BEHIND-THE-SCENE LOOK AT A 'DIVA-IN-TRAINING'

Times Staff Writer

It was visitors' day at Merola, the San Francisco Opera Center's training program for young singers, and the hallway was crowded, the practice rooms were full and a concert was under way in the chorus room.

Soprano Deborah Voigt was supposed to meet her voice coach in five minutes and she needed to warm up. Out of options, Voigt ducked into the ladies' room.

One hand on the towel dispenser, she leaned against sink and began to practice her scales. "Ahahahahahahahaha," she sang, her powerful voice turning the small bathroom into an echo chamber and startling an elderly woman who walked in .

Voigt is a determined and --her teachers say--brilliant young singer. But although this 24-year-old soprano from Anaheim has won some major awards, there is no guarantee that she will succeed at what she hopes will be her life's work--singing with the top opera companies of the world.

"It's a very small field and only a handful of people, maybe 100 or 200, are actually making a living singing," said Steve Brown, manager of the Chicago Lyric Opera Center, which along with the San Francisco Opera Center offers one of the best training programs in the nation.

"A lot of people teach school and sing opera for the local company," Brown said. "But the ones out there earning a respectable living are very few."

Gene Boucher, executive secretary for the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union for the nation's 3,000 opera singers, agreed. "In this business, there are no guarantees. Even if she got a starring role with the San Francisco Opera, there's no guarantee beyond those two little vocal cords. In something as precarious as opera singing, a lot hinges on your performance from day to day."

Right now, Voigt is still, as she and her colleagues jokingly explain, a "diva-in-training." For the next year or two she will be refining her technique, spending eight to 12 hours a day studying voice, foreign languages and stagecraft at the San Francisco Opera Center before trying to launch a career here and abroad.

Whether Voigt will leave Merola to become a star depends on her health, her stamina, her luck--and on whether she overuses her voice, her teachers at Merola said. Still, they called her voice--a very powerful voice, midway between a lyric and dramatic soprano, that is sometimes termed a "spinto" soprano--remarkable.

"It is one of the most beautiful voices we've ever had in this program," said Jimmy Schwabacher, president of the 28-year-old Merola Opera Program.

"It is a very, very good voice," said Kurt Adler, the former general director of the San Francisco Opera who has coached Voigt. "If she handles it right . . . yes, she may make it."

Added Jeff Goldberg, one of Voigt's voice coaches: "It's a staggering talent. . . . It's clearly a voice for the big Italian sounds, a Verdi voice or a Puccini voice. She'll sing it all. The only problem is that she sounds like she's ready for the enormous parts and there's a real danger."

If Voigt at 24 were to sing some of the demanding roles before her voice reached its expected maturity in five to seven years, she could permanently injure herself, developing nodes on her throat and a rough, scratchy or strained sound, Goldberg said. "But Debbie's blessed with intelligence. She's studying and keeping control."

She's also winning prize after prize. Since Voigt began to study opera seriously at Cal State Fullerton four years ago, she has won the 1984 Metropolitan Opera's auditions for Orange County and the Met's 1985 auditions for Orange County, the Western region and the nation. In April in New York, she was one of 11 winners selected from 2,000 singers who earned a $5,000 study grant. Also this year, she was one of 21 singers chosen from 840 to win a spot in the Opera Center's 10-week Merola program. She also won a $2,000 third-place award in the Loren L. Zachary Society Opera Awards, and won--but declined--an American Institute of Musical Studies scholarship to study in Austria. And, two weeks ago, she won a second Opera Center grant, the Adler Fellowship, financing another year to two years of training in San Francisco.

All this is heady stuff for Debbie Voigt, a pretty, self-assured young woman with ash-blonde hair and blue eyes, who only five years ago worked as a computer operator in Irvine.

In those days, if she were to think of a career in music--and mostly she didn't--she thought she might sing "Christian contemporary" music--not opera.

Voigt had always liked singing but, she said, from age 5 to 14, she worked harder at piano lessons. Still, she always sang in church choirs and at 15 began voice lessons. After graduating from Placentia's El Dorado High School in 1978, she attended Chapman College. A poor student, she dropped out after a year and began working as a computer operator. Voigt continued her voice lessons at night. And after winning a scholarship for voice lessons from Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral, she returned to school. In her second year as a music major at Cal State Fullerton, Voigt discovered that her voice was suddenly maturing.

Voigt had starred in musicals but had never considered opera before, she said. As she began singing some operatic roles--Angelica in "Suor Angelica," Flora in "La Traviata"--she found she had the "big voice" that opera demands.

Though she attended Cal State Fullerton from 1981 to the spring of 1985, Voigt never earned enough credits to graduate. Now that she is singing opera in San Francisco, school seems beside the point. "It would be kind of silly for me to hang around to get my degree," Voigt said. "I may kick myself several years from now, but it's time to move on."

At Merola, Voigt has been surrounded for the first time in her life by students who were as serious about opera as she was. Most were several years older than she, with master's or Ph.D.'s in music. Yet they were a diverse group; there was White Eagle, a Sioux Indian from Rosebud, S.D., a tenor, and Christiane Young, a soprano and one of Voigt's best friends, who has sung in the chorus of the Paris Opera.

Along with classes in aerobics, Italian and how to apply stage makeup, Merola has offered more intense vocal training than Voigt has ever had. In college, she had had two private coaching sessions a week. At Merola, there were two a day.

