008/09 season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. During one of the performances at the Met, Voigt took ill and had to leave the stage. She returned at the next performance of Tristan und Isolde and finished the run to acclaim by most reviewers, including The New York Times. However, some critics, including The New York Sun, panned her performance.
On September 28, 2008, Voigt joined American soprano Patricia Racette and American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in singing a comedic tribute to Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo, who
dressed in tuxedos and–once these had been ripped off to a flash of lightning–matching gowns, who performed a humorous medley of favorite soprano showpieces. The opening trio, "Three Little Maids from School Are We" from The Mikado, drew waves of laughter from the audience, as did excerpts from La bohème, The Merry Widow (sung in Spanish), and Die Walküre. The medley ended with a rousing rendition of The Three Tenors' signature aria, "Nessun dorma" from Turandot.
She was set to sing Strauss at the Aspen Music Festival's 60th anniversary concert on August 6, 2009 with David Zinman conducting.
Voigt's next planned formal opera engagement was in the title role of Tosca in September and October 2009, at the Lyric Opera in her home town of Chicago. Christina Borgioli, her mentee, will accompany Voigt in this production.
In February and March 2010, she was set to sing Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Zürich Opera House.
Voigt sang again with the Metropolitan Opera during the 2009/10 Season. She sang Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss's Elektra in December 2009, and Senta in The Flying Dutchman in April 2010, an "iconic Wagnerian role ... for the first time on the Met stage." The New York Times review stated that she "brought steely power and lyrical elegance to her first Met Senta ..."
In December 2010, Voigt returned to the Met as Minnie in the 100th anniversary production of the world premiere of Puccini's La fanciulla del West. She reprised this rôle at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in January 2011 and at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège in February 2013.
In April 2011, Voigt sang her first Brünnhilde at the Metropolitan Opera in Canadian stage director Robert Lepage's new production of Die Walküre, the second installment of the Met's highly publicized new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle directed by Lepage. She sang the role again as the cycle was presented in its entirety during the 2011/2012 season, adding to her repertoire the final two operas of the four opera cycle, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. She also appeared in a 2012 documentary film, Wagner's Dream, about the Ring production.
In the summer of 2011, she sang the lead of Annie Oakley in the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun at the Glimmerglass Festival. For that festival, Terrence McNally, Francesca Zambello, and Voigt collaborated to produce the stage show Voigt Lessons. Voigt revived that show in 2015 at the Art House in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
In May 2009, Voigt starred in the rarely heard 1776 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck, in concert at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre. She performed with the Collegiate Chorale and American tenor Vinson Cole, as King Admète, and the New York City Opera Orchestra." According to a New York Times preview, "The chance to hear Deborah Voigt in her first performance of the title role in Gluck's Alceste is clearly driving the ticket sales for the Collegiate Chorale's concert performance of this remarkable opera ..." Time Out said that Voigt "already proved her affinity for similar material a few years back when she sang Cassandre in Berlioz's Les Troyens at the Met." The France-Amérique noted that Voigt and the chorus received French diction training for the performance from Thomas Grubb, a teacher at the Juilliard School.
Unfortunately, Voigt caught the flu when she was to perform, yet went on with the show; the photograph caption for the New York Times review was, "Deborah Voigt, even with the flu, led a Collegiate Chorale concert performance on Tuesday." The reviewer wrote, "she did some impressive work, singing with power, gleaming sound and sensitive phrasing, though she clearly struggled. Often her voice sounded congested and her top range tight ... her voice nearly gave out, and she had to drop down an octave to get though a phrase." The review reserved judgment but noted that some fans were "disappointed." Another reviewer wrote, "One would like very much to hear Voigt undertake this dramatic role again when she is in peak form."
Voigt is mentoring a younger soprano, Christina Borgioli, in a new program that she has set up. Borgioli has "been selected as the first participant in the Deborah Voigt/Vero Beach Opera Foundation's Protegee Mentoring Program." This will involve both voice and acting training, and a shadowing experience. In 2014, she provided the voice for the Queen of the Clouds in the Cartoon Network miniseries, Over the Garden Wall.
