One of the most promising of the few bona-fide Wagnerian sopranos in the world has given up opera to sing solely for the Lord.
After a single performance of "Der Fliegende Hollander" in San Francisco, Deborah Polaski has canceled all her remaining engagements.
"I see now that the health and welfare of my soul are the most important things," the 39-year-old Polaski said in a telephone interview this week from the apartment she was closing in Mannheim, West Germany.
Polaski, an Indiana native, was most recently seen in the United States in late September when she made her American stage debut at the San Francisco Opera. (Her only appearance in Los Angeles was a concert performance of Beethoven's "Fidelio" at the Hollywood Bowl in 1986.)
An air of mystery surrounded Polaski's sudden cancellation, the morning after her San Francisco debut. The opera company blamed "illness." Her managers at Columbia Artists would return no phone calls and when cornered would say only that "due to personal reasons" she was canceling and they refused further comment out of "respect for her privacy."
Mezzo-soprano Cristiane Young, who portrayed Mary in San Francisco Opera's "Hollander," said: "I was really surprised. She's very pleasant and seemed up and happy. It was a real shock. Most people would give their eyeteeth for a career like that."
But Polaski offered another view: "Somewhere along the way I lost my spiritual consciousness. My private life was not right. Opera became my obsession, my god. Fortunately, my mother helped me get my consciousness back. I realized that if Jesus Christ was to come back in five minutes, I would not be ready.
"I will sing no more secular music, only sacred. I'm not sure when I will start again. I have to check with lawyers to see about my liability with the contracts I've canceled.
"People may say I'm throwing away what God gave me. That's not true. I'm simply going to use it in another way.
"I speak directly to God. I was very unhappy and in the middle of the night God came to me in my hotel room in San Francisco. He said to me, 'You shall have no other god before me.' Opera had become my god and it was wrong. Now I promised God my obedience.
"If I should ever go back to opera, it will be because he has told me to. They say now that I've broken these contracts all doors will be closed to me in the future. I don't believe that. If he tells me to go back, he will see that it's done," Polaski said.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Sally Billinghurst, artistic administrator of the opera company said: "We were aware there were some problems, but we thought they were due to health. She could not eat. There was a stomach virus going around at the time and we attributed the trouble to that. Her mother joined her and it was obvious they were very close and devoted to each other."
Billinghurst said that after the dress rehearsal, Polaski, a born-again Christian, said she "didn't want to sing anymore." She offered to stay on only if San Francisco Opera couldn't get a replacement, but Janis Martin and Sophia Larson were able to divide the remaining performances.
In the reviews of the opening, the San Francisco critics were not encouraging. Robert Commanday in the Chronicle and Allan Ulrich in the Examiner described Polaski's debut as a disappointment.
Commanday said: "She simply did not register impressively as a heroic figure or a major new Wagnerian figure." Ulrich complained that she "lacks a secure B and C where much of Senta's part ascends."
Polaski's appearance in San Francisco followed three "Ring" cycles in Bayreuth last summer, where most critics agreed her voice was an impressive and beautiful one, particularly in the middle, and that her tall, athletic presence commanded attention. But there was little doubt she was in trouble at the top.
Times Music Critic Martin Bernheimer wrote: "America contributed . . . a sympathetic, vocally limited Brunnhilde in Deborah Polaski. Given the apparent limitations of her technique and top range, one worries about her survival in this treacherous repertory."
Polaski established her professional career in West Germany and developed her repertoire in opera houses in France and Italy. Her future engagements included a Metropolitan Opera debut as Brunnhilde in the "Ring" cycle; a Cologne debut in a new Harry Kupfer production of "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," and a new "Ring" cycle in Cologne. She was also scheduled for a new production in Geneva of Dukas's rarely performed "Ariane et Barbe-Bleue," and for a Paris Opera debut in 1990 in a new Kupfer-Barenboim production of "Tristan und Isolde."
Speaking by phone from Greensburg, Ind., Polaski's father, the Rev. Lloyd Poe, said: "I believe Deborah's separation from the church caused her to lose her spiritual consciousness. Her mother, Lavonne, and I never opposed her in her career. Of course, we would have been better satisfied if it had been in the church. The opera culture is not conducive to spirituality."
Poe (his daughter chose the name Polaski because she believes it was the original version of the family name), said: "I don't pass judgment, but I have to be honest when I say I do not believe opera to be a Christian profession. Everyone has different ideas of what is entertainment. I don't think opera is necessarily sinful unless it is contrary to the word of God.
"Her older sister, Beverly, is married. She and her husband are in sales and management of a cemetery. Her younger brother, Thaddeus, is a doctor, which I consider to be a Christian profession. All three of them sang and played instruments in school.
"Deborah is coming home to us," said the Wesleyan minister. "I don't know what her future will be, except I expect the Lord to open up opportunities."