Patricia Racette talks about Gounod's Faust, her cabaret repertoire, and future plans

'When I sing, I'm completely enmeshed in that expression. I can't be anything but totally involved. I'm very committed to every moment.'

8 June 2010


Tatyana or Jenufa, Tosca or Suor Angelica: whether she is portraying a fiery singer or a strong woman trapped in a conventional society, Patricia Racette always discloses the most intense nuances of each character. Her lirico soprano voice makes all her performances special: she is aware of the puissance of her instrument and she masters it with agility. She is now back on the West Coast. After her triple bill in Puccini's Trittico in September at the San Francisco Opera – which she also performed at the Met in a different production – she is now giving life to the role Marguerite, the heroine of Gounod's Faust.

A native of Manchester, New Hampshire, in her early years she felt attracted to jazz, until her teachers told her that her rich and vibrant tone would be perfect for the operatic stage. She did not give up her passion for cabaret, however, and performs frequently all over the US. At the same time, her operatic career has blossomed. She has already sung in all the major houses, from the Met to Covent Garden, from the Vienna Staatsoper to La Scala. She has also created numerous new roles: one of her latest successes was Roberta Alden in Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, based on Theodor Dreiser's homonymous novel, which premiered at the Met in 2005. Audiences in Europe will be able to see her, among other places, at the Royal Opera for one of her signature roles, Cio-Cio San, in Leiser and Caurier's production of Madama Butterfly.

I caught up with Racette a few days before Faust's first night. We met on a sunny and beautiful Californian day, and I could not start but asking her about her special relationship with the San Francisco Opera, a house that she has known since she was a student. What does this house represent for her after twenty years? "Twenty-two, really! I started in the Merola Program in 1988. It's like one would feel like going home, your family home... this is my artistic home, and it's very important to me, and maintaining my relationship here it's of the utmost importance." Many things have changed, since the arrival of general manager David Gockley in 2006: "He made lots of improvements. It's good to change. I love [SFO previous music director] Donald Runnicles, I think he's a wonderful person and a wonderful conductor. So it's nothing against him: it's just good to change the blood."

And what about the new music director, Nicola Luisotti? I mention that many people refer to him as a truly inspiring person: "Inspiring is a great word! I love him. He's a bundle of energy. I had the great pleasure of working with him in 2003. I think it was the last time I sang La traviata in Paris, at the Opera Bastille. He makes incredible music, he's such a wonderful person, and a brilliant maestro. We are talking of some future projects and I look forward to them, I'm very excited."

RacetteMoving to her performing activities, I highlight the fact that she likes to play strong women ("Yes!," she intervenes enthusiastically). How does she feel about interpreting operas in which women are sometimes the most naïve characters? "It's the plight of the lirico spinto soprano: you're going to be portraying these roles that are always going to be the ingenue, the innocence, the representative of purity in the story. All the composers throughout time decided that the soprano voice should always symbolise innocence... and I'm used to that. Look at Butterfly at the beginning – but then there's also Tosca. And she is so meaty and interesting because she's so impetuous and fiery right away. You bypass the innocence. I think that roles like these are challenging but important to play. And the character is in the music: it always helps when you have a brilliant piece and innocence and purity are in the piece. It's wonderful to play the arc of the character: for example, we see Marguerite change from this young girl to, essentially, a ruined woman. I find her journey very interesting."

Gounod's Marguerite undergoes many changes during the story: which sides of her character will Racette emphasise the most? "I think you need to emphasise all the aspects. But I personally enjoy playing more the intense ones, when her heart is heavy, when she's panicked, and when she completely looses her mental faculties. That makes for good theatre. It allows a lot of depth to the character, whereas purity and innocence are different to play. It's not that naive characters don't have depth. But they're not worldly, so, when I'm playing the most innocent aspects it's the underlying uncertainty of the character that I'm playing – which is equally exciting. You can't just settle for stereotypical images."

