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Call Me Debbie - True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva
by Deborah Voigt (written with Natasha Stoynoff)
271 pp. Harper Collins
Members of The Society of Jesus, The Jesuit Brothers, have an adage, aphorism, credo, call it what you will, that goes along the lines of “give me a boy until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The Viennese psychologists of the early twentieth century put psychoanalytical science and explanation to work to come to much the same conclusions, that those formative years define a person’s future along with their psyche in all its facets. Particularly important are parental standards and beliefs and their application in the socialization of a young child. When those beliefs are at the extreme end of the spectrum, as in the case of the soprano Deborah Voigt, the outcomes can be disastrous throughout life. Debbie was born a few months after the shotgun marriage of her parents. She was not very old when she added up the months and realised that she was conceived when her mother was only sixteen. Not all that unusual you might think in this day and age but this was 1960 and her parents, Joy and Bob, were strict, maybe that should be Strict, Southern Baptists, whose code of religious observance was of the most puritanical kind.
Debbie evidenced early capacity for singing and firmly believed in a vision that God had deemed that she was meant to sing. However, in her home music could only be religious; secular music was forbidden. There were no records of 1960s “Rock and Roll”, rather 1950s ballads and gospel hymns. This was only one of the tensions in the household. Bob was not particularly affectionate and often irascible. His values did not extend to his own moral conduct. An early affair led to a separation for a period, whilst his demands on Debbie for strict adherence to his teaching could be violent and involve first a hand, and later a table-tennis bat, being applied to her naked bottom leaving blistering welts (p.35).
A by-product of the tensions in the household led to eating disorders in both mother and daughter with father constantly on diet patrol. Weight became an early issue along with scarfing, an Americanism for vomiting, present. Among all this family dysfunction Debbie stuck by her religion and declared for Jesus. She attended church twice each Sunday along with father, now returned to the fold, conducting bible classes at home as well as spankings for any deviation from his strict code. The family did acquire a record player, but only devotional music was allowed. Debbie got plenty of singing opportunity at Church as her vocal prowess became more apparent with the onset of adolescence. If she was cheeky — ‘sassy’ in the book — soap water mouthwashes were applied.
Given the above background the only surprise is that Debbie managed to get singing lessons, her gift being recognised. Even so, the psychological scars were to blight much of her adult life, consequences being a lifelong battle against weight and later alcohol and sex addictions, all openly admitted in this brutally honest
autobiography. Despite strict curfew she managed a boyfriend who became her first partner. However, as her professional singing career developed she realised that a dilettante kept man was a burden. She moved on to other partners, some more suitable than others and even including one that was physically abusing. Along with weight and alcohol, both in excess, partners added more problems rather than help or solutions.
Debbie’s weight, often ballooning to three hundred and thirty ponds (150 Kgs) was a constant battle. In the UK, having hit the highlights of Europe and the USA in the dramatic soprano fach, she was scheduled to sing Richard Strauss’s Ariadne at The Royal Opera House, London in 2004 when she hit the headlines for the wrong, or weight, reason. The director of the production deemed that there was no way she could fit his conception of the role and particularly fit the “little black dress” he had envisaged, and considered vital, for his conception. The outcome was that Debbie got paid and went home. This at a time she was considered the Ariadne of the opera world, at least for her singing. She used the fee to pay for gastric surgery (p.190) and followed it up with the necessary cosmetic removal of excess skin. She was later to return to the Royal Opera, that production and that dress. She also got to sing Richard Strauss’s Salome, and dance the seven veils, with all the revelations, at the Met (pp. 200-202).
Of course this autobiography concerns an opera singer, one who, in this century, has been recognised as among the greatest in her fach and particularly in some of the demanding Wagnerian dramatic roles. Along the way Debbie gets to mention her life in that role and the colleagues she meets on stage and off. Also featured are some of the venues and colleagues, some of whom share her capacity for excess food and other vices and the consequences. Unusually in such a book, these seem, and are in page terms, peripheral to her life journey fighting her devils. The revelations give some insights into the constant travel and life out of a suitcase and often loneliness. Seeing her now, as Ambassadress introducing some of the live HD transmissions from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, you realise she has not merely survived the travails of her childhood, the mastering of her vices and the scars on her psyche. This has come about through introspective recognition of her needs, her continuing faith and reconciliation with her family as well as the benefit of professional counselling therapy; she is no longer depressive or slave to her previous vices. The world can enjoy her magnificent vocal skills whilst admiring the battles she has fought and also reflecting on the importance of those first seven years of life.