In 2015, HarperCollins published her autobiography Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva.
As of March 2009, Voigt has been a New Yorker for about five years. Voigt was once married to her high school sweetheart, John Leitch. She said she relied on him and he worked for her career. However, they divorced in 1995 after seven years of marriage. As she was getting more famous, she traveled around the world with him. However, her crowded schedule and the accompanying stress eventually led to the couple's divorce.
Voigt has received various awards for her artistic achievement since her debut as a singer. Voigt was the first prize winner of Philadelphia's Luciano Pavarotti Vocal Competition in 1988, the Verdi Competition in 1989, and won the gold prize for best female singer at the prestigious 1990 International Tchaikovsky Competition.
In March 1992, she won the Richard Tucker Award, the top award presented by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, including a $30,000 cash award.
Voigt has been nominated for a Grammy Award several times and shared the 1996 "Best Opera Recording" award for the recording of Berlioz's Les Troyens directed by Charles Dutoit with Montreal Symphony Orchestra. She was also co-nominated in 2002 for "Best Choral Performance" on a Columbia Records recording. In 2013, she shared the "Best Opera Recording" award for the Metropolitan Opera's recording of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Voigt garnered Musical America's Vocalist of the Year in 2003, and an Opera News award for distinguished achievement in 2007. She was honored as a Chevalier of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres at the Opéra Bastille on 27 March 2002.
She was inducted into the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District Hall of Fame in 1997.
Voigt has made a number of recordings which include two solo compact discs. She is on the live recording of the Vienna State Opera's production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for Deutsche Grammophon (2003). In a 2001 interview with Associated Press, however, Voigt expressed that she was unlucky with recording because of unexpected cancellations and postponements. The opportunities of cooperation with high profile musicians could have made her a major prima donna more quickly. She had a chance to work with Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti in a televised production of Verdi's La forza del destino in 1997. However, the performance did not take place since Pavarotti had not learned the role of Alvaro and another opera was substituted. Later the same year, Voigt was cast to sing for a new recording of Tristan und Isolde under the direction of Sir Georg Solti. Before it proceeded, Solti suddenly died of a heart attack.
In April 2001, The Metropolitan Opera intended to broadcast a taping of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in which Voigt sang the title role. However, it was put off until 2003, for co-star, French soprano Natalie Dessay. She felt frustration over the fact that every recording plan for Ariadne had been delayed or stopped for five years until late 2001. Finally, Voigt presented her Ariadne in a 2001 recording released by Deutsche Grammophon in which Natalie Dessay, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and Canadian tenor Ben Heppner co-starred, and Giuseppe Sinopoli conducted. Voigt said that if he had not participated in the project, she doubts she could have ever recorded Ariadne. In the end, her long struggle paid off and turned out to have a bright side since the album was mentioned as one of the "Top Classical Recordings of 2001" according to the New York Times.Berlioz. Les Troyens, conducted by Charles Dutoit with Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Decca, 1993.
Beethoven: Fidelio, conducted by Colin Davis with Bavarian State Opera Chorus & Radio Symphony, BMG, 1996.
Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder, Teldec, 1996.
Beethoven: Cantates, Koch International Classics, 1997.
Mahler: Symphony No. 8, Telarc, 1997.
Robert Shaw: Absolute Heaven, Telarc, 1997.
Richard Strauss: Elektra, Deutsche Grammophon, 1997.
The American Opera Singer, BMG/RCA Victor, 1997.
Operatically Incorrect!, BMG/RCA Victor, 1997.
Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, Sony/Columbia, 1997.
Richard Strauss: Friedenstag, Deutsche Grammophon, 1999.
Zemlinsky: Sämtliche Chorwerke, EMI Classics, 1999.
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, UNI/Deutsche Grammophon, 2000.
Wagner: Love Duets, EMI Classics, 2000.
Zemlinsky: Cymbeline Suite, EMI Classics, 2001.
Obsessions (EMI Classics 2004)
All My Heart (EMI Classics 2005)
Let The Season In (Mormon Tabernacle Choir 2014)