And what about the other roles that she has played? The more ingenuous compared to the vigorous ones, such as Cio-Cio San versus Tosca? "I think Cio-Cio San has a considerable amount of strength. Think about what she's done! She's left her family to marry this man, and you can tell any reason why she's done that: she's in love with him... we don't really know. But she's gone against the powerful bonds, hasn't she? So there's a strength there in her choice. She's not forced in that choice: we're not given any indication of that. And, then, look at the amount of hope and faith that she has, that's sustained through Act II. I always think: put yourself exactly in that situation. I don't know if I would have the strength to wait those years and to hold on to hope so unshakingly. So there is a strength: it's not the same kind of strength as Tosca's, who manages to kill Scarpia. In my opinion that strength of Tosca comes from her vulnerability, from a weakness within her: she's panicked, she cannot let this happen, it's part of her impetuous nature. That's how life is: it's the juxtaposition of action versus emotion that drives that action."

RacetteI am curious to hear about another Marguerite that she has played, the heroine in Boito's Mefistofele. "I like that! It is interesting: the Boito is more in keeping with the Goethe. For example, for whatever reason – who knows why he made his choices – in the mother scene I talk of how my mother died. In the Goethe, she kills her mother, doesn't she? In Boito, he maintains that: in the famous, fantastic aria 'L'altra notte' she says that they accused her of killing her mother. Boito's and Gounod's Marguerite are very different, despite the fact that it's the same character from the same literary source. The musical style also dictates that."

More specifically, how was working with the cast of the SF Opera Faust? "It's been a bit interesting: we had John [Relyea] and Stefano [Secco] coming late because of illness, each for a different reason, so it's been putting it together. It's great working with John: he's such a wonderful artist. And I'm always amazing at how big Faust is: there's so many people, it's a huge opera, and, from my perspective, you don't think of it that way – but it is just huge! So, it has been a bit frantic. I've done this production in Chicago, seven years ago. It's traditional, it tells the story. And I really like this conductor, Maurizio Benini. Gounod's Faust can be accused of being overly simplistic in places, musically, in my opinion. But he really extracts so much from that score, so it's been a great pleasure working with him."

How does she feel about performing works from the French canon? "You know, my heritage is French, completely, and I used to sing more French than I do now. I am enjoying singing this Faust, and I actually started getting re-ignited – I started my latest recital with a group of Poulenc songs. It's all about how language feels in your mouth when you're singing, and French never felt to me as good as Italian!"

Talking of her vocal style, I was curious about something I read in an interview with The New York Times: "My instrument functions best when the emotion is the highest," she affirmed. "Yes! Without question. It's like when you're angry and you're screaming at someone: you don't actually think, while you're angry 'Ok, right now I'm going to raise my volume, and scream. No: you scream, and you're making that statement from an emotional place. I'm not saying that my singing is screaming!," she clarifies with a smile, "but we define ourselves emotionally by involving our senses and our sound, and for me singing is as attached to emotion as anything else. It's completely embedded in emotion."

Racette also feels a strong sense of responsibility in her profession, something that is always present when she performs: "I feel a responsibility to my own standards of what I feel my participation in this art-form should be. Sometimes you have a phrase, and one could just phone it in – but I'm incapable of doing that. It's not thinking overly inflated thoughts of myself. I'm incapable because, as I said, when I sing, I'm completely enmeshed in that expression – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It travels to my whole being. I can't be anything but totally involved. I'm very committed to every moment, because it has to all make sense to me in the storytelling. So I feel a responsibility whatever the opera is, whatever the role is. Wherever I am, I aim to give my best."

Her early experiences are really fascinating: how did her activity as a jazz singer affect her present career? "I do a lot of cabaret now, in many places. In fact, a few years ago, I did it here in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel I'm doing it at the Neue Gallery in New York this September, and I've done one there before; then, I've done it in Santa Fe, in DC... I travel around and do it. In fact, in my recital programmes, usually the first part is 'legit', and the second is all my cabaret stuff." And what are her favourite pieces that she includes in her cabaret repertoire? "'A stranger to myself,' 'Angel Eyes,' 'Guess Who I Saw Today,' 'Not Exactly Paris,' 'So In Love,'... I do also a couple of Edit Piaf songs which I love – 'La vie en rose' and 'Mon dieu.' It's a great experience!"

Is there a person who influenced her more than any other when she was studying to become a singer? "Yes, and his name is Richard Maynord, who was my choral teacher in high school. He really loved jazz, and so I thought I'll go sing jazz. I didn't have an opera mentor of any kind at that point; really, my mentors for opera are the people who trained me here at the San Francisco Opera." And where does she see herself in twenty years – on a cabaret stage or in an opera house? "A little of both! Maybe more cabaret than opera at that point. What's interesting about this profession is that, as much as we plan, our plans are really not in our own doing. It's what is offered. And I just see how life unfolds. You know, I happened into opera, it wasn't something I was necessarily pursuing, so I have to trust that somehow life will keep serving me these interesting opportunities and I'll be smart enough to see them and take them."

