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Patricia Racette seems to be everywhere this season, singing a repertoire that extends from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah in San Francisco and Pagliacci at the Met to The Ghosts of Versailles in Los Angeles and Salome in San Antonio. She took some time out to answer a few questions from F. PAUL DRISCOLL.

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Photographed by Vern Evans in San Francisco
Necklace and earrings by Baccarat; vintage bracelet/Makeup and hair by Gerd Mairandres/Clothing styled by Abigail F. Colyer Mercedes E350 courtesy of Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC, West Coast Public Relations
© Vern Evans 2014
"Let's tell the story in the most truthful and authentic way — something that really gets into the heart of the performers and the audience."
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Janáček's Kát’a Kabanová at ENO, 2010
© Clive Barda/ENO 2014
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The title role in Suor Angelica at the Met, 2009
© Johan Elbers 2014

She is one of the world's busiest singers, with a datebook filled with performances in opera and in cabaret. OPERA NEWS talked to Patricia Racette twice in April — at a live "Singer's Studio" program during her Met run in Andrea Chénier, and in an interview in our offices — about her upcoming season, which holds Cio-Cio-San in Toronto and Buenos Aires, her first staged Salome at Opera San Antonio, the Los Angeles Opera premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles and Nedda in a new Pagliacci at the Met. This month, she is at San Francisco Opera for a new staging of Susannah.

OPERA NEWS: Your season starts off with Carlisle Floyd's Susannah in September at San Francisco Opera. I did not realize until our interview last week that you have sung that role before.

PATRICIA RACETTE: Susannah is the only role I've ever paid to sing. I was a sophomore at the University of North Texas when I heard they were doing Susannah at a small college in Fort Worth — and I was in Denton, about an hour north. I wanted to do it, but I was told that in order to participate, I had to register at this other college — even though I was going to school full-time in Denton. So I paid to join a class so that I could sing Susannah. 

ON: Did you get a good grade?

PR: [Laughs] I hope so. I never checked. But I'm excited to revisit it. I did the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree at Houston Grand Opera and loved that experience. I like singing in English. 

ON: Have you had a chance to look at all these other new roles that are coming up this year, such as Marie Antoinette in The Ghosts of Versailles at Los Angeles Opera?

PR: I've started to look at that, but that's not until [February 2015]. I've learned Salome — that's in the summer at Ravinia, then early next year at Opera San Antonio — but I'm at the stage right now where I'm needing to just sing it in and routine it, which will be happening in the next few weeks. Julie in Show Boat in San Francisco is coming up first, actually, in June.

ON: Julie has more dialogue than songs. Do you miss the music when you're learning a role like that?

PR: No. In music, the emphasis of this verb or the emphasis of that word and a great deal of the color of how you're going to say it is determined for you by the composer and the librettist. You can infuse it with something of our own — work within that and on top of it and around it. That's what I try to do, but it's a tight existence interpretatively if you are going to truly serve the music. Whereas in dialogue, the color and pitch level of my voice, the volume of my voice — I have all these choices to make with the spoken word. You could say, "Boy, I have nothing to hold onto here. Where's the tune? It's just a line, it's a sentence." But I see it as something freeing — you can explore the way in which you want to bend that line and make it yours.

ON: Would you ever consider doing a straight play?

PR: Absolutely. I started to think about that, I suppose, when I did [Fosca in] Passion at Minnesota Opera about ten years ago. I loved it. The dialogue came very naturally to me. I want to capitalize on the success that I've had in this profession and allow it to take me into other experiences, because I think I have something to offer. Don't you think I should do Master Class on Broadway?

ON: Right now you're a little young, aren't you? 

PR: I don't have the eyebrows for it. [Chuckles]

ON: You've got a full opera calendar, and you are doing more and more cabaret engagements. How do you choose what to sing?

PR: Teamwork. I talk with my team — my wife, my teacher and my manager. They don't all end up saying the same exact thing, but each of them has something unique to say. There were a lot of things, particularly early in my career, that I was told that I should have been able to sing because I'm a lyric soprano. But I didn't want to sing them, and they didn't feel comfortable. I did La Rondine once, and Magda was not a fit for me vocally or dramatically — and it's by my beloved Puccini. So, go figure. And there are things that should not work in my voice that do beautifully, and vice versa.

