November 6, 2012
Patricia Racette's Jump to Tosca
It didn’t take long for San Francisco Opera favorite Patricia Racette to transition from secondary soprano roles (a priestess in Aida for her 1989 SFO debut) to leading parts (Mimi in her 1993 La bohème). Yet it took until 2010, after singing leads in major houses around the globe, for her to throw herself off the parapet as Tosca.
In a delicious half-hour, in-person interview, most of which is included below, Racette shares her feelings about her latest character assumption, the fact that she is alternating as Tosca with Angela Gheorghiu, and her career trajectory since she and her partner, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, came out in the pages of Opera News.
How many Tosca productions have you sung in since your first in 2010?
This is either my fourth or fifth. After San Francisco, I have another at the Met, and Houston wants me to return and open their season with it. I hope they just keep coming in.
What is it like for you to make the transition to Tosca?
It just seemed the appropriate time, both vocally and in terms of the kind of character I wanted to portray. It seemed like a logical next step, the stars aligned, and the opportunities came. It’s unquestionably my favorite role. I can’t say “favorite” definitely, but I do love singing this part and portraying this character very much.
What about your own personality and character made you ready for Tosca?
She’s a woman! She’s not a girl, she’s a woman, and I’m so happy to be portraying a woman. Singing Butterfly and everything is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, and she becomes more mature through the story, but Tosca is a woman who takes her own fate into her own hands. She’s this complex, slightly neurotic …
… [laughing] over-the-top pressure cooker. She’s just trying to keep the lid on things, as futile as it may be, and that’s what’s so interesting about her. Because her energy and emotions get away from her all the time, and that makes for very interesting theater. It’s so juicy to portray a character like that. It’s a bit like me: I’m not meant to be still in an interview or on paper; I’m a 3-D, kinetic being.
As if we who love your artistry couldn’t tell! Speaking of which, you’ve been rehearsing here for two days. Has Angela [Gheorghiu] arrived, as well?
No. I don’t know when she arrives. It doesn’t concern me; we’re really not rehearsing together.
There was talk of a small press luncheon with the two of you, but the scheduling made it impossible. I kept wondering just what kind of luncheon it would be.
You know, I’ve sung with Roberto [Alagna, Gheorghiu’s husband] several times. I adore him, and Angela and I have gotten along very well. I’ve only had lovely interactions with her, so I imagine it would just be more of the same.
I know that scandal is always more interesting than something uplifting, but I’m not interested in some sort of soprano diva-war. For me, what Angela does is what Angela does, and what I offer is what I offer. They really have nothing to do with one another. My job is to transport the audience to the best of my ability and gifts, and let it fly.
I can see where it would be fun if there were a rivalry, but I can’t pretend to want to play in that sort of process. I wish Angela the best. I expect her to offer something beautiful and amazing, and hopefully uniquely hers, and I will offer something uniquely mine. They will be very different, but again, that doesn’t concern me.
When I interviewed Mark Delavan, your Scarpia, about his appearance here as Wotan, he told me that you two know each other well, and have been known to spontaneously “play” onstage. Can we expect some of that?
I think it’s going to be fierce, really. Mark is such a presence. His Scarpia is going to be scary, which will be great! This is all in my imagination, of course, because he isn’t here yet.
Some productions bring out Scarpia’s nature as a sadistic, racist brute more than others.
I’m hoping that this one will explore the innate charm that Scarpia has. He’s achieved what he has achieved in this life for a reason. He’s not a complete horse’s ass. He’s got to have a certain amount of elegance and charm and nobility about him, and I think it’s absolutely screamingly there in the music. He’s so evil, but he’s not gruff — at least, not until he gets to the moment when he thinks he’s going to get Tosca. But that’s what’s so scary about him.
I think Scarpia is better served by not playing him on a single dimension, as in “I’m a big, mean guy.” More nuance is always more interesting.
When I did Tosca at the Met with Bryn [Terfel], I did not have to act at all. He was terrifying. It was an experience. He was absolutely terrifying. He had charm, but he was so slimy, and so monsterlike sometimes. It was fantastic.
So you have no idea what the direction will be?
No. But José Maria [Condemi], who’s mounting this, is very collaborative, and my experience of Mark is that he’s very collaborative. I think we’re going to come up with something that will make sense to all of us.
