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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Call Me Debbie

The first thing you need to know when you read Deborah Voigt's Call Me Debbie is that she's a "down to earth" diva. I confess I have an allergy to people who label themselves "down to earth" -- it's my experience that genuinely down to earth people don't walk around with a "Down to Earth" advertisement.

That reservation aside Debbie Voigt's memoirs (we learn that "Deborah" was a stage name she chose to seem more formal) are enjoyable, easy to read, in an Oprah kind of way. I download this on my ipad this morning and by noon I was done. Those looking for gossip or insight into the cut-throat, competitive opera business will be disappointed. Jessye Norman required a personal assistant to spray her path with mist. There's unnamed Mezzo X and Mezzo Y who gave her a hard time but otherwise everyone is wonderful, fantastic, supportive, amazing. Luciano Pavarotti called her up one night to ask about gastric bypass. Leonie Rysanek cheered her on the first time Debbie sang Chrysothemis. Anna Netrebko gave Debbie pointers on how to signal to the prompter "I need help." Placido Domingo made her swoon with an onstage kiss. President Bill Clinton kinda sorta copped a feel. And so on.



Yes the incident with the "little black dress" at Covent Garden is covered, but in a light, shallow way. And that's to Ms. Voigt's credit: she doesn't bang on for chapters and chapters reciting and re-reciting old grudges and feuds. You can glean more about the incident by watching this youtube video:


The book is mostly an addiction/recovery book in the time-honored formula of many such memoirs. All the boxes are checked: the distant, punishing father (he used to go on Food Patrol to make sure Debbie wasn't overeating), the strict religious upbringing, the broken family (father left her adored mother), the low-self esteem and body image issues, the broken relationships with unavailable, no-good men, substituting one addiction for another -- Debbie opted for gastric bypass and lost 100 pounds, but hit the bottle. Food addiction turns to alcohol addiction. Of course with addiction there's the recovery part and that's recounted too: the AA meetings, rehab, and rediscovery. Oh, and God. The Man Upstairs plays a big part in these addiction/recovery memoirs, and Debbie's no exception.

A lot of memoirs follow this general pattern. The question is how interesting you can make this journey to the readers. Voigt's journey lacks the outlandish craziness and dark humor of say, Mike Tyson's similar book. It's an easy read, but it's not an interesting read.

The memoir is only 288 pages and there are definitely some major deletions. Debbie is tight-lipped about whether the drastic weight loss had an effect on her voice, but her memoir is littered with quotes from effusive reviews by Anthony Tommasini. Voigt doesn't mention the very public vocal difficulties she's endured in the later stages of her career, including being dismissed by the Washington National Opera (and long-time mentor Francesca Zambello) after a disastrous dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde. In fact, Zambello is almost completely deleted from the memoir, as is James Levine, another person who had a huge hand in shaping her career. Joe Volpe, Peter Gelb, and Herbert Breslin are given blank cameos. Her acknowledgments page lists people that don't figure anywhere in the book -- who were her vocal teachers? Who promoted her career? It's a mystery.

You can read about the WNO incident here. But a quote from the article is more illuminating about Debbie than the 288 pages of memoir:
“There’s a line in the Big Book of [Alcoholics Anonymous], of which I am a member,” she says, “that ‘the grace of God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.’ ” That, she says, is how she feels about this cancellation. One of her main emotions is “relief.” “I am so tired,” she says, “of competing with myself” — with her younger self, that is, preserved on records and in the memories of her many fans. “I’ve done everything I wanted. It’s time to let her [in this case, Theorin] do it. I did the same thing to Jessye Norman when I was young. It’s a natural cycle.”
The woman in that article sounds angry, defeated, and defensive. "Debbie" from the book is as airbrushed as the cover -- there's only a few hints here and there is more to Debbie than a "down to earth diva." One is a rather mean aside she mentions about her gig hosting Met HD's. She goes into some detail about how Natalie Dessay flubbed the E-flat of "Sempre libera" and how crestfallen Dessay was during the interview. If this were a no-holds-barred, singer-bares-all kind of memoir then mentioning this incident would be natural. But for a memoir where so much of her career is deleted you have to question why Voigt would pointedly mention a colleague's failing vocal estate.

Debbie ends the book with: "My name is Debbie. I'm a daughter, a sister, and a friend. I sing for God and I sing for others. And now, more than ever, I sing for myself, too -- and that makes me happy." Well great for her. But this is not A-list memoir material.

6 comments:

  1. Ivy - My (hard) copy is lost in snowstorm delivery limbo so I have only read the free kindle sample and already I know that you are right on target. Great review as always.
    See you Thursday night :)

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  2. I'm not really surprised. Her interview in the NYT after she pulled out of the WNO Tristan Und Isolde was very strange and it seems that that interview pretty much sums up the content of the book(?) I personally was never the biggest Deborah Voigt fan even during her prime years and pretty much stopped going to her performances after 2008.

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    1. Peter I think the book was heavily ghostwritten and poorly edited. It seems designed to jumpstart her career in motivational speaking. If you want a real "opera" memoir this isn't it.

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    2. It's a shame because she really has a great deal of material to write about (it would seem).

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    3. Well I think this is not a tell-all memoir because she still wishes to work in some capacity in the opera world. You definitely feel she;s inexplicably tight-lipped about certain people. I do wonder if she's under an NDA of sorts about the Met since she hosts HD's.

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