Conversation Piece:


 By Bruce Duffie

The American soprano Patricia Racette is making a name for herself in this country and in Europe.  Singing on both coasts (the Metropolitan in New York and in San Francisco) as well as in between (Houston and Chicago), she brings her versatility to a number of roles including Violetta and Mimi, plus lesser-known ones such as Ellen Orford and Jenufa, and even brand new operas including works by Carlisle Floyd, and Tobias Picker, whose title character in the opera Emmeline has been seen on PBS and is available on CD in the Albany recording.

racetteRacette has also appeared in leading roles at Covent Garden, Paris, Vienna, Geneva, and in Japan with Seiji Ozawa.  During November and December of 2000, she brought the Janacek heroine to Chicago, and during that time, I had the pleasure of spending an hour with her between performances.  Her enthusiasm was apparent during our entire chat, and she was thoughtful about her ideas and careful to give specific advice.

About her own career, she told me that she records her own voice lessons in order to capture the sound and instruction for future reference.  We pick up the conversation at that point...

Bruce Duffie: Do you continue to learn from a tape that you made a week, a month, a year or a decade ago?

Patricia Racette:  Yes, I do. It's always very interesting to mark one's progress or one's new challenges by taking out an old tape and saying, "Wait a second. That little spot used to be a lot easier for me."  I usually mark on the outside of the tape what I may or may not have achieved or what challenge I address in that voice lesson. So it's actually very interesting.

BD: Is there ever going to be a time when you're marking "decline?" (Both laugh)

PR: No. (both laugh) Whatever could you be talking about? (Laughs)

BD: I assume you make progress each time you study the role and each time you come to a role again. Do you make progress from performance to performance of the same role?

racettePR: Yes. Progress, though, is a funny word. Performing art is a living, spiritual thing, and when one is performing a role as rich as Jenufa, or as rich and demanding as Violetta in Traviata, it's inevitable that things are going to change. Do they always change for the better? No. They'll fluctuate just like anything else. It's a good day/bad day type of thing. Sometimes you'll go in there and not be even remotely in the mood to perform, and it will be one of the best nights you could possibly have. And sometimes you'll go in there and gear it up for your opening night or whatever and this is going to be on fire, this is going to be electrifying, and it may not necessarily be that way. The beauty and the curse of it is that you don't really have control over that magical aspect of music.

BD: Do you have any control at all or is it partly under the control of the other singers and the conductor in the pit and the stage director?

PR: It's up to the individual singer. It's really been a revelation to me because I've noticed the individual singer has very little control, and the responsibility is very, very great. There's a bit of unfairness in all that.  I have control over warming up properly. I don't have control over how I may feel that day other than taking care of myself and being sure I'm as healthy as I can possibly be. But warming up, concentrating, eating properly – that is about as much as control as I can imagine. You go out there and you perform. You can't control the audience. You can't control the traffic jam that may have happened on their way. You can't control the kind of day that they had. If people are not in the mood, it's very interesting how this feeling can come across en masse. Sometimes I'll get out there and I'll be singing and I'll get off stage for the intermission and I'll say to a colleague, "Boy, does that audience seem far away or what?"

BD: Everybody feels it?

PR: Yes, in some way. And it's really remarkable because it couldn't be less tangible.

BD: Do you then fight against it or do you just have to go with it?

PR: I think if I were giving advice to a group of young singers, I'd say, do not fight against it. Go with it. But the temptation is very strong to fight against it. The temptation is very strong to say, "Hey, listen, be prepared to move, be prepared to cry, let me move you." You can sometimes go out of your artistic sphere and do that and I think that can be a mistake because you can't control so many factors.

BD: Have there been times when you've won over an audience?

Racette with Richard Leech in La Bohème

PR: Yes, but don't ask me how.  These things sort of creep up on you. There are times when I thought I was vocally feeling under the weather and struggled a bit through a performance and received reports afterwards saying I've never been like this.  I have to keep my mouth shut and say, "Oh, thank you, thank you." HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN???  I'm very aware, of course, of my own performance. At the same time being lost in it, I'm also aware of it.  It's a very, very interesting balance, and a very strange balance. It's an ongoing process learning how to deal with that balance, and every individual is different. I approach everything with a great deal of thought and some people are purely instinctive in how they approach things, yet they often are very effective artists. I think each artist has a different combination of the instinctive qualities and the very intentional mental aspect to it. I try to balance both.

BD: When you walk on stage, are you still portraying a character or do you actually become that character?

PR: The goal is to become that character, to live that situation and live that life as though it were truly happening in a spontaneous way. The tricky thing or the "unrealistic" thing is that we don't go through our lives singing! Often, the sung word and the sung sentence is expanded over a lot longer period of time. But that is what is interesting - to make it second nature so that you are living and becoming something else.  You've become an artist.  It's a very complex balance that keeps coming back to me in every lesson, every new production, every performance.

racetteBD: And it's a different balance each night?

PR: So different and so complex, yet simple in its broad strokes.

BD: Can I assume that there are lots of different ‘right balances' so there would be no night that would be THE RIGHT ONE?

