The soprano Deborah Voigt came to a realization recently as she was having her morning coffee. She was just back in her New Jersey home after brief visits to the Washington National Opera, where she is artist in residence, and the University of Cincinnati, where she was giving master classes at the College-Conservatory of Music.
“I’m really at a funny place in my career,” she said. “I don’t really want to do so many full-length operas. So I’m taking a lot of little projects that are really a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of energy. It’s not like sitting in one place for six weeks concentrating on one thing. It’s a lot of little things.”
A lot has happened to Voigt since her fast ascent to the top of the opera world in the 1990s. Her powerful, lustrous voice made her one of the great dramatic sopranos of her time, especially in Wagner and Strauss. Yet changes to her voice, the breakup of her marriage, and struggles with her weight and with alcohol necessitated something of a career rethink. Hence a kind of paradox: She is still an opera singer and refers to herself as such, yet she’s entered a phase in which opera performance is taking something of a back seat to other projects.
Her performances this season in the Celebrity Series of Boston illustrate the shift. In November she gave two performances of her one-woman show “Voigt Lessons.” And on Sunday she returns for a song recital at Symphony Hall with pianist Brian Zeger, some of the selections from which she hasn’t sung in decades.
Underlying both of these projects is Voigt’s remarkable personal candor — a rarity in the opera world, whose stars tend to be carefully presented — and its relation to her artistic expression. “I am a very Midwest kind of girl,” she said. “I’m very open, I’m very honest. And I think that being an opera singer doesn’t, in many ways, allow you to express yourself. I mean, it does, but only through the guise of another character, and a costume, and a set of circumstances. And I think that’s all wonderful, and it’s been wonderful to me. But it leaves me frustrated on some levels — as a performer, as an artist, as someone who does want to live an open sort of life.”
Hence “Voigt Lessons,” which she developed with director Francesca Zambello and playwright Terrence McNally. The show, mixing stories from her often tumultuous life with songs from a variety of genres, debuted in 2011, and Voigt admitted that being so revealing about her past still felt a little perilous. “I never worry about the audience, I never worry about my fans or revealing myself to people. I worry about revealing myself to people that are in a place of judgment about me that could affect me: intendants, administrators of theaters. But I think having had a career that’s now going on almost 25 years, maybe more, I feel like I’ve earned it.”
That approachability is also something she hopes comes through in her song recitals, where the sentiment of an opera comes through in a more personal form. “In a way, you have to be more concentrated, because you are moving from song to song, emotion to emotion,” she explained. “And you don’t have an orchestra to hide behind and lights and staging and costumes. That barrier between you and the audience is stripped away. But that’s kind of what makes them exciting as well. Because you have much more control over it. You don’t have to follow the guy with the stick. I have a chance to be Debbie Voigt singing, and not Deborah Voigt the opera singer with horns and a helmet.”
This is not to say that Voigt isn’t still doing operas. She recently gave her first performances as Marie in Berg’s “Wozzeck’’ at the Met. “I thought it went really well. I was really happy with it vocally, I was happy with it dramatically. And I had a hard time looking at the page and thinking, ugh, what am I going to do with it? But . . . we found [Marie’s] arc, and I didn’t think we would.”
A less happy experience occurred in September when she decided to drop out of a production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Washington National Opera after a subpar Sitzprobe rehearsal and a dressing-room meeting with Zambello, the director, the next day. At the time she thought she might drop Isolde from her repertory altogether.
Since then, though, Voigt has had second thoughts about the decision. She said that the rehearsals had gone well to that point, and besides, “we were still 10 days from opening night, and a lot can happen in 10 days. But when [Zambello] came in and expressed her concern, I very oddly let it really get to me. I thought, wow, maybe something more is going on here than I’m feeling.” She regrets not having stopped and saying, “Give me five days to fix it.”
But Debbie Voigt is also someone who believes, firmly, that everything happens for a reason, including that painful choice.
“In that moment, in that circumstance, I felt like I needed to put the brakes on. And it gave me the chance to stop, when I might not have myself, and look ahead. ‘What do you really want to do, Debbie? You’re at a point in your career where you have that option.’ I want to do another musical. I want to teach. I want to do more recitals. I’d like to do shows in parts of the world I’ve never been to. I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Vienna. I’ve never been to Malaysia; I might like to.
“And I might like to have a life, you know?” she continued. “Aside from the dedication it’s taken to get to this point and the coping mechanisms that I’ve picked up along the way that haven’t been so good for me. It might be nice to wake up to bird song every morning for a while.”
Just at the end of a conversation she put it succinctly: “Like life, it’s all a big balancing act.”