It Ain't Over

By Robert Hilferty

Originally published on Advocate.com March 16 2008 11:00 PM ET

Opera queens are
gay men who love opera and worship divas, dead or alive.
They memorize historic performances, know all the high
notes, mimic the mad scenes, and relish in backstage
gossip.

But divas who are
simultaneously gay icons -- the way Barbra Streisand
and Judy Garland are in the pop world -- are far and few
between. Maria Callas is prime example, an artist
whose Will to Divadom trumped any shortcomings in her
voice, and whose life turned as tragic as that of any
of the heroines she played. She sacrificed herself for her
art, like Tosca, and her turbulent passion cut through
your ears directly to your heart, inevitably seared in
the process.

Gay men idolized
and identified with Callas in a time when the almighty
closet ruled. Terrence McNally penned a famous play in her
honor, Master Class, and Franco Zeffirelli, who
directed her in opera, also made a movie about her
called Callas Forever. There are countless
examples from other gay artists of lesser status.

Nowadays gay men
flock to another American soprano, Deborah Voigt. The
47-year-old, one of the world’s leading dramatic
sopranos, has somehow become a gay icon, a notion that
she’s aware of but didn't cultivate herself.
She far outruns figures like Marilyn Horne and Jessye Norman
who've come close to the lavender lair, but no banana.

“How did
that happen?” Voigt asked me after I gave her the
good news. Mystified but delighted, she hasn't
actively courted gay audiences, or their legendary
disposable incomes, as aggressively as the magnificent
comedian Kathy Griffin.

“If I knew
how to become a gay icon, I would have pursued it from the
get-go,” she continued. “I’m honored.
Gays are such a discerning group.” She told me
this right after a stunning performance as Isolde in
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the
Metropolitan Opera, her first there. It has a near
sold-out run until March 28.

At the first
intermission, gay music critics -- a notoriously
overrepresented category, rivaling hairdressers and interior
designers -- were already gushing over her
performance. One said to me, “I think Debbie
has gone from being a great singer to a great
artist.’’ Another chimed in, “Is
it me, or is she sounding more resplendent than
ever?” You can expect the audiences for this
run to have a much higher queer quotient than other
Met performances.

Why is that?

First of all,
aside from Voigt’s excellence appealing to gay good
taste, her personal narrative speaks to queers: The
Fat Girl Makes Good. Ridiculed all her life for being
overweight, Voigt quietly struggled with her
self-image as she forged ahead. Like her waistline and hips,
her terrific voice couldn’t be hidden, as far
back as the high school musicals she performed in. Her
stabs at opera were not taken seriously at the start
-- and she was actively discouraged in some quarters -- but
she started entering opera competitions and winning.

Her breakthrough
role was Ariadne auf Naxos in Chicago in 1991,
when TheNew York Times gave her a rave. She was now on
the map, and has since tackled the most demanding
roles created by Strauss and Wagner. She has also
mastered her share of Italian roles. There was no stopping
her.

Ironically,
Debbie’s size continued to be a problem in the very
world where “it ain't over until the fat lady
sings.” In 2004 she was fired from the very
role that made her name. Since she couldn't fit into a
slinky little cocktail dress in a trendy production of
Ariadne at London’s Royal Opera Opera, she was
dismissed. Apparently, looks had become more important than
vocal excellence -- shallow but not an irrelevant
trend in the opera world since the '80s, when slimmer
figures with pipes were making headlines.

The outrageous
decision, though, forced Voigt to reexamine old issues.
With the money she still received from the breached Convent
Garden contract, she decided to get gastric bypass
surgery. It wasn't a direct response to what had
happened -- she had already been wrangling with this
notion for a long time, as diets seemed only to add weight.
This was a last resort.

When I saw Voigt
debut her new body in her first Salome in Chicago, it
was another breakthrough. She had avoided that role
for a long time because, as she joked, she'd have to
do the Dance of the 77 Veils instead of the Dance of the
Seven Veils. After shedding about 135 pounds, she was
a lithe figure, traipsing about the stage with John
the Baptist’s head in Strauss’s kinkiest
opera. The slimming-down had no deleterious effect on
her voice.

This story
resonates deeply with gay men. But Voigt doesn’t
appeal only to the opera crowd. She also has a campy,
Broadway side, with a measure of sass and sarcasm. She
has done benefit concerts for Broadway Cares/Equity
Fights AIDS during which a bunch of barely clad muscle men
hoisted her presurgery body on heir shoulders. Before
embarking on Isolde -- a must-see, must-hear
performance for anyone who takes opera seriously --
she opened Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series
at the end of January. She can deliver “A
Spoonful of Sugar” and “Losing My Mind”
like the best of them, from Julie Andrews to Barbara
Cook.

Voigt is
literally a phenomenon, a great artist not cut in the tragic
mold of Callas. She is a triumphant icon for a new era. When
I asked her why, only two days after her Isolde debut,
she was not resting but performing Strauss’s
“Four Last Songs” at Carnegie Hall, she said,
“If I can run with it now, then I should
run.” She shows no signs of burning out.

Tristan und Isolde runs through March 28 at the
Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The performance on
Saturday, March 22 at 12:30 p.m. will be transmitted
live to movie theaters around the world as part the of
The Met: Live in HD series.