PR: Absolutely.  Absolutely. Pitch and rhythm are pretty clear so those can be right or wrong. But in terms of interpretive factors and the way in which an artist will color a word, the way in which an artist will move, the expression that will be chosen for that moment, there is no right or wrong. It's so subjective. What you may find effective, the person next to you might be snoring. You really can't control that and you can't allow yourself to be concerned with that. You have to be IN it enough. You have to be separated yet so immersed in it to be just doing it. Allow others to look upon it. Share it with them and then you have to walk away and detach from it.

BD: Well, you obviously have some responsibility toward the performance, but then is most of the responsibility on the shoulders of the composer and the librettist?

PR: I would say so. It's the structure you're working in. It's not an improvisation. In straight theater you have timing that you have control over in because you don't necessarily have a music cue to deal with. In opera, the timing is decided upon primarily by the composer, but then by the conductor and how he will choose to pace the piece, so we have to fit the interpretation into that timing. There are other musical indications that will decide. I'll read through a libretto and then I'll be surprised sometimes that he marked this piano. I would have thought this would have been another kind of expression.  It opens up a new window into what that composer wanted. So there's very much a blueprint by which we all must work and it is our responsibilities as artists to remain very flexible.

BD: Are there any of these characters that you portray that are perhaps a little too close to the real Patricia?

PR: Yes. Not in their circumstance. Nothing that obvious, but somehow in their expression, in the pain that the characters have experienced ends up, for some reason, being very cathartic and, as you say, very close to the real Patricia. This one, Jenufa, would be very much among that, actually. Also Emmeline I did with Santa Fe Opera.

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racetteBD: Let's talk a little bit about the character that you're portraying here in Chicago–Jenufa. Tell me a bit about her. What should we know before coming to the performance, or is that all presented to us on the stage through your interpretation?

PR: She's a joy to know.  I do think it is all presented, frankly. This is a brilliant production. The reception was certainly very enthusiastic. It tells the story honestly and potently and I don't think it leaves too many things open. You're not left with a question about what it meant, but it's not set out so predictably that you can bet what's going to happen. There are elements of surprise that remain in the piece. But it is very, very accessible.

BD: Did Janacek write well for the voice?

PR: Yes, very well. I'm very happy singing this. Sometimes you'll do a role that is dramatically interesting, as Jenufa is, but vocally you'll think it's a little boring or it's a little punishing. This is just exquisite to sing so it's a treat.

BD: How about the Czech language with all its consonants?

PR: Yes, with all its consonants, and sometimes without a vowel in sight.  I love singing in Czech. This is my first experience and I find it really an interesting challenge.  Despite all the consonants, it has a softening sort of approach into the vocalism. In fact, I'm going to be taking on another Czech piece in a few years–Katia Kabanova which I am very excited about.

BD: I was just going to ask you if Amelia Marti or Katia were in your future?

PR: I think Amelia might wait a little bit, but Katia, most definitely.

BD: Do you change your technique at all for the size of the house – a great big house like we have here or a very small intimate house?

PR: No. Never.

BD: Not a bit?

racettePR: No. My technique remains absolutely as is. My feeling about singing in a certain size house is that that is a discussion and a consideration which needs to happen at the time of hiring. I will bring what I can bring, and if it isn't sufficient in terms of the challenge, of pure volume and all that, it's not something that is wise to rectify with your technique. You sing the way you sing and you sing well and you produce the amount of sound you produce. I come to the table with my voice and my technique and offer my strengths and work on my challenges for whatever role I'm doing.

BD: Does it ever surprise you what kinds of roles or what specific roles you are offered?

PR: Yes, it does. But I have to say, when I was offered this Jenufa, I was not sure about the role at all. I trusted the people that hired me.  I said OK, but within myself, I didn't know.  But I've been calling myself an idiot for several months now, because this role is actually PERFECT for me.

BD: Well, it might not have been perfect for you 2 or 3 years ago when it was offered.

PR: Perhaps not. Perhaps not. But that's a scary game too. You can't really forecast that. But this role is completely comfortable for me in every aspect.

BD: Does this mean that the people who saw potential in your voice then might know what your voice can do 2 or 3 years hence?

PR: Oh, I've got meetings set up. Absolutely. I need to pick their brains on some repertoire. Because it is difficult, as much as one may try, I do try and assess. As I said, I tape my voice lessons. I try and assess for myself what I'm hearing. But it's always good to get an idea of what is being seen outside of oneself and what is being heard in their opinion.

BD: You need that other set of ears out there.

PR: Yeah.

BD: How easy is it to say "no?"

PR: Oh, it hurts sometimes and sometimes it's difficult.  I will always do it diplomatically, but sometimes you worry if you're burning a bridge.  But it's more important to stick by your guns and do what you think is right, even if it turns out to be a mistake. Risk is well worth taking if it's well thought out.

