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135 pounds later, little black dress suits her fine

LONDON — Deborah Voigt is back, in black.

The American soprano returned to the Royal Opera House stage Monday night, four years after the company fired her for being too big for the little black dress chosen for the title character in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. The decision sparked a fierce debate about weight discrimination in opera.

Now a slimmer Voigt is back in the same opera, the same role — and wearing "that" dress.

"When I got the call from my manager, I have to admit my first reaction was to laugh, because we had come full circle," Voigt told the Associated Press in an interview before opening night. "When that happened, I didn't anticipate ever coming back, because I didn't think they would invite me."

Voigt, one of the world's leading opera singers, had been scheduled to play the lead in the Royal Opera's summer 2004 production of Ariadne. But the casting director decided the titular Greek goddess should wear a black evening dress and thought Voigt would not look right in it.

"I was angry about it at the time and for quite a while afterward," said Voigt, who once called the attitude toward overweight people "the last bastion of open discrimination in our society."

Voigt had gastric bypass surgery in June 2004, three months after the story broke, and subsequently lost 135 pounds. She says she had been considering the surgery on health grounds for years, long before the black dress incident. "I didn't need the Royal Opera House to tell me I was fat," Voigt said. "I knew I was fat."

She now concedes she wouldn't have been right for the production, and thinks opera's increased focus on image is here to stay. "I think that the face of opera is changing," Voigt said. "To assume that one can weigh 300-plus pounds and still be viable on today's opera stage is naive. I tell that to young singers."

In 2006, the Royal Opera rehired Voigt, announcing she would return to the role of Ariadne in the 2007-2008 season. Beyond that, the company refuses to discuss the incident, saying only that rehearsals have gone well and it is "looking forward with great excitement to Deborah Voigt's performances in Ariadne."

At 47, Voigt's career is going strong. Some critics have detected changes to her voice as a result of the weight loss, suggesting it is ever-so-slightly thinner, less warm.

Others find it as mesmerizing as ever. A reviewer thought Voigt's recent performance in Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera was majestic: "Her voice has lyric beauty as well as steel."

135 pounds later, little black dress suits her fine 06/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:01pm]
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