LONDON Deborah Voigt is back, in black.
The American soprano returned to the Royal Opera House stage Monday, 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 believed Voigt would not look right in it.
"I was angry about it at the time and for quite a while afterwards," said Voigt, who once called the attitude toward overweight people "the last bastion of open discrimination in our society."
However, 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.
"Opera has changed immensely in my generation, and it is going to change more."
In 2006, the Royal Opera rehired Voigt, announcing she would return to the role of Ariadne in the 2007-08 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."'
The ebullient Voigt seems to have put the episode squarely behind her. She has nothing but praise for her "warm and welcoming" reception by the Royal Opera, and has poked fun at the furor by releasing a YouTube video entitled "The Return of the Little Black Dress," in which she and her slinky nemesis make up.
"It just seemed at the time that we weren't a good fit," the dress tells the now-svelte singer in the clip. "But times change; people change."
Voigt said in 2004 that she didn't expect to be allowed to sing at the Royal Opera House as long as casting director Peter Katona remained. He's still there, and the pair have reconciled.
"I remember that Mr. Katona said some day we would be able to laugh about this," Voigt said. "And I said, 'Yeah, right.' But he was right."
"There is no point walking around with a chip on your shoulder about it. Life's too short."
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. An Associated Press 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."
Voigt acknowledges it has been an adjustment.
"The whole process of learning to sing with a different physique has taken a lot longer than I thought it would," she said. "Four years on, I am still having to rethink how I sing."
"People might say, the voice is more silver than gold as it used to be," she added. "It's not for me to say. I am enjoying performing a lot more than I was."
In 2011, Voigt is to sing Bruennhilde in the Met's much-anticipated new Ring Cycle. Since her surgery she has expanded her repertoire, playing Biblical temptress Salome and legendary beauty Helen of Troy.
"It's nice to be able to play the pretty-girl parts," Voigt said. "I never thought I would be able to do that."