In a small practice room--bare except for a gleaming Kawai piano--voice coach Goldberg held one of those coaching sessions one weekday recently.

As Goldberg played the piano, Voigt clasped her hands together and tackled an aria from Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera." "Morro. Morro (I shall die. I shall die.)," she sang. As the aria grew more gloomy, her face assumed an anguished look.

"You're dawdling just a little bit too much," Goldberg interrupted. "And be sure to really stay with her grief and her pathos."

Voigt tried again. The room rang with sound as her voice hit a high B-flat with unusual power.

Goldberg signaled another halt. "If the B-flat is that good, you should hold it. And try for dramatic effect. If you make any vocal miscalculations, people won't notice," he said.

Voigt laughed, but she was listening. When she sang the section again, she drew out the note as Goldberg had instructed.

Ninety minutes later, Voigt was singing the aria again, this time in a master class by former opera director Adler. ("I would rather do 10 regular coachings to one master class," Voigt had confided before it began. "You're there to work on all your flaws--in front of your peers.")

Adler was a sterner, more critical teacher than Goldberg. "I think you are dragging," he told Voigt immediately. She tried again and this time he let her sing on.

Suddenly Voigt stopped singing. "I could tell by your expression. You didn't like it," she said, laughing. "What was wrong?"

Adler was polite. "It was between correct pitches," he said. The maestro paused and cracked a smile: "That's a friendly way of saying it was off pitch."

For half an hour, the lesson continued. Voigt must not shake her head, she must not drag, she must "try to read the score." Despite his comments, Adler afterward called Voigt "an excellent artist."

If Merola's instructors have any complaint about the young singer, it is that she is overweight.

How overweight, Voigt won't say. "It's a problem I've had for a long time," she said. She began gaining weight six years ago when her parents divorced, and she hasn't shed many pounds since. (One year she lost 60 pounds in two months but was miserable, she said, so she will never try that again. This summer she lost 15 pounds but, Voigt said, she knows she should lose more.)

"I know I have a problem. I know it's bad for me," Voigt said. "But I don't feel like it's anyone else's business."

Some of her mentors disagree. In an era when the San Francisco Opera and other major companies are televising their performances, overweight singers may not get the parts, they said.

"We're hoping she'll lose some weight," Schwabacher said. "It's not to her advantage. . . . There are some big stars, Pavarotti, for instance, who are still big. But if you have a chance to be thinner--why not try? It's easier that way."

Added Marjoriejean Matuzek, administrative assistant for the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artists training program: "On television no one wants fat people hunking around on stage. How realistic can it look when the beautiful maiden is pretty chunky?"

Voigt acknowledged that her size might bar her from some roles.

"Mimi in 'La Boheme' dies of consumption at the end. I hardly look like I would die of consumption," she said. "Yet I've been told by other opera directors that they would cast me in that."

As her singing career has blossomed, Voigt's disappointments have been few. Her family sometimes worries about that. "Sometimes you wonder if the bubble will burst," said Joy Voigt, Deborah's mother.

However, not every step toward the top has come easy. There were the grueling auditions for the Metropolitan Opera this year and in 1984.

In the finals this year, the singer ahead of her "cracked on one of his high notes. I had been fine up to that moment," remembered Voigt. "Then I heard that. It was like a little puppy being strangled. And I thought, 'Oh, God. It could happen to me.' . . . But it didn't."

The 1984 Met auditions also provided their own measure of pain. Although Voigt won the Orange County auditions, she didn't even place in the Western region trials. At 22, she was too young, she was told, and her singing had been flawed.

"They were right," Voigt said, she hadn't been mature enough to make the finals and "my Mozart sounded like my Puccini." Though hurt by the criticism, Voigt went back to work and was one of the 11 national winners this year.

Other disappointments in this fiercely competitive profession have involved friends' careers. A close friend reached the 1985 Met semifinals, but got no further. And Voigt's boyfriend of nine years, a baritone, wants a full-time opera career but has not been able to support himself by singing.

Voigt's rapid advance has caused some friction between them, she said. Still, he writes and calls her often. After Merola ended Aug. 11, they took a rare vacation together--a week's drive along the coast.

But if a week without opera was "a nice change of pace," Voigt will be returning to the San Francisco Opera Center in September to begin her Adler Fellowship and to tour with the Western Opera Theater. No matter what happens, Voigt said, she wants a lifetime of singing opera.

"I'm finding it takes more and more to be a good opera singer," Voigt reflected as she relaxed with friends in the Opera Center lounge and waited for another master class to begin.

"You have to be familiar with languages. You have to be able to act. You have to have a lot of determination and drive. Not everybody gets the part, unfortunately.

"It's very tough. . . . And I suppose having a normal career--an 8-to-5 job--would be less complicated," she said. "But listening to an opera, the music is so gorgeous. . . . I can't imagine doing anything else."

Though Deborah Voigt doesn't yet have an agent, she has bookings through August, 1986. That schedule includes acting as an understudy with the San Francisco Opera Nov. 7-Dec. 6. (She will cover the role of Amelia in Donizetti's "Un Ballo in Maschera"). Voigt also will be going on tour with the San Francisco Opera Center's Western Opera Theater this fall and next winter (Voigt will play Donna Anna when the company performs "Don Giovanni" Feb. 8-9 with the Pacific Symphony in Santa Ana). In May of 1986, she is scheduled to sing Verdi's Requiem in Finland.

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