[This interview was recorded in December,
1981, and appeared in Nit&Wit
Magazine in November, 1984. At that time, he was singing baritone
roles, and later moved to the tenor repertoire.]
— J. Patrick Raftery
By Bruce Duffie
J. Patrick Raftery — and
read it correctly, the ‘t’
isn’t where you’d expect
— as is young, up-and-coming baritone whose career has
simply taken off. Two seasons ago , when he was just 24, he
sang a major role at Lyric Opera of Chicago — that
of Mercutio in Gounod’s setting of Romeo and Juliette. Last
year, Raftery was back in the role of Marcello in Lyric’s
La Bohème, and this
month he will take on the role of Figaro in Rossini’s
popular comedy, The Barber of Seville.
Lyric has seen some great interpreters of Figaro in its thirty years,
including Tito Gobbi,
Hermann Prey, and Richard Stilwell.
This time, the casting is completely consistent with the ages of the
characters. Figaro and the two young lovers will be sung by very
young — and, we should add, very talented
— people, while the two old rogues
will be portrayed by distinguished veterans of the stage. [See the full cast listings in the box
below. Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on
this website.] But youth really has nothing to do with
it. Raftery would be at home in almost any cast in any place.
J. Patrick Raftery at Lyric Opera of Chicago
1980 - Boris Godounov
[Opening Night] (Tchelkalov) - with Ghiaurov, Ochman
, Tyl, Gordon
(Lighting for all these productions), Tallchief
1981 - Romeo and Juliette
(Mercutio) - with Freni, Kraus
, Bruscantini, Sharon Graham
1983 - La Bohème
(Marcello) - with Cotrubas
Hong, Washington, Tajo
Navarro, Copley, Pizzi
1984 - Barber of Seville
(Figaro) - with Kuhlmann
Siepi, Bruscantini, Andreolli
1986-87 - Lucia di Lammermoor
(Enrico) - with Anderson
Reichenback, Bardon, Hall (Costumes)
1987-88 - Il Trovatore
[Opening Night] (Count di Luna) - with Tomowa-Sintow
Verrett, d'Artegna; Bartoletti, Frisell
(Valentin) - with
Shicoff, Gustafson/Soviero, Ramey, Vozza; Fournet, Diaz, Samaritani,
Raftery went to the Boston Conservatory, and later won the prestigious
Richard Tucker Award. In addition to the roles he has sung here
in Chicago, he has made appearances in many cities across the U.S., as
well as in Hamburg, Paris, and the Glyndebourne Festival. Early
next season, he will make his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent
Garden, in a production of Manon
with Cotrubas. In the following conversation, which was held when he
was here for that fine Romeo,
J. Patrick Raftery talks of his roles and ideas, and lets us in
on the singer just starting out on a big career. Smiling,
laughing, and having a wonderful time — just
like Figaro — we chatted backstage one afternoon
Bruce Duffie: You’re
still very young and new at the opera game. How did you get
J. Patrick Raftery: My
professional debut was in San Diego as Baron Duphol in La Traviata. I also did a
role in Verdi’s I
Lombardi where I sang mostly with the chorus, but had the line, “Let’s
go rape and pillage.” Then I had to kidnap Christina Deutekom.
played my son and when the director introduced us, we all got a big
kick out of it.
BD: Tell me about
winning the Tucker Competition.
not exactly a competition, but a foundation that was formed by the
family of Richard Tucker. Really a grant system, it’s
not something you apply for or compete with others to win. The
board decides among the young American singers of each year, who they
feel is the most worthy of the grant. I was the fourth recipient
of the award. [Note: Earlier winners were Rockwell Blake, who
sang in last season’s Cenerentola at Lyric, Barry McCauley,
who was also here last season in Lakmé,
and Diana Soviero. The most recent winner is Roger Roloff, a
Central Illinois native who sang Wotan in the Boston Ring, and was engaged for that role
BD: So for the
award, are there eyes and ears all over the country?
JPR: You must be
nominated by two members of the board and approved by all the
rest. Various people have seen me — some
on the West Coast, some on the East Coast, and Mrs. Tucker saw me on a
video tape doing the Barber.
