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Sunday, August 1, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Diva, New Production For Seattle Opera

Seattle Times Music Critic

------------------------------- Opera events

"Der Freischutz," Seattle Opera's new production of the Weber opera, with Gerard Schwarz conducting (Andreas Mitisek for Aug. 18 and 21 performances), staging by Dieter Kaegi, sets and lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis. Cast includes Deborah Voigt (Agathe), Gary Lakes (Max), Ute Selbig (Annchen), Harry Peeters (Caspar). Opera House, this Thursday and Saturday, and Aug. 9, 11, 13, 15, 18 and 21, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (2 p.m. Aug. 15). Performances will be sung in German, with English "supratitle" captions. Also available: A panel discussion ($20) with major performers and Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, at 10 a.m. Aug. 14 in the Seattle Children's Theatre's Charlotte Martin Theatre. A free talk on German Romanticism is offered at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave. For ticket information on events, call 206-389-7676, or 800-426-1619. Also, "Der Freischutz" will be broadcast live over KING-FM (98.1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. -------------------------------

"So what is a `Freischutz,' anyway?"

This question, from a music-loving friend who isn't an opera buff, has occupied more than one observer since Seattle Opera announced that its 1999-2000 season would begin with a new production of Weber's "Der Freischutz." Once a staple of the world's big opera houses - especially in Germany - "Der Freischutz" is a rarity these days; this production, which opens Thursday, will be the first for Seattle Opera.

The title is problematic to translate. Literally, it's a "free shot," sometimes called a "trial shot," in a sharpshooting competition. Seattle Opera is rendering the title as "The Devil's Bullet," because the outcome of the sharpshooting "free shot" competition is influenced by special bullets made in contract with one of the devil's emissaries.

This is already starting to sound complicated - but then, it is a rare opera plot that doesn't. The action opens in 17th-century Bohemia, where things look tough for Max, a forester who has always had a pretty good aim (and who also is in love with the head ranger's daughter, Agathe). If Max can't pass his trial "free shot" in the next day's tournament, he won't take over the head ranger's position, and Agathe cannot marry him.

Caspar, an unsuccessful rival suitor for Agathe's hand, has entered into a pact with the devil's messenger, Samiel, who has been busily sabotaging Max's aim. As if this weren't bad enough, Samiel also has taught Caspar how to make magic bullets that cannot miss - though the last bullet in every batch is "the devil's bullet," and it goes wherever the devil wants it to go.

Caspar plies Max with drink and gets him to agree to go to a hidden place, the Wolf's Glen, for a bullet-making session. Caspar is planning to barter Max's soul for his own as the devil's property. Agathe, meanwhile, is troubled by nightmares, dreaming that she turned into a white dove and Max shot her.

At the shooting competition, Max is doing fine until the Prince tells him to make one more shot - a white dove that is flying by. Agathe appears suddenly and tells him not to shoot, but her warning is too late. Both Agathe and Caspar collapse: Agathe recovers, but Caspar has been struck by the "devil's bullet," and he dies.

Max, basically a good fellow, then confesses his dealings with Samiel, and he must spend a year doing penance before he gets to marry Agathe. All turns out well - except, of course, for the bad guys.

The opera is new territory, too, for Deborah Voigt, the highly regarded soprano who will be making her debut in the role of Agathe. It's her first trip to Seattle, too, so Voigt is enjoying discovering a new city (as well as getting to sing the National Anthem for the opening of Safeco Field).

"I live in Florida, a five-minute walk from the ocean," says Voigt, "so I'm looking forward to getting out and exploring the beaches here in the Northwest."

Walking is a definite priority for Voigt, ever since she lost a dramatic 80 pounds a few years back. An "unpleasant divorce" has led to the return of some of those pounds, but Voigt is committed to getting back to her trimmer shape so she'll look the part of all the goddesses and nubile love interests an opera diva must play.

Acclaimed for her portrayal of Sieglinde (in Wagner's "Ring"), Voigt says she particularly loves that role because she gets the best music in the entire score. A big career move will be her first Isolde, in 2002 at the Vienna State Opera - one of many illustrious international companies seeking Voigt's services (those ranks also include La Scala, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan). Wagner and Strauss heroines have been a major part of her career, but Voigt also will take on Tosca (Puccini) and Norma (Bellini) in the coming months, as well as her first concert performance of the final scene of Strauss' "Salome."

It's clear that Voigt enjoys what she's doing, just as it was clear from the outset of her career that this was an exceptional voice for opera. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, in a household where her mother sang and played the piano, and two younger brothers sang in rock-'n'-roll bands. The family spent her high-school and college years in Southern California, but Voigt's good intentions of completing her degree at Cal State Fullerton didn't materialize: San Francisco Opera was already after her for its apprentice Merola Program, and she couldn't pass up the opportunity.

"Those were years when I worried about the education," she admits now. "I didn't know if I'd have a career as a singer, and then I wouldn't have the college degree either. Even though I am doing really well now, I never lose sight of the tentative nature of this business. Anything can happen; nothing is certain."

She didn't really believe she would have a big career "until the Met started asking me to do new productions. That was a pretty good sign." Now she's in demand around the world.

Her killer schedule contributed to the stresses that led to her recent divorce, about which Voigt now is fairly philosophical: "It's hard on the other person. We (opera singers) have no choice; this is what we do for a living. But it's hard on the partner. There needs to be a tremendous affection - and then, of course, the other person would like to have you around home more than you are."

There are compensations. There are reviews from London to St. Petersburg that laud her "seraphic tones" and "electrifying, glorious" voice. She's in demand in the recording studios, too, with a dozen CDs and more on the way.

"I love what I'm doing, she observes of her career, "and I'm excited about what lies ahead."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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