BD: So your career is getting more and more complicated?

racettePR: Yes, in some ways.  I'm at a very exciting point right now where I'm trying a lot of different repertoire. The first consideration for me is always vocal and I am blessed with a voice and technique that is able to do a lot of varied repertoire.  I'm going to take advantage of that as I experiment to see which direction best suits me.  I'm choosing roles primarily on how they interest me artistically and vocally.

BD: Do you get enough time to study the new roles and prepare?

PR: Oh, I make sure I take time for that.  In fact, I kept January absolutely free to be in New York and study and coach and just really have that important secluded artistic time to get the work I need to get done.  It's no fun cramming and when I have an opportunity to work at such a wonderfully high level, I really want to be able to come and not just rise to the occasion, but bring something of my own into that realm. That takes a great deal of effort.

BD: I assume it is better working with higher level colleagues.

PR: Oh sure. I love it when you can learn from the people around you. I love that. And I love it when you can be wowed by the people around you. It's very exciting.

BD: Do you like being booked 2, 3. 4 years in advance?

PR: Well, certainly. There is no job security in my profession so that's all we have.  It's a little weird to know where I'm going to be in April of 2003 or whatever. That's a little odd.

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BD: How do you divide your career between opera and concert?

PR: I do mostly opera. However, I very much want to do more concerts and recitals, so that's something I'm slowly but surely trying to work into.

BD: Do you let your agent know that's what you're looking for?

PR: We're very much working towards that, yes. It's important for an artistic balance because in concert, you're going out as you and performing as yourself.  In opera, you can really hide behind some of the characters and I think it's always important to keep your own artistry and your own self in the picture.

BD: Do you like doing song literature?

PR: I do. I have not done that much so it's something that the time off aspect that we were talking about. It's something I'd like to spend time and explore.

BD: Now, you've done Emmeline by Tobias Picker. Have you done any other new pieces?

PR: Last spring I did The Cold Sassy Tree by Carlisle Floyd in Houston. That was really a wonderful experience.

Racette with Dean Peterson in The Cold Sassy Tree

BD: He writes wonderfully for the voice.

PR: Yes, and it's a very ambitious vocal score too. He has a wonderful knack for drama and comedy and tragedy. It's a wonderful piece. It was a huge success. The audience just loved it. So I think and hope it will be an important part of the American repertoire.

BD: What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the voice these days as we head into the new millennium?

PR: A lot of composers are more sensitive to the natural limitations of the voice. I remember reading something in the New York Times maybe 5 years ago about a composer's workshop and there were several composers that were mentioning and sharing the fact that they really didn't know the voice at all, yet they were writing for the voice. That's very frightening. You can buy a new trumpet and with great expense, you can buy a new violin. But you can't buy a new voice. If a singer misjudges and ends up having harmed oneself, that's a high price to pay.

BD: Would you want to be able to go down to the voice store and put in a new part or two?

PR: No. No. The imperfections of the voice and why it's different with respect to every instrumentalist out there is what we have to offer artistically. So my advice to the composers would be talk to a lot of singers.

BD: Talk or listen?

PR: Talk and listen, but talk. I love it when a composer will speak with me. I'll tell them if the approach is like this, it is heaven for me. But if the approach is like this and on that vowel, it's just very, very difficult. That sort of specific input, whether or not they heed it, that's entirely their option, but to have that information is always good. Some of the approaches Janacek used to the high notes are just tailor-made for me. I couldn't ask for it to be easier. But that's for me. What about the next person? Maybe it wouldn't be the same thing. So it's important to get a lot of information.

BD: What about the composer that says, "This singer says do such and such and this other singer says do exactly the opposite?"

PR: My question would be what kind of color do you want to hear there? What kind of person is this? What age person is this? What kind of voice type can you envision? I'm sure this would make some composers very angry, but they could compare the role they're creating to some repertoire that already exists. That kind of voice might be fitting. While there are some really interesting, unique singers out there, a lyric soprano will embody this kind of a range and maybe the tessitura most comfortable here. It's tessitura that I think is not being paid attention to the most in a lot of new pieces.

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BD: Let me ask the easy question: What's the purpose of music?

racettePR: Oh my goodness!  To remind us that we are all human and essentially the same. I'm not going to sit here and list the world's tensions and tragedies, but that is one thing which seems to unite and seems to ride over more than anything else I can think of. When the earthquake happened in 1989 in San Francisco, I was an Adler Fellow in the Opera Center. I was doing the high priestess in "Aida" but the building was damaged, so we had to go to the Masonic Auditorium. There was an energy in that place. It was a terrible event, but it was not something that devastated the entire city. It devastated a lot of things, but the response, the need to be moved, to experience something beautiful and something pure just by its very essence, was so overwhelming. We were all in tears, really. It was very, very noticeable.  If there's anything that will make you just feel small and human and dispensable is an earthquake.

BD: Reminds you that life is transitory.

PR: Exactly. But music endures.

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Bruce Duffie worked at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago for over 25 years, until the station was sold and changed format in February of 2001. 

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©2000 Bruce Duffie

First published in The Opera Journal, March, 2001.

Photos added for this website posting, including (besides those with labels) Jenufa at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Violetta, and with Thomas Barrett in Don Giovanni.

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