BD: Aside from the
Tucker award, how does a 24-year-old get a major role at Lyric Opera of
JPR: First of all,
my voice matured very early, so that’s just a
BD: Did you sing as
I was a boy soprano and started studying opera very early. I was
in a production of Carmen at
seventeen. I was in high school, but the college doing the opera
didn’t have a baritone. It was fun singing
with all the ‘big kids’.
Then, through a friend I got a manager and spent a year doing nothing
but auditions. One of those was for Carol Fox of Lyric.
That was for a small role in Boris
Godounov, but in the meantime I did a Bohème with Luciano
Pavarotti, and on my way back from that engagement, I stopped and sang
for Lyric again, and that’s when I got the
contract for the Romeo.
BD: I assume you
spend a lot of time now just learning repertoire.
JPR: All the time
— all my free time — and that’s
not good because I should also be learning languages and how to sing,
but I just memorize music. After I leave Chicago, though, I’ll
have the luxury of spending two and a half months in New York with my
teacher just working with my voice.
BD: At this point
in your career, how do you choose your roles — or
do they choose you?
a little bit of both. Obviously, the roles I know I can juggle
better, but in the next couple of years I’m going
to do some unusual repertoire.
BD: Do you have any
objection to learning a role for just a few performances?
JPR: No, not at
all. I’m lucky enough that I can choose to
do the things I like, so I don’t choose roles I
don’t want to learn. I have had to in the
past, but it’s frustrating and I don’t
BD: How difficult
is it to say no?
not difficult at all. It was difficult when I first started doing
it, but the more I do it, the easier it gets. Of course, it
depends on what I’m saying ‘no’
to and ‘yes’
to. Some people might cringe at things I agree to do, but on the
other hand, my teacher thinks I’m capable of
doing much more than I’m willing to do. He
is the teacher of Paul Plishka and Samuel Ramey, so he should know
because he understands the voice.
BD: Do you learn
all the roles in the original languages?
depends. I’m singing the Barber in San Diego in English, and
I did it in college in English. Back then, my teachers assured me
that I would never sing it in the original Italian, but my next four
productions were in Italian and they were all uncut! But I’m
not opposed to doing it in English. The composers meant for their
operas to be understood. I don’t think
opera should be set up on a pedestal and revered as God’s
gift to mankind. It’s a fascinating study,
and I approach opera and languages thoughtfully, but standing onstage
it becomes a form of communication.
you find it better communication when you sing a line in English and
know that the people understood the words? [Remember, this interview was held before
supertitles were used in the theater.]
depends. Many people know the opera and have heard it many times
and want it always the way they know it. But there are people
coming to the work for the first time, and they have a right to know
what is going on. At an international house like Lyric, you can
expect the world’s greatest singers doing operas
in the original languages. But in other houses — even
the larger regional ones — there is no reason
that comedies shouldn’t be done in English.
BD: Do you feel
that TV has helped with its running translation on the screen?
JPR: I think that
TV has helped opera a lot. There are a lot of people who disagree
with me on that, but I feel that a live performance on TV or in the
theater is better than one that has been cut and pasted from many ‘takes’.
It’s much more exciting even though not every
note is perfect.
BD: Tell me a bit
about Figaro, the barber of Seville. Is he fun to portray?
JPR: Yes, he’s
great fun, but I think the character is a bit mean. I know that’s
a pretentious thing to say, and I don’t for a
moment think that I own the role. There are lots of other
interpretations, many of which I enjoy watching.
BD: Do you feel
comfortable in the role?
JPR: There are so
many characters that I have to work at to make them come alive, but
Figaro is just me. I find everything funny. You can’t
take me into any kind of quiet public place because everything strikes
me as funny. I’ve got a pretty hearty
laugh, and I think Figaro is like that. No matter what happens to
him, Figaro is having a great time, and that’s me
right now. It’s possible that in five or
ten years I’ll be a different person, but Figaro
is a part of me that I hope I never lose. He’s
great and I think he’s wonderful.
BD: It seems like
Figaro does most of his work toward the beginning of the drama, and
then just watches the proceedings.
