[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.]

The  Young  Figaro  —  J.  Patrick  Raftery

By Bruce Duffie


J. Patrick Raftery
and read it correctly, the t isnt where youd expectas is young, up-and-coming baritone whose career has simply taken off.  Two seasons ago [1981], when he was just 24, he sang a major role at Lyric Opera of Chicagothat of Mercutio in Gounods setting of Romeo and Juliette.  Last year, Raftery was back in the role of Marcello in Lyrics La Bohème, and this month he will take on the role of Figaro in Rossinis popular comedy, The Barber of Seville.  Lyric has seen some great interpreters of Figaro in its thirty years, including Tito Gobbi, Sesto Bruscantini, 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 youngand, we should add, very talentedpeople, 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, Sotin, Trussel, Baldani, Tyl, Gordon;
                                                                           Bartoletti, Everding, Lee, Schuler (Lighting for all these productions), Tallchief (Ballet)

1981 - Romeo and Juliette (Mercutio) - with Freni, Kraus, Bruscantini, Sharon Graham, Kunde, Cook, Negrini; Fournet, Melano, Gérard

1983 - La Bohème (Marcello) - with Cotrubas, Ciannella, Hong, Washington, Tajo; Navarro, Copley, Pizzi

1984 - Barber of Seville (Figaro) - with Kuhlmann/Mentzer, Araiza, Siepi, Bruscantini, Andreolli; Bartoletti, Sciutti, Hall

1986-87 - Lucia di Lammermoor (Enrico) - with Anderson/Gruberova, Domingo/Shicoff, Howell/Giaotti;
                                                                          Mackerras, Reichenback, Bardon, Hall (Costumes)

1987-88 - Il Trovatore [Opening Night] (Count di Luna) - with Tomowa-Sintow, Ciannella, Verrett, d'Artegna; Bartoletti, Frisell, Benois
                Faust (Valentin) - with Shicoff, Gustafson/Soviero, Ramey, Vozza; Fournet, Diaz, Samaritani, Tallchief

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 Figarowe chatted backstage one afternoon between performances.

Bruce Duffie:   You
re still very young and new at the opera game.  How did you get started?

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, Lets go rape and pillage.  Then I had to kidnap Christina DeutekomCarlo Bergonzi 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.

JPR:   It
s not exactly a competition, but a foundation that was formed by the family of Richard Tucker.  Really a grant system, its 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 seasons 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 in Seattle.]

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 Chicago?

JPR:   First of all, my voice matured very early, so that
s just a physical thing.

BD:   Did you sing as a child?

raftereyJPR:   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 thats 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 timeand thats not good because I should also be learning languages and how to sing, but I just memorize music.  After I leave Chicago, though, Ill 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?

JPR:   It
s a little bit of both.  Obviously, the roles I know I can juggle better, but in the next couple of years Im 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 dont choose roles I dont want to learn.  I have had to in the past, but its frustrating and I dont enjoy it.

BD:   How difficult is it to say no?

JPR:   It
s 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 Im saying no to and yes to.  Some people might cringe at things I agree to do, but on the other hand, my teacher thinks Im capable of doing much more than Im 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?

JPR:   It 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 Im not opposed to doing it in English.  The composers meant for their operas to be understood.  I dont think opera should be set up on a pedestal and revered as Gods gift to mankind.  Its a fascinating study, and I approach opera and languages thoughtfully, but standing onstage it becomes a form of communication.

BD:   Don
t 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.]

JPR:   It 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 houseseven the larger regional onesthere is no reason that comedies shouldnt 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’.  Its 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 thats a pretentious thing to say, and I dont 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.  Ive 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 thats me right now.  Its possible that in five or ten years Ill be a different person, but Figaro is a part of me that I hope I never lose.  Hes great and I think hes 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.  Theres 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 isnt paid until the end of the opera.  So he must take that into consideration.  Im not sure hes 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 theyre marriedand we know that they dontisnt 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?

JPR:   I
ve done the Count in that opera, but Im dying to do Figaro.

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 its a long time.  Figaro in Rossinis opera has no ties keeping him there.  Hes probably a wonderful lover, but in the Mozart operawhich is the second section of the Beaumarchais dramaFigaro is not only getting married, but hes settling down in the household of the Count.  By this time, the Count and Rosinathe Countess nowhave tired of each other, so theyre 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.

rafteryJPR:   Me too.  Its bizarre, though.  The Countess has a child by Cherubino, and I think opera audiences would have a hard time with that.  Too bad Mozart didnt do it.

BD:   Do you sing any other Mozart roles?

JPR:   I
m doing Guglielmo in Così Fan Tutte.  Its funny, though, because of the size of my voice, I havent had as many offers to sing Mozart as Id like.  People want me for Verdi and Puccini.  Its fine because I love singing that music.  Many of the Verdi operas Ive 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?

JPR:   [Hesitating]  The music in Rigoletto is incredible, but the character is one that I
m going to have to grow up to.  It doesnt interest me at this point, but Im 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

JPR:   That
s another one which is in the future for me.

BD:   What if your manager came to you with an offer to do it now?

JPR:   I
d turn it down.  I already have!  Ive turned down Iago, Carlo in Ernani, and Germont in La Traviata.  Singers are criticized enough already, and Im criticized a lot because Im so young.  Everyone has an opinion, and most people are not shy of telling you what their opinion is.  I just wont put myself in that position.

BD:   I
m glad to hear you say that.  It shows a sensibility which is often lacking.

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 Im 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, its the production first.  Its good to have opera-as-theater as long as I can maintain my standards as a singer within that structure.

BD:   You
re 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.  Im not a musicologist so Im 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 Im twenty-four singing Romeo in Chicago.  I love it and work very hard for it, so I dont feel as badly about what I getany 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 you encouragement?

JPR:   Oh yes, he
s been very positive and supportive.  Freni and Kraus are great artists.  I always watch them and theyre consistently great, but even then they never stop growing.  Its always better than the time before, and thats exciting.  Thats what its all about.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me about Marcello in La Bohème.  You
ve also done Schaunard, have you not?

rafteryJPR:   Yes, and I really enjoyed Schaunard.  In the last act, when he
s the one to notice that Mimì has died, its because hes in love with her.  Its a boys crush.  Hes the youngest of the Bohemians, and has probably been living in the garret with them the least amount of time.  Hes 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.  Its obvious that shes Rodolfos 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 thats one of the reasons its so sad when Mimì dies.  But now Im singing Marcello in several major places so Im 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 doesnt get to use his voice except in the duet with Rodolfo in the last act.

BD:   I
ve always wondered why Marcello goes for Musetta.

JPR:   Musetta is one of those people
and you see them everywherewho is so in love with someone that every time that person walks into the room, she does something stupid.  This is Musettas problemevery time she sees Marcello she goes wild.  Theyre 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 thats why Bohème is such a great operaall 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.  Its funny... the colleagues who youd like the most to give you advice dont.  They know that its different for every person.  Its the people who dont really know what theyre 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 very nice.

BD:   Do you still enjoy singing?

JPR:   Sometimes.  Not all the time.  It
s work and its a business.  I do it and I like it, and I love to travel, but sometimes its just work.

BD:   I was going to ask if you enjoyed all the travel.

JPR:   There
s 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, Im fine.  Even if I dont see them but two months out of the year, mentally I know its 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.

JPR:   Thank you.  It
s been nice.

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© 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.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.   His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as 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 like 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.