Patricia Racette - Photographed in New York by Dario Acosta at the Nancy Wiener Gallery. Makeup and hair by Affan Malik © Dario Acosta 2011
Soprano Patricia Racette is known as one of the great singing actresses of our time. She has performed in some of the most acclaimed opera houses of the world and appeared with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras. On Saturday, August 18 at the in Lewes, DE, The Prudential Gallo - Touch of Italy Foundation will present An Evening With Patricia Racette. I had a conversation recently with Patricia about her work, her art and her life as an out lesbian and as a true Opera Diva.
As a person with over 25 years of experience working in the Performing and Visual Arts myself, it was thrilling to have this rare opportunity to interview Patricia one-on-one. Because of our shared love of the arts, she was very open about her artistic connection to her craft and she provided great insight into the nuances of live performance. As an arts journalist, it was a remarkable experience for me and one that I am happy to share here with you. Enjoy.
You have literally performed in some of the most acclaimed opera houses of the world and you’ve appeared with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, is there one place that you feel particularly connected to or grounded by as an artist?
I tend to find with most places, especially when I’m returning to the venue or the administration, a connection because you invest your heart and soul, in what we’re doing as performing artists. But, if I had to pick one, I’d have to pick San Francisco. It’s what I refer to as my “artistic home”. I went through the young artist program there. They gave me some of my first chances in doing large roles at a rather young age. They invested in me and I certainly in them. I return there frequently, so it’s a place that’s very special to me.
I watched a video interview with you in which you discuss your first realization that opera was your calling after hearing Renata Scotto sing “Suor Angelica” when you were in college. When you perform now, is there still an artistic connection to that moment?
That was a moment when all the doors flew open for me and I saw exactly what the art form was about - how I could fit into it make a unique and special contribution. I’ve built upon that and sought experience that would emulate the kind of artist that someone like Renata Scotto was. I don’t know if this has been in print or if I’ve said this in another interview, but at the Opera News Awards when Renata Scotto was one of the recipients in 2007, I was asked to present her with the award. It was very synchronistic because it was about a week and a half after I got the contract with the Metropolitan Opera to sing all three heroines in “Il Trittico”, which was something she did to great acclaim. I ended up receiving an Opera News Award in 2010 and Renata Scotto presented me with it. It was very serendipitous and meaningful to me - a really special moment.
That’s certainly coming full circle as an artist isn’t it? A rare moment.
Yes. I told Renata to her face, “You’re basically the reason I’m in Opera.” I shared my story with her. It was a very exciting event for me.
It’s clear that besides your love of Opera, you still carry a torch for jazz and Broadway standards.
I do. I do quite a bit of cabaret now and I’ll be doing some cabaret at this concert. I just recorded my cabaret album - Diva on Detour - which is out on GPR Records and available on iTunes or Amazon. I think it aptly describes (laughter) my endeavor. I have to say, that still feels like coming home to me. That kind of music and that kind of genre really speak to me in the most basic and natural way.
Opera is an extremely high skilled profession and art form that takes constant study and examination - not that cabaret and jazz does not - but it’s a different applications of one’s skills. I really love being able to return. You had mentioned coming full circle - that to me is a very logical circle.
As a performer, do you find cabaret, jazz and opera aesthetically linked or are they completely different genres?
Well, I do in that we’re storytellers. Whether it be a three and a half hour opera where you’re taking a listener on a journey of one circumstance or another or a song - which is a shorter story - told more concisely perhaps, but it’s the same thing, we’re telling stories. They do have that in common - that appeal and that pull on a performer.
You have long been connected with the role of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. Steve Smith of the New York Times wrote that “the dramatic specificity with which” you “inhabited the role” was striking. You’re also a fan of Judy Garland and you have said that you are “drawn to the soulful drama that pulsates through her singing”. So, instinctively when you perform and you go into that zone, is it as an actor who sings or as a singer who acts – or – have you been able to find some perfect balance between the two?
My favorite experience as a performer is to not be aware that I’m singing at all. It just happens to be the palette and colors that come out of me when I’m trying to say something interpretively. I don’t want to feel like I’m singing, because we don’t sing our way through expressing ourselves. I want it to feel that much like a second nature, that action. I don’t want to feel like I’m singing, but of course I am. I want them to truly meld and be indistinguishable. I’ve said this before, and I got into a teeny little bit of trouble about it, but I said, look if you’re not interested in the words, the meaning and the interpretation - play an instrument. (Laughter) I said that on national radio. But it’s true, and I mean it with all due respect to any instrumentalist - that takes a great deal of skill and it’s a virtuous endeavor - but if you’re not interested in the words, and you’re just interested in making sounds - well, we do have singers. That’s our life blood. That’s the richness of being a singer. It’s not just being able to draw and make colors with your sound and the nuance of that sound, but it’s also to give meaning with the text and the flavors of the language. There’s nothing else like it.
