Connect with us

Arts & Entertainment

Opera siren

Lesbian soprano Patricia Racette on ‘Tosca,’ being out and her life off the stage

Published

on

‘Tosca’ lead Patricia Racette at Washington National Opera’s rehearsal space in a Takoma Park warehouse. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.”

BOX INFO:

‘Tosca’

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

$55

202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org

 

 

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Books

New book explores ‘Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling’

The benefits of coming out at work

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling’
By Layla McCay
c.2024, Bloomsbury
$24/240 pages

You can see the CEO’s office from the outside of your workplace.

You’ve actually been in that office, so you know what it looks like inside, too. Big, expansive desk. Cushy, expensive chair. Ankle-deep carpet. The CEO got there through regular means over the course of his career – something you’d like to do, too. But as you know, and as in the new book, “Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling” by Layla McCay, you’ll have to take a different path.

Of all the thousands of board seats and C-suite occupiers in American businesses, only a very tiny number – less than one percent – are occupied by people who identify as LGBTQ. In London, says McCay, no one on the Financial Times Stock Exchange identifies as such. Just six of the world’s leaders, past or current, have come out as LGBTQ.

The reasons for this are many, from discomfort to a sense of a lack of safety or just plain mistrust. Employees often don’t talk about it and employers can’t or don’t ask, which can lead to a lot of issues that cis, heterosexual employees don’t have to think about.

LGBTQ employees make less money than their straight co-workers. They experience discrimination ranging from sexual violence on one end, to micro aggressions on the other. Discrimination can be found in educational settings, and networking events, in a lack of mentorship, and the feeling that one needs to “code-switch.” Even an overseas job offer can be complicated by identifying as LGBTQ.

And yet, says McCoy, there are benefits to coming out, including a sense of authenticity, and feeling as if a load has been removed from one’s shoulders.

If you are an employer, McCoy says, there are things you can do to help. Include LGBTQ people in your diversity programs at work. Insist on it for recruitment. Make sure your employees feel safe to be themselves. Make all policies inclusive, all the time, from the start. Doing so benefits your business. It helps your employees.

“It’s good for society.”

Pretty common sense stuff, no? Yeah, it is; most of what you’ll read inside “Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling” is, in fact, very commonsensical. Moreover, if you’re gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or queer, you won’t find one new or radical thing in this book.

And yet, inside all the nothing-new, readers will generally find things they’ll appreciate. The statistics, for instance, that author Layla McCay offers would be helpful to cite when asking for a raise. It’s beneficial, for instance, to be reminded why you may want to come out at work or not. The advice on being and finding a mentor is gold. These things are presented through interviews from business leaders around the world, and readers will find comfort and wisdom in that. You’ll just have to wade through a lot of things you already know to get it, that’s all.

Is it worth it? That depends on your situation. You may find nothing in “Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling,” or it may help you raise the roof.

Continue Reading

Out & About

Under Armour hosts LGBTQ obstacle course

‘Unmatched Pride’ event held in Baltimore

Published

on

Unmatched Athlete in partnership with Under Armour Unified will host the inaugural “Unmatched Pride event for LGBTQ+ and allied youths” on Saturday, July 20 at 11 a.m. at the Stadium at 2601 Port Covington Dr. in Baltimore Peninsula.

Teens 13-17 and kids 8-12 will have the ability to compete in obstacle course activity and skills challenges. The obstacle course will consist of a variety of fun stations that will test participants in strength, agility, and cardio. Flag football skill challenges and more will be offered.

For those who are interested, there will be an opportunity for youths to compete with and/or against their parents as well at 1:30 p.m. Registration is available on Eventbrite

Continue Reading

Out & About

Blade’s Peter Rosenstein holds book talk in Rehoboth

‘Born This Gay’ memoir explored

Published

on

Longtime Washington Blade contributor Peter Rosenstein will hold an author talk on Thursday, July 25 at 5:30 p.m. at CAMP Rehoboth (37 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del.) in conversation with fellow author Fay Jacobs. The pair will discuss Rosenstein’s new memoir, “Born This Gay: My Life of Activism, Politics, Travel, and Coming Out.” Register at camprehoboth.org.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular