A Singular Voice

This diva’s brilliance hid her darker side, but a divine message brought her into the light.

by
Jan 25, 2015

Debbie at peace at home

The opera stage is crowded with outsized characters, and in my long career as a leading soprano I’ve played most of them. Wagner’s Brünnhilde, Strauss’s Salome, Puccini’s Tosca. I’ve sung these and countless other roles around the world, sharing the stage with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo.

But there was one role I never came close to mastering—though I played her every day.

That role was myself.

Onstage, gathering audiences into the soaring sweep of my voice, I was beloved as one of the opera world’s most passionate, most versatile singers. Offstage, my life was a wreck. I was an alcoholic. A binge eater. Cycling through relationships with abusive men.

From childhood I’d felt called by God to sing. But you would never know that, watching me in my hotel room after a performance, drinking until I passed out, waking up covered in bruises, scrolling through the text messages on my phone to try and figure out what I’d done. I lived by my voice. But it took years, decades, my whole life, really, before I finally accepted that only one Voice could save me from myself.

I’m serious when I say I felt called by God to sing. It happened when I was 14 years old. I was lying in bed early one morning, watching sunlight filter through a gap in my curtains. Suddenly a voice—at once loud and soft, warm and fierce, real and otherworldly—spoke to me with utter clarity. You are here to sing.

That was all. Yet I knew those words came from God, and were meant for me, because I’d been singing, and loving to sing, for almost as long as I could talk. As a toddler I begged my grandmother to put on her vinyl record album of My Fair Lady. I learned all the songs by heart and belted them out in Grandma’s living room, outfitted in her apron and one of her pillbox hats.

I sang at church, at school, in Christmas pageants, wherever I could. I knew there was something special about my voice. I could tell by people’s faces when I sang. Their eyes widened. They smiled, leaned forward. Oh, how I lived for those moments of connection! At one with an audience, I felt at one with myself.

But such moments were fewer than I wanted because my parents, strict Southern Baptists, made it clear that singing for any other reason than to please God was prideful and wrong.

“Who do you think you are?” my dad asked once when he caught me playing the piano and singing show tunes in the living room. He loomed up beside me, his face a mix of awe and fear, as if my voice were a powerful, uncontrollable force. I shut my mouth and slunk away.

There was a reason my parents were so strict, why Dad sometimes spanked me for no reason or washed my mouth out with soap, making sure the washcloth got all the way back to my molars. Theirs was a shotgun wedding. Mom was just a teenager when I was born. And by the time I was three, I could tell Mom and Dad fought a lot, more than most couples—sometimes over other women at our church.

My parents were young and didn’t know how to raise kids. Mom was a curvaceous woman, and Dad, I guess wanting to spare his daughter a lifetime of weight struggles, monitored everything I ate. That backfired. I became obsessed with food, using it to calm my fears that Dad would up and leave us, or that he’d suddenly get mad and spank me.

By the time I heard God so distinctly affirm my teenage singing aspirations, my own feelings about singing—about my life, really—were a tangle. I got praised for singing at church, but punished for it at home. My body produced the voice I lived for. But I was ashamed of my body, which already was bigger than other girls’, and only growing bigger as I binged on food to soothe my anxieties.

I feared God didn’t approve of how I used his gift. I stopped listening for more affirmation. I figured I didn’t deserve it.

You’d be amazed how far an artist can go without an ounce of self-esteem. I won major singing competitions in college. Soon I was working as an understudy at famous opera houses, then drawing rave reviews for my own starring roles.

I toured the world, singing at Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “One of the most important American singers to come along in years,” The New York Times called me.

If only they knew what my real life was like! I married a man I met in high school. He didn’t love me and cheated on me. After we divorced I took up with a marijuana grower—yes, seriously— who turned me on to hard drinking. He had a terrible temper and once kicked me in the head during an argument.

My weight soared to nearly 300 pounds, so heavy even the critics who loved my voice took notice, and I was passed over for roles because I couldn’t fit costumes and directors said I couldn’t portray romantic heroines. (Which deeply bothers me, this idea that only skinny women deserve love lives—but that’s a different story.)

I tried fad diets and weight-loss drugs, even had a balloon inflated in my stomach. At last I found relief from food cravings through gastric bypass surgery. But even as the pounds started falling off and I could actually buy outfits in regular sizes, my addictions blossomed.

All those feelings of fear and shame I’d carried since childhood—they didn’t go away just because I was thinner or famous. Actually, being famous made them worse. I felt like a fraud. Like a beautiful voice hiding an ugly mess. Even my family was a mess. Mom and Dad had divorced and gotten remarried to other people. They hardly spoke to each other.

Finally, the mess got too ugly even for my voice to hide. I had taken up with yet another damaging man—a member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus who already had a girlfriend when we started dating. No surprise, he refused to commit, and every time he retreated I went on a bender.

I was frightened of myself—but not too frightened to drink more. During a singing trip to China in 2013, I sat in my hotel room drinking all day and passing out by evening, surrounded by empty bottles. I woke up one night in a Chinese hospital room with an IV drip in my arm. “Put her on suicide watch,” a doctor said.

A few weeks later I checked into a rehab center in Miami. I didn’t have high hopes. I’d gone to Alcoholics Anonymous before and never stuck with it. Why would this time be different?

The rehab felt like a prison. I didn’t get along with my roommate, Betty, who—like most addicts, I’ve come to learn, including me—was very self-centered. She always grabbed the same spot on the couch for group therapy sessions, no matter who else wanted to sit there.

One day we inmates (what I called the patients) were asked to do a trust exercise: lead one another around the center blindfolded. I got partnered with Betty. She put a blindfold on me and began guiding me through the halls. “I’m right here, Debbie. Follow me. Follow my voice.”

The exercise ended in a courtyard. I took the blindfold off and turned to Betty. Somehow, following her like that had softened my feelings toward her. But she’d already raced off to claim her favorite spot on the couch.

For a moment I stood there feeling abandoned. Story of my life, I thought.

But almost as soon as those words entered my mind they vanished. My attention was yanked back to what Betty had said as she led me through the halls: “Follow me. I’m right here, Debbie. Follow my voice.”

My voice. Long ago, I had heard a voice in my childhood bedroom. The voice had told me to sing. And I had spent my life singing. But had I truly followed that voice?

If I had, I wouldn’t have ended up on suicide watch. I wouldn’t be in rehab wondering if it was possible for me to stay sober. I wouldn’t have binged on food and alcohol and men all my life in a frantic effort to numb my gnawing fears. I wouldn’t have felt those fears in the first place because I would have known that, no matter what happened in my childhood, no matter what size I wore, I was loved by God. God loved my voice and wanted me to use it for his glory.

But I had been using my voice to drown out the one Voice that could save me. I looked around the courtyard. Everyone was going in for group therapy and I was there alone, in the stillness and soft tropical air. I breathed in—that breath, so necessary for singing. Only now, I felt God there, deep inside my body, where my voice originated.

You are here to sing. Yes, and it was God who gave me singing, and blessed it, and said it was good. I went inside to group therapy. For the first time I had reason to hope that this time my efforts to stay sober would turn out differently.

And so far they have, although, as we say in AA, it’s one day at a time. My days are happier and more peaceful than they’ve ever been. I still sing leading opera roles, but I’m branching out too, into other kinds of music. And I’ve begun mentoring up-and-coming singers.

“You have to take care of yourself,” I tell my protégés. “Don’t let the work consume you. Your voice is a gift. Use it wisely.”

I wish someone had told me that when I was young. Actually, Someone did. What it took me years to learn was how to listen. I’m right here. Follow me. Those words are the sweetest aria I will ever hear.

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