ON: Such as?

PR: Well, the other night when I said was going to do Salome, did you hear the gasps? Whoo! But there have been a lot of different voice types that have done Salome. It's a demanding, beastly part. Every voice has red-flag areas, every voice has its gift and ease areas. Salome is a part that my voice slips into, and I get a lot of free rides in there. That's an example. Now, would you necessarily look at my repertoire — even over the past decade — and say, "Oh, yes, Salome. An obvious choice"? But it's more exciting when you can surprise yourself and your colleagues a little with a choice that isn't obvious. 

I sort of see my career in these phases. First phase was when I was right out of the Merola Program, and I was completely overwhelmed. Then I started taking on roles like Mimì and Violetta, which I did more than 100 times, both of them. Then I started doing operas like Emmeline and Cold Sassy Tree and An American Tragedy and all the new American works that came my way. And then I jumped into my Puccini–Janáček period, which has been a great, great time. And now I'm full throttle into verismo stuff. I have a Fanciulla coming up, which I'm very excited about. I've done Manon Lescaut. I want to do my leading-lady parts for as long as possible, but I'm excited about the next chapter as well. Someday I look forward to doing — what's the role in Follies

ON: Sally Durant?

PR: Well, maybe, but I meant the part that Rosalind Elias did.

ON: Oh, oh, oh. Heidi.

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Mme. Lidoine in Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met, 2013
© Johan Elbers 2014

PR: You know, when appropriate. Not now, by any means. I've done Blanche and Lidoine in Carmelites, and there will be a day, I hope, when I'll do Madame de Croissy and fill out my trilogy there. [Chuckles

ON: You are from a French-speaking family …

PR: I'm French every which way you turn.

ON: … but you haven't done that much French repertoire. Dialogues of the Carmelites, but...

PR: I've done Faust, I've done Micaela....

ON: But they are not your favorites?

PR: They don't ring my bell in quite the same way as Puccini and Janáček.

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Cio-Cio-San in San Francisco, 2014
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2014

ON: But that's a question of temperament, isn't it?

PR: For me, more and more.

ON: I don't mean to imply that you're temperamental.

PR: Call Security! I cannot take these questions! [Laughs] The temperament of the character and the pulse of a piece dramatically is what drives my decision more and more these days. Of course I ask myself, "Can I serve this well vocally?" And I feel my choices have been intelligent. I did Don Carlo a couple of times, and the Trovatore — but Verdi is not as comfortable for me as Puccini. I miss the veristic element that's there in Puccini — and in Andrea Chénier, which I absolutely loved doing.

ON: But the one Verdi exception for you is Violetta. 

PR: I sang it so many times, and I enjoyed my years of doing it. But there came a time — and I can't remember the where or the when — but I had sung her enough. The same with Liù. I have no interest in singing her anymore. I don't want to ever take an engagement and walk on the stage and think, "Oh, here we go again." I have too much respect and passion for the art form to do that.

ON: What was it like stepping into the Zeffirelli production at the Met?

PR: The Traviata?

ON: Yes. In 1998.

PR: Stressful. Violetta was still slightly a newish part for me then. The pressure was intense, but I love a challenge. Franco was a little difficult at first, but then we became fast friends — big time — which was great. There were difficulties with the costumes and whatnot. But it was a dream to sing with James Levine, as I'm sure you've heard every singer say.

ON: Can you talk about being difficult? I'm not saying that you have a reputation for being difficult, but when you're in rehearsal...

PR: Do I, though?

ON: No, you don't.

PR: Like you'd tell me — you and your big mic! [Chuckles

ON: What I'm saying is you're very intelligent, you're very opinionated. How do you know when to choose your battles? 

PR: Through experience I've learned how to navigate the landscape of rehearsals and all the energies and egos. When I was younger I would be quite vocal about what I thought. I am passionate about my interpretative choices — but I am absolutely aware that it is incumbent upon me as the artist to have flexibility.

ON: Yes.

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As Tosca at the Met in 2013
© Beth Bergman 2014

PR: If I am offered a suggestion — especially if it's in a piece that I've done before, in another production — I need to entertain new ideas, whether they be musical or dramatic. That's kind of the thrill of it — you end up with something new combined with your own thoughts and ideas. I'm glad I learned to move out of the "No, it has to be THIS way!" stage to "I see your point, but what if we were to think of it...?" What I do insist on is collaboration. The best practice is to have the conversation — to let a conductor or a director know that I hear what he or she is saying, but to make sure that I am heard, too. Honestly, in most cases, everyone wants to work as part of a team.

ON: When did you figure out your process as a singing actor?

PR: That took me years. I spent the better part of my youth trying to figure out what this art form was about. I was trying to just hang on for the ride. I was so inexperienced and so green.

ON: When did you feel ripe?

PR: A couple days ago.

ON: [Laughs]

PR: I think it was a Tuesday, a stormy March day. No, it took years and years.

ON: What happened?

PR: Repetition, I think. Being so deeply ensconced in it, and starting to find.... You know what happened? When I really started to find my own voice? Emmeline at Santa Fe — and later at New York City Opera — was a very important experience for me. Huge. Francesca Zambello, who was directing, had the wisdom to sit down with me and just say, "Wait, when you're singing this line, you have to be specific. You have to be thinking this, not just singing notes, dah-dah-dah." There was something that just lit up in me — I understood suddenly the detail that needs to be in every single moment, the kind of detail that made Callas do what she did and Scotto do what she did and does. 

So, it was then — when I started to find my own artistic voice — that I started feeling as if I wasn't a duck out of water. I actually belonged here, and there was a place for me. It might be a unique place, but it was mine.

ON: When you were handed that Emmeline score, did you have any idea that the opera would be a game-changer for you?

PR: No. What I do remember is that I had never come out to the stage for a curtain call and had people jump up. I thought, "Oh, this had a lot of impact." A lot of wonderful things happened to me, and I'm grateful. I really got to show some acting chops, which made me hungry to continue down that road. 

ON: When you're looking at a piece — when you're, let's say, working not with a living composer, like Tobias Picker or Carlisle Floyd, but with...

PR: One I've killed? [Chuckles] Oops, that's off the record!

ON: But seriously, do you look at Janáček's life, do you look at Puccini's life, do you look at...?

PR: I used to be a lot more attentive to that. But then I realized what my task was as an artist in the context of the rehearsal process. All that research was interesting for me to know, but in some instances it caused frustration — because in my conversations with the director, I believe that I would sort of try to direct things, because I was so well-informed. [Chuckles] I'm not suggesting that we as singers should be ignorant of the context in which these pieces were written, but the first order of business is to know who you are as a character, how you relate to the other characters onstage. You should be able to see the story through your eyes. Your job is not to see the scope of the story. That's the director's job. And I believe that as a singer you offer a more potent individual performance when you look at things through your character's eyes. That single-mindedness brings a certain amount of intensity and power that is very valuable. I try not to get too distracted, if that's the right word for it, by research — because then I literally feel as if my place in that machine is shifting. 

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The title role in Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne in San Francisco, 2013
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2014

ON: Do you favor untraditional productions?

PR: I kind of do. When they work. It doesn't mean that I dislike the traditional, but the newer, edgier productions force you to think in a different way, and that's always good in an art form. 

ON: As a performer or as an audience member?

PR: Both. Traditional or nontraditional, let's tell the story in the most truthful and authentic way — something that really gets into the heart of the performers and the audience. That's the kind of production I'm into. 

ON: What do you think audiences are looking for?

PR: Honestly, I believe audiences are looking to be moved and to be transported. Life is moving at such a pace for all of us. If people are going to spend the time and the money to go to the opera, they really want to be transported. And my God, is there any other art form like opera? No! When it's potently done and powerfully performed and realized in every way — scenically, interpretively and vocally — it has limitless power and value. And that's what I believe people want.

ON: So, what's your dream project?

PR: What's my dream project? Well, I'm too greedy. I have several. I'm dying to do a comedy — I'd love to sing Rosalinde again. I've thought about an opera or a piece on Edith Piaf —  I sing some of her songs in cabaret now. I sing opera, and I sing cabaret, and I can sing them in the same evening. I've always been a singer who enjoys great variety. I don't want to sing in a box — to sing just one little corner of the repertory. I want to be able to access and experience and share all of who I am — not just one part. I'm excited about other genres, I'm excited about other kinds of roles — all the while continuing to do what I am doing. Now, is that the definition of greedy or what? [Laughsspacer 

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