Classical MPR is celebrating Wagner's 200th birthday all week long. To add some more context to the festivities, we asked soprano Deborah Voigt about her history performing Wagner's work, what she thinks makes the composer a special figure, how she reconciles the ugly history of his politics with the importance of his music, and much more.
How would you describe the character of Brunnhilde, a role that you sing quite frequently?
Voigt: Who's Brunnhilde? Well, I think she's a lot of things. And my biggest challenging in taking on Brunehilde was to find an arc to her character throughout the pieces because she does change so very much. I tried to find aspects of her character that I could relate to. She's truly the hero of the Ring Cycle.
How has your relationship to the role of Brunnhilde evolved?
Voigt: I think that this time around I feel calmer and more confident about getting into her head and really thinking about what it is that she's saying. And... yeah, I think I'll sing her for the rest of my career and still try to be her and to inhabit her fully.
What do you think is special about Wagner's music?
Voigt: His music is just so phenomenal, it just touches me in so many ways and you will constantly discover things in Wagner that you didn't hear the last time around and his characters are so rich. And I'm very, very lucky that I grew up to be a dramatic soprano, that I have the opportunity to explore this music. Not a lot of people in the world do.
There's a physical challenge to Richard Wagner's operas—for the singers AND for the audience. Is the extra effort worth it?
Voigt: I wish that more people would give him a chance, to be honest about it. I think that there's pre-conceived ideas about what you're going to see and what you're going to hear and how long it is. But if you really take the time to prepare for it a little bit, read about the opera you're going to see... and really just give yourself into, ok, for these 5 hours, I'm going to do this and I think it ends up being a really rich experience.
How do you approach music that is as challenging as Wagner's?
Voigt: You know, when you have a high note or something that's particularly difficult vocally... your mind set can change what's going to be the result of that in a nano-second. If you tell yourself that I can't do it or I won't make it—you're setting yourself up. And it can happen in a split second. So for me it's really important to trust it, keep going with it... and it's only a few pages of music but it's very, very difficult.
Richard Wagner was a genius of a composer—but he wasn't the greatest of guys. Does this affect your appreciation for his music?
Voigt: You know, he was not a nice man, in that regard. But he was a genius. And what he left behind is genius, beautiful music that I can only think is inspired by something greater than himself. So I try to separate his personal beliefs and his music.
Here's a final thought from soprano Deborah Voigt:
Voigt: Well, you know, it's not brain surgery. It's opera. And while I have great respect for it and it has given me a fantastic life—there is more to life.