Elvera Voth stood on the scarred wooden stage talking to mezzo-soprano Sherri Weiler and baritone Jim Lanier, who were rehearsing a duet from Don Giovanni. The other 29 members of the Alaska Chamber Singers were milling around the stage, talking, drinking tea, eyeing a table laden with sausage, bread and cheese. But their eyes kept flicking back to Voth, who was, like everyone else, dressed in several layers of clothing to combat the chill in the big, concrete box known as the Music and Drama Theater. She was, those flicking eyes said, the one in charge.
Even thousands of miles from Anchorage, in Magadan, Russia, Voth was doing what she did for a lifetime in Alaska, leading singers in performing as well as they could.
This was in the spring of 1992, not long after the Ice Curtain between Alaska and the Russian Far East melted. The conditions were tough. The singers were in the middle of a week-long visit to Magadan, a hard- scrabble city of about 150,000 on the Sea of Okhotsk.
They were having to cope with cold, strange beds, strange food, a rigorous schedule of public appearances and frequent banquets that often degenerated into vodka toasting contests.
The 31 somewhat shell-shocked singers were rehearsing their part of the visit-ending Joint Gala Concert: some opera, some show tunes, a spiritual or two, some experimental music. But for this concert, Voth also had to blend in the efforts of singers and musicians she and her group had not performed with before, Magadan’s orchestra and chorus, for Shubert’s Mass in G Major.
All of this might have been daunting for anyone else, but Voth had plenty of experience starting from scratch. A story in the Anchorage Daily News summarized her career this way: “After coming north in 1961, she gave guitar lessons, assisted with the Alaska Festival of Music, then moved on to conduct and/or found a number of groups, including Anchorage Civic Opera, Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Anchorage Boys Choir and numerous choruses.” She also started the music program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Perhaps the greatest pressure on Voth and all the performers from Alaska was the expectations of the audience. The Russians were both wise in the ways of the performing arts and hungry to hear and see new things. So hungry that they filled the balcony and lined the aisles to watch the rehearsal.
When the chamber singers broke for lunch, I asked Voth, a tall, trim, upright woman in her late 60s, how she thought the concert would go. She shrugged. “We’ll see,” was all she would commit herself to.
A few days later, the theater was decked out in a style best described as imperial rec room. Television cameras squatted at each side of the stage to record the event. All 440 red-plush seats were full, and people stood everywhere. The Americans scattered throughout the audience looked, for the most part, pretty sketchy, but the Russians were turned out in their finest.
So was Voth, resplendent in a full-length, black patterned gown. She lead the singers through the program with a firm hand until it reached its most crucial point, the finale of the Schubert Mass.
“Rule one of being a good artist is to exercise self discipline,” Voth said later. “Look hot and keep cool. Try doing that when 80 Russian and American musicians are looking to you to hold them together for the final dona nobis pacem — grant us peace. Just try it.”
As she had in so many shows, Voth did try it and it worked. The applause was unrelenting. Flowers showered onto the stage at her feet.
A few hours later, we were all back on the airplane, headed for Anchorage. Afterward, Voth kept doing what she did that day. Last I heard, she was, at 80-something, teaching men in prison to sing. So it’s easy to understand why, when it came to naming the new hall in the performing arts center, Elvera Voth’s name was the only one considered.
Update June 2014: Elvira Voth retired to Kansas and, as a volunteer, formed a choir in the East Lansing Minimum Security Prison. She retired from that in 2008.