A studio where singers can meet

The jury of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition is known for its impressive members, all of them singers, but how could their presence be felt even more strongly, apart from in master classes? When this question was put to the competition’s Executive Director, Marja-Leena Pétas, she replied that above all she wanted the competition to be a place where the competitors could make closer contact with the members of the jury and get to know one another better. “I had been thinking along the lines of a seminar or something like that, but finding a slot for it in the tight schedule wasn’t easy,” she said. Instead, she decided to arrange an event modelled on James Lipton’s TV “Actors Studio”, in which the head of a drama school interviews famous actors.

The Mirjam Helin Competition could not have found anyone more suitable than Deborah Voigt to preside over its first Singers’ Studio. For if anyone, Debbie is a singer intent on trashing the stereotypical images of the operatic diva and on establishing direct contact with the audience. Call me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva, the title of her autobiography to be published in January, presents her attitude in a nutshell. For the underlying principle of the Singers’ Studio is to bring opera closer to the audience and to banish the myths of terrifying juryists.

“Debbie was the perfect choice for this,” says Marja-Leena Pétas, who is openly thrilled by the Studio’s success. “She’s used to holding her audience and she’s got a wonderful sense of humour.”

In an interview with Gustav Djupsjöbacka, Debbie insisted that opera is life. Even if it’s full of gore and miracles, people can still relate to it. “You sure won’t have committed murder, but you do know how frustrating marriage can be!” Take Lady Macbeth, for example, an extreme role in Verdi’s opera. “Be honest with yourself and listen to your feelings. Everything is there in the music, and this must be exploited.” Singers therefore have to know how to handle their own emotions if they are to make their singing meaningful. They have to voice their own personalities, says Voigt. Experience of life is therefore vital.

So what hints has she for the young singer? “Be totally and utterly present, right now, and get the most you possibly can out of this very moment. Exploit every opportunity.” Debbie also warns singers not to delegate networking purely to their agents but to keep working at it. Marja-Leena Pétas was encouraged by this message: meeting places like the Singers’ Studio are worth their weight in gold for singers.

The competitors and audience were invited to ask the star soprano questions, and her ready sense of humour and quick way with words ensured that the Studio was most entertaining. Debbie was asked about stage fright, reactions to a bad press, the future of opera, and learning by heart.

Text: Auli Särkiö
Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Photos: Heikki Tuuli