RacetteShe has performed in the Met's Butterfly and Peter Grimes that were broadcast in live HD. How does she feel about the new ways of disseminating this art-form? "I like the idea, and when I hear responses in general about the HD idea or even what David [Gockley] is doing here with cinema broadcasts, I think it's very interesting and important – also because people don't realize, sometimes, the subtlety that is and can be involved in an operatic performance. I think it shows that on a big screen." Opera becomes a cinematic experience then, "...and there's also a level of comfort in sitting there: people are very excited to being there and eating popcorn! And you can see that there are tears in the eyes of the performer – you can't see that on stage."

Does these new ways of experiencing opera affect the way she acts on stage? "All I can say is that I always offer every level of subtlety I possibly can because I think the energy of that is important: that gesture reads from miles. I would have to say also that I am aware of the presence of cameras – especially at the Met. For example, in Peter Grimes they had a camera down at the footlights, and so you would be singing and hear the 'zzzz'! You're aware that everything you do is going to be recorded. Perhaps in a live staging you would turn up on stage and go 'cough'! – you won't do that with the camera on you. But, other than that, I offer every nuance. And.... I'm a performer! I'd milk it even more, and, if I know the camera is on there, I'll definitely lean!," she laughs.

Racette combines her activity as a performer with teaching. Does she enjoy giving masterclasses to young singers? "Oh, it's wonderful! It reminds you of all the things you need to do. It's interesting because when I give masterclasses I never know what I'm gonna say before I hear the performance. Inevitably, I always work with the performer's presentation of what they're doing more than on a vocal or technical level. This is because, technically, singing is a fine art, it takes time, you develop a relationship with your teacher. In a masterclass, it is hard to affect that a lot. I always find that what is lacking in a lot of young singers is their commitment to it. And I absolute love working on that: it's so satisfying to be able to affect a change on a singer. I always say that it is about asking the questions. Why did the composer put a rest there, why does Mimì say 'Sì, mi chiamano Mimì ma il mio nome è Lucia'? Ask the question! Because when we say something, there is a reason. If I were on a date, or I really had a crush on this person, and I'd say my name 'My name is Patricia... but most people call me Pat" – where does that come from? We don't just say," she repeats in a mechanical tone, "'My name is Patricia. Most people call me Pat.' You'd be singing robotically! You have to make it real! What moves us is when we see our story before us, when we see the characters and when we can relate to them – when they're fleshed out." Commenting on the importance of knowing what is being said, Racette adds that language is a fundamental component: "If you don't speak the language fluently, there's still a way to have an intimate knowledge of what you are saying and what is being said to you. Part of that is your own homework: it's not enough just to translate the text. I say this in my masterclasses: you don't have to know just what the words mean, but what they mean to you, and what they mean in the context of the situation. The more you layer it, the more of an interesting performance you'll offer."

RacetteThis leads me to my next question about her performative approach: "I have to live a character in every moment, so if something's happening on the knocks me out of my zone, you have to address it and change it." And what happens then when she's portraying three roles in a few hours – like in Il trittico, in which she embodied all three female protagonists? "It's a different kind of challenge. It's not physically very tiring – it's mentally really exhausting to switch gears and do that, because when you portray a character in a story there's a beginning, middle and end – there's a journey. Usually during the night you're doing one character: one journey. With something like Il trittico you're doing three of this."

And after singing in Trittico in San Francisco, she did it at the Met, in a different production: "That was totally different! When you change so many things – your colleagues, the physical space – you change the ingredients. And it makes for an entirely different evening. I also try to work closely with the stage director, because I'm deeply involved in those choices. The Trittico here was less traditional, and I happen to like less traditional productions. It always gets interesting, especially when it works. And I thought this one worked really well. The one at the Met was great too – I love [Trittico's director] Jack O'Brian, we became fast friends."

