Hardcore opera fans may quibble at the repetition, but hang around D.C. long enough and there’s a chance to see just about any standard-canon opera you can think of. Washington National Opera, now not-so-strange bedfellows with the Kennedy Center, kicked off its fall season last weekend with the Puccini warhorse “Tosca” with lesbian Patricia Racette in the title role.
Racette, who lives with her partner (mezzo soprano Beth Clayton) in Santa Fe, is hunkered down for the day at the Opera’s mammoth rehearsal/storage space in Takoma Park a few Mondays ago. Though dressed casually, she’s made up and coiffed as some of her afternoon press rounds are on camera.
Down several long hallways and through a giant costume room that looks like it could dress the entire cast of “Ben-Hur” and then some, Racette settles into a small and dingy library where CDs, VHS tapes and songbooks line the walls. During a 45-minute conversation, she riffs on her life off stage, the logistics of making it through live performance and why the stage, as opposed to the studio, is where she feels most alive musically.
Together for more than a decade and married since 2005, Racette says she and Clayton find a way to make their marriage work despite two busy careers that by necessity involve significant travel. Once several years ago they didn’t see each other for almost seven weeks.
“It was absolute torture,” Racette says. “Torture.”
Racette is developing a following in Washington. She was here in May for “Iphigenie en Tauride” (Gluck) after previous appearances in 2007 for “Jenufa” and 2009 as Ellen in “Peter Grimes,” all with WNO.
Though it half-heartedly reviewed the production, the Post called Racette’s “Tosca” performance “luminous” and “compelling” and praised her stamina and vocal authority in “Iphigenie.”
Racette calls singing opera akin to surfing.
“I mean it’s a fine art and it’s called a fine art for a very, very good reason because it takes a lot of study, a lot of concentration, a lot of precision and it’s ongoing. As long as you’re a singer, you’re tidying up and you’re working on these things. I don’t worry if I’m gonna hit the note, that’s not my thing. But you have to have everything in line and as fluid as possible because it’s true, once you get there, you’ve got that one chance and boom. It’s not like practicing when you say, “OK, out of those four tries, I hit it once. It’s like a very intricate, very involved surfing. You know you want to hit the wave as absolutely best you can. Do you hit it that way every time? Absolutely not, but you do the best you can. … I’ve seen other singers where they just didn’t get there and there’s a whole other level of mental angst with that but that’s not my typical issue.”
Do some singers channel a non-verbal signal to the audience that they might not hit the note, whether they know they will or not? Is it a way of contriving some suspense in the performance?
“I think some of it is milked,” she says, “but some of it is really real. When you come to the climax of “Vissi d’arte” (one of her “Tosca” arias), you’re taking your spring and jumping over the canyon, so you have to have all your faculties composed. It’s not something that just comes out, like la la la. It’s not but I think if you make it seem like that kind of moment, I think the audience feels almost robbed from the experience. I’ve been playing Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and she hits this belty high note and it’s so exciting because she kind of falters for one second and there’s a part where she kind of misses it for a split second, but then regains it and that’s almost more interesting than perfection itself.”
It’s why Racette has almost zero interest in recording any of her signature roles.
“I did a little at the beginning of my career and I hated it. I’d rather have a root canal … To me that has nothing to do with music making or the art form. I want the audience’s energy, I don’t want to be there in that test tube of perfection. For me, it just took all the joy, all the magic out of it and I have no interest in it whatsoever.”
But what about legacy?
“You mean like in 50 years, Patricia who,” she says, with a hearty laugh.
Isn’t there a time and place to get it down just right?
“I guess so, but it’s not accurate. It never was accurate, it never will be accurate. That’s not the way we are. The excitement of live performance, both for the performer and the audience is that aspect, it’s live, it’s right now, you get that one chance at that note and, oh God, yes, that was fantastic, or ooh, ooh, that was a little bit off but, it involves the audience, it keeps them on that ride.”
Racette’s humble New Hampshire beginnings have been oft-noted. She calls her family and upbringing “not remotely” musical and “steeped in ignorance,” especially about opera. She grew up listening to Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer and as a self-taught guitarist started writing her own songs as “sort of a Joni Mitchell-type thing.”
She started taking a few voice lessons because she knew she’d need an audition tape for college. Though not classically steeped to any degree, she knew studying music in college would require exploring some of that. She envisioned either a guitar-and-clogs kind of singer/songwriter career or later, perhaps something jazzy like “a Manhattan Transfer-kind-of thing.”
Racette, now 46, calls her 18-year-old self, “Green — as green as they come.”
She cried for three days when her vocal teacher told her bread and butter would be in opera. Her raw vocal talent was just naturally best suited for it. She detested her salon piece (Handel’s “Oh Had I Jubal’s Lyre”) but sprawled out on her apartment floor listening to a record of Renata Scotto singing “Suor Angelica” ignited a passion within her. She laughs about it now.
“I had envisioned this rather simple, rather short sighted thing,” she says. “I didn’t know how to plan the life I have.”
In the operatic designations, Racette is a full, lyric soprano. She bristles slightly at too much emphasis on these categories as they can be confining. LGBT labels, though, don’t bother her at all.
“Oh, it’s very clear to me that I’m a lesbian,” she says. “I’m out and proud because the alternative is to be secretive and ashamed and I just can’t imagine behaving that way about the best thing in my life.”
Racette embraces her off-stage life and prides herself on wearing overalls, owning a toolbox and getting her hands dirty in construction projects, such as the Santa Fe house she and Clayton recently had finished.
“Oh are you kidding,” she says. “I’m on the roof and I’m checking things out, asking the questions. I’m very involved with that sort of thing. I’m very earthy in that way and very down to earth most of the time when I’m off the clock. No one can even imagine I do what I do. I’m never the leading lady then, I don’t have that hat on. It’s just not the sort of energy I have.”
And are lesbian opera divas anomalies?
“I think there are about 13 of us at last count,” she says. “But not all of them are out.”
And the men?
“Ehhh, it’s a pretty gay world,” she says.
She concludes her remarks with a knowing chuckle.
“A lot of the men singers are straight but yeah, most of my hair and makeup are my gays, which is as it should be I think.”
Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, N.W.
Tonight, Sunday matinee, Tuesday, Thursday and Sept. 23-24 performances remain (Natalia Ushakova sings the lead Sept. 23)
In Italian with English subtitles