JPR: Oh no.
He plants the seed of the idea during the first duet, and gets Count
Almaviva into the old man’s house. But the
Count gets so carried away with putting on costumes that Figaro has to
work doubly hard to maintain the calm needed. There’s
a point where the Count threatens to shoot Don Basilio, and Figaro must
restrain him or he might just do it! Remember, Figaro is still a
servant and the Count is a nobleman, and Figaro isn’t
paid until the end of the opera. So he must take that into
consideration. I’m not sure he’s
really concerned if Don Basilio gets killed, but he wants to be
paid! Figaro is the thread that is sewing together the Count and
Rosina. Whether they get along after they’re
married — and we know that they don’t
— isn’t important to Figaro.
His job is to get them together, get rid of the two old men, and Figaro
succeeds at that and is paid for it.
BD: Have you sung a
role in Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro?
done the Count in that opera, but I’m dying to do
BD: It doesn’t
bother you to sing two different roles in what is really the same drama?
JPR: Well, it’s
a very different time of life for those people. It might not be a
great deal of months and years, but mentally it’s
a long time. Figaro in Rossini’s opera has
no ties keeping him there. He’s probably a
wonderful lover, but in the Mozart opera — which
is the second section of the Beaumarchais drama — Figaro
is not only getting married, but he’s settling
down in the household of the Count. By this time, the Count and
Rosina — the Countess now — have
tired of each other, so they’re no longer the
ardent young lovers. The situation has changed a great deal.
BD: I wish someone
would make a popular opera out of the third drama.
Me too. It’s bizarre, though. The
Countess has a child by Cherubino, and I think opera audiences would
have a hard time with that. Too bad Mozart didn’t
BD: Do you sing any
other Mozart roles?
doing Guglielmo in Così Fan
Tutte. It’s funny, though, because
of the size of my voice, I haven’t had as
many offers to sing Mozart as I’d like.
People want me for Verdi and Puccini. It’s
fine because I love singing that music. Many of the Verdi operas I’ve
sung have been the obscure ones such as I Lombardi, Un Giorno di Regno, Il Corsaro, and I Masnadieri.
BD: Are you looking
forward to the day when you sing Rigoletto?
[Hesitating] The music in Rigoletto
is incredible, but the character is one that I’m
going to have to grow up to. It doesn’t
interest me at this point, but I’m sure it
will. Right now, the Verdi role that I want is Macbeth. I
fell in love with it in college and translated it for fun. I
found the Italian is old Italian, and translated almost word for word
from the Shakespeare, which is old English.
BD: What about
another Shakespeare role — Iago?
another one which is in the future for me.
BD: What if your
manager came to you with an offer to do it now?
turn it down. I already have! I’ve
turned down Iago, Carlo in Ernani,
and Germont in La Traviata.
Singers are criticized enough already, and I’m
criticized a lot because I’m so young.
Everyone has an opinion, and most people are not shy of telling you
what their opinion is. I just won’t put
myself in that position.
glad to hear you say that. It shows a sensibility which is often
JPR: There are some
roles which I prefer over others. I’m not a
take-the-money-and-run kind of singer. I like to work when I’m
in the theater. I like to be busy onstage.
BD: How much
warm-up do you do before going onstage?
JPR: Every day is
different. The physical conditions are different. Some days
I feel ready in just ten minutes, other days it will be forty-five
minutes or an hour.
BD: Do you like the
direction opera is going?
JPR: Some of it is
very good, some is bad. The bad part is that the emphasis is not
on singing anymore. Acting, productions, and visual effects have
become too important, and singing is the secondary consideration.
You have to decide what is the most important thing, and for me right
now it is the singing. In Chicago, the emphasis is really on
singing and the music. That’s why I like
working here, but in other places, it’s the
production first. It’s good to have
opera-as-theater as long as I can maintain my standards as a singer
within that structure.
making your career in the U.S. rather than going to Europe?
JPR: I sing in
Europe, but a few months here and there rather than staying for three
years under a contract. I’m doing a Barber in Hamburg, plus an opera by
J.C. Bach. I’m not a musicologist so I’m
glad to be able to study this work and do something in his style.