Among her forthcoming projects, there is her participation in the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco, a series of free events featuring many different performing arts. Racette and Relyea will be on stage for the 4th of July celebrations: "This will be fun! We're trying to do Americana, obviously – we'll be singing about flags at all times! Right now I'm scheduled to sing the Papers aria from Menotti's The Consul – which is faaabulous!," she comments enthusiastically. "It's like a scena, it's fantastic. And then, let's see... oh, I'm doing a couple of cabaret numbers! 'Losing My Mind,' by Stephen Sondheim, and 'Embraceable You'. And I'm singing 'Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better' with John."

Are there any roles with which she would like to engage in the future? "I'd like to do The Makropoulos Case, and I would also like to do eventually La fanciulla del West. These two are very much on my wish-list! I'd also love to do Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – all interesting dramatic voices."

It seems like Puccini remains her favourite: "Oh, my voice is so happy singing Puccini – and Janacek! And I'd also love my cabaret to take off – I don't know how much you can make a living doing that. But when my performing years wane down as they inevitably do, what else do I wanna do in life? I don't know yet!" Audiences in Europe are also lucky: "I'm going to do Butterfly at the Royal Opera House next year about this time. We have some projects of potentially coming to Italy and some more in London. The problem is my availability: we book further ahead years, I get interesting projects, I say 'Oh yes!' but then...."

RacetteSharing the experience and the space with actors, musicians, is unique, and Racette's artistry benefits from live performance. When I ask her about her recording projects, her comments are critical and interesting: "You know, I don't like to... I'm happy with being recorded live, but I'm not comfortable with recording because for me it's extracting it from what it is. I don't wanna stand in the studio with a microphone in front of me trying to recreate something. I really need the energy of live performance. I need your energy, I need the audience's energy. It's that exchange that fires me up and inspires me. So the recording for me it's a little sterile, it doesn't speak to me. I think it's important to concentrate on the things that you want to do, and that you do well. I think: if I'm captured live, great! But recordings are about recreating perfection – and this is not actually what happens in live performance. I'll never pretend to be a perfect performer, I don't want to be, it's not what I'm striving for. I'm striving to make an impact and have something to say, hopefully. And I've recorded things a couple of times and I did not enjoy it. But do you want to hear something? I would be in a heartbeat in a studio to record my cabaret stuff. Because that's the nature of it! It is about sitting there with a microphone and recreating those moments. Opera is a multifaceted art-form, there are so many disciplines involved: there's direction, there's stage, there's costumes, there's lights, there's the orchestra... it's huge. And something about recording just shrinks it all. Whereas cabaret – the intimacy of that world – I can imagine it completely. And I'm working on them!"

Racette has mentioned several pieces from the musical theatre tradition, so I am curious if in terms of the American tradition, or musical theatre, is there something she would like to perform or to record: "I would really like to record my cabaret programme but I don't have a strong attachment to musical theatre. I loved when I saw Light in the Piazza – it such good singing singing, wonderful theatre. When I do musicals, I sing it less like a musical theatre artist and more like a cabaret singer or like a jazzer. And my cabaret is a combination of jazz and musical theatre. I like more when there's a swing to it. It's more like my jazz favourites: Ernestine Anderson, Sarah Vaughan... those kinds of singers. But I also love Cleo Laine: look at the way she sings Sondheim! It's that that I like, the Judy Garland style. That's what really what I like to do... but now you put a seed in my head, I'm gonna have to look into that! There's so many wonderful musicals out there!"

I am very impressed by Racette's liveliness and warmth. Her commitment to her profession and her passion make her shine. "Oh, thank you! You know, I want to offer something. You're going to see Faust, and you'll see Marguerite as one of its characters. But I want to offer what's uniquely mine to offer. We all want to have an impact, no matter how small or how large. If you're a performer, you want to have a large impact – but as a human trait, we all want to have an impact." She seems so energetic and happy: "Oh yeah! I'm very happy – at the moment I'm just a little work-weary, but I have some time off after this which I very much need. But I'm having the time of my life: I do love life, and I live large."

By Marina Romani

Photo Credits (from top to bottom): Devon Cass; Chester Higgins Jr/The New York Times; Cory Weaver (SF Opera, Il trittico); Cory Weaver (SF Opera, Il trittico); Cory Weaver (SF Opera, Butterfly); Ken Howard/The Met (New York Met, Il trittico).



PodlesRelated articles:

Opera Review Faust at the San Francisco Opera
Opera Review Racette sings Katya Kabanova at the ENO
Interview Eva Podles
Concert Review Racette performs Korngold with the LPO/Jurowski in London


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