44: Heavenly Voices

44: Heavenly Voices

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

Heavenly Voices

Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.

~Leo Buscaglia

I’ll never forget the moment Plácido Domingo first kissed me. It was the spring of 1996 at the New York Metropolitan Opera and I was nervous—to be singing Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre for the first time and also to be working with the Three Tenors legend.

Plácido was singing the role of Siegmund, Sieglinde’s lover and — alas, as fate would cruelly have it—her twin brother. So as you can imagine, my character sang all about love, passion, and heartbreak, and she wasn’t demure about it. When is opera ever meek and mild?

In one scene, I had to faint in Plácido’s arms as he tenderly stroked my hair and face—that helped my nervousness. And then came The Kiss. Timed to the beat of the music, the orchestra built up, lingered on a chord . . . and our lips met. I remember how Plácido moved toward me on opening night for The Kiss. In that moment, I wasn’t Deborah Voigt the soprano anymore. I was Debbie Voigt from suburban Illinois, thinking: How did I get here? How did I get so lucky?

But it wasn’t luck that put me on the stage that night, or gave me a career that took me around the world, singing for presidents and princes. It took a tremendous amount of hard work and belief in the natural gift God gave me—a belief I didn’t always have and nearly lost, if it hadn’t been for a moment of divine intervention.

My parents say I practically came out of the womb singing.

Grandma Voigt owned a vinyl LP of the My Fair Lady soundtrack when I was a toddler, and by age three I’d memorized every word the flower girl sang—with a cockney accent, I might add. I’d dress up in Grandma’s worn-out apron and her Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat with the netting on front, stand in the center of the living room, and happily belt it out for the family:

“Jusst you ’ait, Enry Iggins, jusst you ’ait! . . .”

I loved putting on my pretend costumes and performing; it filled me with joy. I couldn’t articulate it then, but it had something to do with the power of the music and feelings for both singer and listener. To my little heart, it was a sacred exchange.

My parents applauded politely, but didn’t quite know what to make of their pint-sized diva. As strict Southern Baptists, they believed that singing was for, from, and because of God and should only be used to glorify Him. To them, that meant singing church hymns, not Broadway show tunes about star-crossed lovers. That I enjoyed doing it so unabashedly was also worrisome to them. I’m sure it came across as very . . . prideful.

“Pride Goeth Before a Fall,” our pastor at Prospect Heights Baptist Church used to sermonize, in his booming voice. It was a proverb my parents never tired of quoting.

Sure enough, by age five, my zest for performing was rerouted to the children’s choir at church. There, I found ways to channel my love of singing into hymns like “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”—which I liked very much, and sang with all my heart knowing I had a higher, nobler purpose.

But . . . the contraband music tugged at me as the years went by.

When I was ten years old, my parents gave me a portable record player for Christmas, with the caveat that I could only play “appropriate” music. I wasn’t sure what the boundaries of secular/non-secular were, but I managed to sneak some Donny Osmond onto my Philips portable. He was a nice, God-loving boy, I explained to my parents, even if he wasn’t Southern Baptist. They allowed it.

In the early Seventies, as I was entering my teen years, I discovered the creamy, dreamy voice of Karen Carpenter. I played and sang her mellow ballads at home on the piano, and my parents didn’t protest. She was a good girl, not one of those wild, unwashed, hippie types who had taken over and sang about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Then, in seventh grade, the overprotective wall my parents so carefully constructed was blasted to bits. My music teacher in school announced we were to study The Who’s rock opera Tommy in class. She carefully lowered the turntable needle onto the song “Acid Queen,” and my virgin ears and senses exploded. What was this?

I decided not to tell my parents about my introduction to Roger Daltrey—I wanted to listen to more. After The Who, there were others. And through my music teacher and my own exploration, I learned there was artistry, beauty and yes—even God, in many types of music. And that a rollicking rock tune or a toe-tapping musical theatre number could be noble in their own way because they expressed and shared the human experience.

One afternoon, around the time of my revelations, I thought I was alone in the house. I went to the piano and dusted off one of my beloved show tunes and began to play. I pounded the keys and sang with gusto, throwing myself into the music with abandon. I hadn’t sung at home like that since my My Fair Lady gig. I was exhilarated, transported . . .

 . . . until I heard my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs, heading straight for me.

“Who,” he asked, “do you think you are?”

I froze. I’m not sure of his exact words or intent, but I remember how I felt: ashamed. For months after that, I was heartsick and didn’t play and sing like that again—as if a part of me had died.

Then one morning, I woke up earlier than usual. The dawn was peeking through my bedroom curtains and the house was quiet. That’s when I heard a voice, The voice—not in my head, but out loud in my room. It was deep, authoritative, and unmistakable: You are here to sing.

I sat up in bed and looked around; no one else was in the room. I pinched myself; I wasn’t asleep and dreaming. I knew who that voice was, I just knew. God spoke to me that day and firmly set me back on my path toward a destiny I knew to be mine since I was a child.

I was meant to sing, He said.

I was meant to sing out loud, unashamed, and sing songs that had meaning to me and brought people together. From that day onward, I never doubted my choice in music again.

God’s words and the faith that I had in them led me to the Met stage that night, and into Plácido’s arms for his enchanted kiss.

I never heard God’s voice again. But forty years later, it’s like I heard it only yesterday.

~Deborah Voigt with Natasha Stoynoff

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