Brandon Jovanovich and Patricia Racette Il Trittico Il Tabarro Photo: Cory Weaver
You are an out lesbian and you married your partner mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton in the summer of 2005. You’ve been quoted as saying that being a lesbian is a “very important part” of who you are as an artist. Can you elaborate on that?
I said that being a lesbian was a very important part of who I am as an artist?
It was in an interview with you that I read.
Hmm. Well, that may be a tiny bit out of context. What I can say to that is, being honest and being who I really am is essential to being the kind of artist that I want to be. And I happen to be a lesbian. That’s how I would characterize that.
So, it’s about your own personal sense of artistic honesty and integrity?
It is. It is about honesty and integrity, but I think it directly informs what kind of artist you are interpretively. If you are at all any kind of intuitive person - you know when you’re around someone who’s not being authentic - you can sense that in a performance. If you're not truly honest, it doesn't give you full access to yourself, your uniqueness and your full emotional palette.
What is the best way for a layperson to discover the beauty of Opera?
Well, don’t be intimidated by it. I come from a good, wholesome blue collar family that didn’t know a note of opera. In fact, I didn’t really even hear it until I went to college. Opera should not be intimidating. It’s so interesting the work, the art - it’s so much a part of our central fabric. There is no other art form like it that involves so many other disciplines that have to be at such a high, high level. You really shouldn’t miss what that experience is.
Your performance in “The Met: Live in HD, with Madama Butterfly” which was broadcast live in HD in movie theaters across the world, was one of the most successful broadcasts in the history of the series. As a tool, how successful do you feel the simulcasts have been in making Opera more approachable to the public?
I do. I think Peter Gelb and David Gockley of the San Francisco Opera are brilliant in this. The argument has been made - and I’ve heard it - of “how does that fit into butts in the seats?” meaning selling tickets.
What it does, well if you don’t expose people to something that they would have not otherwise known, then you’ve completely lost that challenge. I think is great is for someone who has never seen an opera, because they don’t live near a major opera house or a metropolitan community or can’t get there, to be able to get to that opportunity and let them experience that art form. I think that only helps it. It provides a wider exposure.
Also, what’s really interesting is, well the Metropolitan has thousands of seats, so way, way up there in the balcony, you can have a wonderful experience but the performers look like they’re half an inch tall from that distance. If you have binoculars, well that’s great, and there’s nothing like seeing a live art form - an acoustic art form, not an amplified, but an acoustic - art form live in the theater; there’s nothing that replaces that I have to say.
But with the HD, they’re offering such close-ups that you’re able to see the subtleties that we as performers are employing in our storytelling - the specifics of expression. That’s a comment I get and hear a lot - “Wow, we could see this” and “We could see that”. Artistically, that’s nice to be so well noted. I’m a firm believer, however, that it can be felt if not seen. I believe the most subtle of nuances can be appreciated even though you may not be able to totally see it.
“Madama Butterfly” Cio-Cio-San: Patricia Racette Pinkerton: Marcello Giordani Metropolitan Opera House March 7, 2009
Achieving your level of success is rare for any artist regardless of their branch, do you ever find yourself awed by the direction your talent has led you? Is there ever a “I need to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming” moment?
I do have those moments, but they’re fleeting and they happen as very unpredictable moments. It takes such concentration and effort to do what we do, that I don’t sit back and go, “Well look at me” (laughter). But, there are moments when you take a mental snapshot and go, wow. I’m really able to appreciate what’s happened thus far.
If you could give any advice to young people thinking of pursuing a career in the performing arts, what would it be?
Well, I would suggest that they get informed about what it entails. You have to be performing and be involved in a lot of on going studies, which can be exciting - that’s actually the best part. But it’s also a life of travel. I know everyone says “Oh, you’re so lucky”, but if you travel constantly - and I’ve been doing it for almost 25 years now - it can wear on you. Packing and unpacking every month to two months can be difficult if you’re a home body as I am. There are pros and cons just like any other profession. There are pros and cons to the involvement of being in this profession. So, make sure you like to pack and unpack (laughter).
Your upcoming performance here in Lewes, Delaware is being billed as an evening of “operatic favorites, jazz and Broadway standards”. When the curtain closes, what do you ideally hope an audience member takes home with them from the performance?
I want them to find resonance in what I have offered. I want them to feel transformed and transported. I want them to feel like their life has changed a little bit because of what they’ve experienced. I mean, it’s a pretty tall order honestly (more laughter). But I want to move and touch an audience. I want them to have their own experience to what I’ve offered.