Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a young college student, far from home. You are determined to become a jazz singer, but after hearing your voice, your teachers are steering you toward classical music.
Small problem: You know absolutely nothing about opera. You’ve barely even listened to opera.
Frustrated and a little frightened, you return to your dorm room, lie down, and put on a recording: soprano Renata Scotto singing Puccini’s one-act opera Suor Angelica. The intense, passionate music fills the small room, and suddenly, something inside you clicks.
That’s precisely what happened to a young Patricia Racette. “Madama Scotto pushed me right over the edge!” she said.
Fortunately, she experienced a soft landing. At age 45, Racette is one of America’s leading sopranos, regularly singing lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and numerous other major companies.
Critics tend to be enraptured by her performances. Last month, when she sang the role of Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Met, the New York Times praised her as “an honest, intelligent, and expressive singer” and “a compellingly natural actress.” The Washington Post recently raved about her cabaret performance, suggesting that if she chooses to do so, her original goal of being a great jazz singer is well within her reach.
On Sunday, November 21, Opera Santa Barbara will present Racette in concert at the Granada, along with young mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack. Mack, like Racette, is a graduate of the San Francisco Opera’s renowned Merola Opera Program for young professional singers. Accompanied by an orchestra conducted by Valéry Ryvkin, the singers will perform a program of arias and duets, including music from Tosca (which Racette performed at the Hollywood Bowl) and from one of her signature roles, Madama Butterfly.
Saving her voice for her performances, Racette, who is happily married to opera singer Beth Clayton, responded to some questions via email.
You grew up in a blue-collar household in Bedford, New Hampshire. Were there any musicians in your family? How, and at what age, did you discover music? My maternal grandfather played the ukulele, as he spent a lot of time in Hawai‘i, but I have no formal musicians in the family. I discovered my musical passion as a young girl of about eight when I grabbed a guitar, and I never turned back. In my teenage years, my mom actually accompanied me to jazz bars so that I could foster my young interest in jazz, and I was underage at the time!
I never listened to opera before I got to college; I was not even sure what it was. I was a huge fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Ernestine Anderson. I just wanted to sing—to tell the story.
Speaking of storytelling, you are often praised for the subtlety of your acting, but you never formally studied that craft. So how do you find and convey the essence of a character?Was this something you learned by trial and error, or is it largely instinctual? Honestly, it is instinctive for me, and yes, you are correct that I have never had “Acting 101” as it were! It is something that I have gleaned from experience—because I insist on finding and conveying the truth of every character I play. That does not mean it will be everyone’s truth, but it will be mine in that moment of reality.
Even in concert programs such as the one you’re giving here, is your main intention to get across the emotional content of the music? Is that more important to you than making pretty sounds? Do those two goals sometimes come in conflict? The task of serving the vocalism/music and the interpretative intent of the piece go hand-in-hand. That is basically like asking a painter if the stick minds the bristles on his brush! I can honor finger-painting, but ultimately the brush stroke rules!
Have you ever performed—or vacationed—in Santa Barbara? Are you familiar with the Music Academy of the West? I am familiar with Marilyn Horne’s academy. Wonderful—as is she! I studied for many years with the talented Elizabeth Manion, who lived in Santa Barbara at the time. I went there very often. Loved it. It’s a magical place.
What role do you see music and the arts playing in these difficult times? Do they provide an escape? A mirror we can use to better understand ourselves and our conflicts? Perhaps both? Opera, I would argue, provides a powerful opportunity for shared empathy, which surely has some value, even if the feeling is fleeting. I agree totally. It is, can be, and should be cathartic, whether it be a dramatic journey or a comedic interval—whatever the plot may hold. Opera gives each audience member (as well as the artists involved) the opportunity to rise above the mundane and be transported, and when I am onstage, I consider that to be my responsibility—not just my responsibility, but also my mission and my great privilege.
An Evening with Patricia Racette will take place at 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 21, at The Granada (1214 State St.). For tickets and information, call 898-3890 or visit OperaSB.com.