American soprano Deborah Voigt's middle name is Joy, but for many years joy eluded her.
Voigt, who's making her Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT) debut on Saturday in Franz Lehar's comedic operetta "The Merry Widow," chronicles her tumultuous life in the recently published autobiography "Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva."
Unvarnished and unguarded, but occasionally leavened with humor, the book reveals that a diva's life isn't all bravos, flowers and applause. In fact, her life story reads very much like a tragic operatic libretto: Binge eating, gastric-bypass surgery, alcoholism, sex addiction, a failed marriage, therapy, rehab and relapse, then rehab again.
Her last stint in rehab was her salvation. Today, Voigt is free of the emotional crutches she leaned on for so many years. Family and friends certainly helped, but it was Voigt's personal courage that eventually lifted her from the depths.
"I just try to make choices that are better for me, to bring me more joy," Voigt says before a rehearsal at the Detroit Opera House. "When I look at those chapters in the book and all I went through, I really had a lot more resilience than I knew I had."
On this afternoon, Voigt's only complaint is sluggishness after a bout with insomnia the night before as she sips a cup of coffee to boost her energy.
Voigt, whose dramatic soprano voice has been heard at all the world's top opera houses, is used to playing roles in which she dies at the end: Brunnhilde, Isolde and Salome, for instance.
So her part as Hanna Glawari in "Widow" is a larky departure for the soprano. And she gets to live at the end.
"It's happy, she gets her man, the costumes are great and she's rich," says Voigt, her cornflower-blue eyes brightening.
Yet, Voigt, who will be singing Hanna for the first time in her career, says her character isn't so one-dimensional.
"There's a certain sadness to her story and her situation," says Voigt, who will sing in all four performances. "Her heart was broken when Danilo left her."
Prince Danilo, sung by Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell, is her love interest. Years ago, he and Hanna had a romance, but he wouldn't marry her. Now that she's widowed and has inherited a boatload of money, he changes his tune.
Voigt has been an international figure in the operatic world for years, but one incident in 2004 exposed her to a much wider audience. At London's Royal Opera House the director wanted her to fit into a little black dress in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." Then at her heaviest — 330 pounds — she was fired for being too big.
The incident sparked outrage and Voigt told her story on "Good Morning America." The soprano took the high road. After gastric-bypass surgery (which she paid for with the cancellation fee for "Ariadne") she returned triumphantly in 2008 to the same opera house in the same role.
"But they never apologized," Voigt says. "[Casting director] Peter Katona came into a rehearsal and said it was nice to have me back. He told me he had a file of hate mail he received, but there was never an apology."
The memory of being dismissed still sparks a twinge of bitterness with Voigt, who is far thinner today. But she doesn't dwell on it.
"I'm at the point in my life and career that I want to have a good time," she says. "And if I'm having a good time, so will the audience."
In other words, she's living up to her middle name, Joy.
George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
'The Merry Widow'
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday and April 18; 2:30 p.m. April 19
Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway, Detroit