BD: How far ahead
are you booked?
JPR: I have
contracts and I’m booked pretty solid for the
next three years.
BD: Is that a good
feeling or a scary feeling?
JPR: You ask great
questions. It’s kind of scary, especially
since I started singing as a hobby when I was seventeen. Then I
woke up and I’m twenty-four singing Romeo in Chicago. I love it
and work very hard for it, so I don’t feel as
badly about what I get — any more at
least. In this production of Romeo,
I must get up and sing an aria to Alfredo Kraus, whom I feel is the
greatest tenor in the world.
BD: Has he given
JPR: Oh yes, he’s
been very positive and supportive. Freni and Kraus are great
artists. I always watch them and they’re
consistently great, but even then they never stop growing. It’s
always better than the time before, and that’s
exciting. That’s what it’s
BD: Tell me about
Marcello in La Bohème.
You’ve also done Schaunard, have you not?
Yes, and I really enjoyed Schaunard. In the last act, when he’s
the one to notice that Mimì has died, it’s
because he’s in love with her. It’s
a boy’s crush. He’s
the youngest of the Bohemians, and has probably been living in the
garret with them the least amount of time. He’s
probably about seventeen and has never seen anyone die before. He
idolizes Marcello and Colline and Rodolfo tremendously. Those
three are probably in their early twenties. But when Schaunard
sees Mimì for the first time in the second act, he loves her
immediately. It’s obvious that she’s
Rodolfo’s lover, so Schaunard can only
watch. In the last act he is concerned, but he is powerless to do
anything. So he sees that Mimì has died because he cannot
take his eyes off of her. The whole audience should feel with
him, and that’s one of the reasons it’s
so sad when Mimì dies. But now I’m
singing Marcello in several major places so I’m
probably saying good-bye to Schaunard.
BD: Do you find
Marcello a better role?
JPR: The music of
Marcello is deceptively barky, and he doesn’t get
the great arias. He really doesn’t get to
use his voice except in the duet with Rodolfo in the last act.
always wondered why Marcello goes for Musetta.
JPR: Musetta is one
of those people — and you see them everywhere
— who is so in love with someone that every time that
person walks into the room, she does something stupid. This is
Musetta’s problem — every
time she sees Marcello she goes wild. They’re
attracted to each other with an animal lust, but there is also a great
amount of affection. I think Musetta is a very sweet girl.
Why else would she care so much for Mimì? But that’s
why Bohème is such a
great opera — all the characters are real people
with many facets.
BD: Are you
satisfied with the way you’re singing?
JPR: One is never
satisfied. It can always be better. In some situations, you
get help from the conductor and director which is fine, but I have to
protect myself from too much input and too many different
opinions. You’re constantly walking a
tightrope. It’s funny... the colleagues who
you’d like the most to give you advice don’t.
They know that it’s different for every
person. It’s the people who don’t
really know what they’re doing who are quick to
offer lots of advice.
BD: Is it easier to
work with famous people as opposed to younger singers?
JPR: Everyone is
individual. When I worked with Pavarotti, he was very
approachable and very helpful. He is very busy and you can’t
just have coffee with him and discuss opera, but in rehearsal he was
BD: Do you still
Sometimes. Not all the time. It’s
work and it’s a business. I do it and I
like it, and I love to travel, but sometimes it’s
BD: I was going to
ask if you enjoyed all the travel.
a bit of the nomad bred into me. I like to travel, but I hate
living in hotel rooms. My father traveled a lot, and I went with
him when I was small. But as long as I have a place where my
books and my piano are, I’m fine. Even if I
don’t see them but two months out of the year,
mentally I know it’s all there. There was a
six-month period when it was all in storage and I hated that.
BD: Thank you so
much for speaking with me today. We’ll look
forward to your return to Chicago.
you. It’s been nice.
-- -- -- --
=== === ===
© 1981 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 18,
1981. This transcription was made and published in Nit&Wit Magazine in November of
1984. It was slightly re-edited, the photos and links were added,
and it was posted on this website in 2017.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.