In the early chapters of an unfinished memoir, Betty Voie wrote that growing up in Kentucky was like “living in a fairyland.” Then, when she was 10, the Depression hit, driving the family west to Kansas. While the move was traumatic for young Voie, it opened up a new world of passion and opportunity.
“My mother was very much from Dixie and never let anyone forget it,” daughter Martha Sharp said. “I don’t think there was anything about Kentucky she didn’t just love. Living in Great Bend, Kansas … The children would make fun of her in school, because she talked ‘funny’ and they couldn’t understand her strong southern accent.”
Voie’s voice wouldn’t be a subject of ridicule for long. Over the next few years, she developed what Sharp called an “obsession with the human singing voice and its functions.” Her voice coach was so proud that she made arrangements for Voie to have her own radio program, where she would sing anything she wanted for a solid hour each day, opera being her favorite.
“Her teacher, Miss Opie, was not an opera singer, so my mother made friends with a couple of older girls in town who were attending the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, and majoring in voice performance. My mother told me that she would visit these girls when they were home for spring break or Christmas vacation, and they would discuss vocal technique. Mom would take all this information to heart, experimenting on her own and reading everything she could get her hands on. Basically, with this information she became a very skilled and successful singer.”
At 16, she married a local football hero with a scholarship to the University of Tulsa. Voie continued singing, attending workshops with teachers like Dr. John Finley Williamson, famous for founding the prestigious Westminster Choir. She showed off her skills as soprano soloist at Boston Avenue Methodist Church, and later at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Brookside. When she won the Metropolitan Opera Regional competition, Voie and her husband decided that she should stay in the Midwest with family rather than travel to NYC to compete at the national level. It was not the only disappointment to hit their family—Voie’s husband also lost his football scholarship, due to a flu bug that kept him out of practice. The couple refocused their efforts on a construction business, building homes on Turkey Mountain, while raising children that would delight them with family talent.
“I remember standing in the kitchen when I was about 13, helping my mom with the dishes, and she was vocalizing while she worked. I began to repeat the scales and arpeggios.”
Wowed by her daughter’s talent, Voie began tutoring her—but only when Sharp wanted it.
“I was told that I certainly didn’t have to sing if I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t sing a note for six months and then one day I would ask my mom if we could sing. She always stopped what she was doing. Soon I was being asked to sing solos at school and to sing for weddings.
“At every singing obligation I had, I would become physically ill before the performance and would beg my mother to let me die rather than appear in public. She always answered, ‘You will sing tonight no matter how you feel because you made the promise and are obligated. If you are that frightened then just say no the next time someone asks you to sing.’ I never did.”
Sharp sang her way into the Cleveland Opera, New York City Opera, and Boston Lyric Opera before becoming a member of the Zurich Opera House in 1979. These days she lives in Salzburg, Austria and makes her living teaching voice.
“What she taught me about singing was invaluable, and I was one lucky girl to get all that private instruction. What other kid gets to grow up with that? It put me way ahead in my profession … Now many of these students are teaching and they are passing on the same information. That’s just the way it works. A wonderful legacy.”
After her first husband passed away, Voie married a minister and sang in the choir of the churches he served in New Jersey, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oklahoma. They wound back in Tulsa, where Voie spent the final year of her life in Cypress Springs Memory Support Residence, still singing when she could.
“She could still sing it at age 86 and not miss a beat,” Sharp said. “I once sang in the choir with her in Muskogee. It was a performance of the Messiah with orchestra. I tell you, this lady was hard to keep up with. She didn’t miss a thing!”