That’s why I find value in rehearsing. I’m not interested in just coming to do my Tosca and plugging it into whatever exists. This is going to sound corny, but it’s a team effort. I’m looking forward to it.
And your Cavaradossi is Brian Jagde.
A very talented young man. Sadly, it was supposed to be Salvatore Licitra [who died in a motorcycle accident in Sept. of 2011]. But I’m so excited it’s Brian. First of all, he’s tall. I’m not a tall lady, but to have a tenor taller than you is so great. He’s handsome, he has charisma, and he has a fantastic voice. I think this will be a big success for him.
So you’ve done it with Bryn at the Met. Who was the tenor?
Oh, Jonas Kaufmann, that’s all. It was a really crappy cast. I endured. …
As an artist, I really believe in the honesty and truth of the emotion. How can I cover up and lie and do all that and be an effective artist?
Actually, it was incredible! You couldn’t get a ticket to it. The third performance was one of these performances you read about in the history books. They were interrupting, screaming “bravo!” When Jonas sings “Vittoria, Vittoria!” they started applauding and screaming. And [Fabio] Luisi was in the pit. It was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had on the stage.
Singing with those two men was glorious. Jonas interacts onstage, and he’s a stunning singer. I loved bringing it to life right there at the moment.
It’s 10 years since you and Beth [Clayton] came out in Opera News. Yet I keep encountering singers, conductors, and violinists who will not come out because, to quote one of them, “I would do so if I felt that my coming out would be useful or make a statement.”
I have a comment about that. While I truly believe everyone should do what suits them, and what works for them, Beth and I didn’t anticipate the feedback we were going to get when we came out. We came out for personal reasons. I’m not going to act ashamed of something I’m most proud of, and that is the biggest blessing in my life. I’m not going to have a behavior of which I’m ashamed.
As an artist, I really believe in the honesty and truth of the emotion. How can I cover up and lie and do all that and be an effective artist? I don’t believe that would work very well. I think it would bring [me] down, one way or another. Those were the personal reasons that really led to the decision, “Let’s do this in print.”
My voice is so very, very happy doing this part. It really likes to function just the way this role does.
That being said, we got so many communications and letters and notes and emails thanking us. It was really humbling to read that just saying that we are gay and proud had such a positive effect on people I didn’t know. It was very humbling to read those letters. I didn’t know how much it would affect people.
I don’t know if you saw our YouTube “It Gets Better” thing. [Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” gets referenced in the short video.] The comments we got have been off the charts! I have people coming to me still to thank us both for doing it. It’s something that I feel is appropriate and in a small way my part to say. If saying, “I am this way” can change someone’s narrow mind about homosexuality, that is important to me.
The question I received most after we came out in Opera News was, “Do you feel like it affected your career in a negative way?” My response has always been the same: “I don’t know.” I’m not informed about the roles I’m passed over for, for whatever reason. It’s been going very well, so I’m inclined to say, “No, it hasn’t affected me in a negative way.”
I’m not gonna apologize for one second of this character. I want to squeeze every dramatic drop of blood out of this as possible.
Then people ask me if I think it’s affected my ability to portray heterosexual woman. If I were a straight woman, I still wouldn’t love many of the men I play opposite, in the ways the opera describes. It’s called acting. It’s an art form. So my sexuality is irrelevant. The message is that we all feel it. It’s human passion. We’re not any different, we’re not any different. So I think people who say they won’t come out because they don’t think it will make a difference are shortsighted.
Back to Tosca. How is the part in your voice?
My teacher calls it my “glove opera.” My voice is so very, very happy doing this part. It really likes to function just the way this role does.
Is it the way Puccini writes that makes the part work so well for you vocally?
It is. I love that he gives her these magnificent, soaring passages. I don’t feel like I’m singing when I’m doing it. It feels like completely raw emotion riding on music, as though I’m saying things or screaming things. And that’s what’s so masterfully presented in the score. When she drops into the lower part of her voice, there’s more of a maturity to her. It’s unlike any of Puccini’s other roles.
[Maria] Callas didn’t like “Vissi d’arte” because she felt that it was a set piece that interrupted the flow of the second act. How do you feel about that?
I understand that comment and feeling, because the aria comes out of nowhere, and begins suddenly. But, speaking filmically, it’s such a close-up. If it were in a film, it would take so much less time, but it’s such a luscious, extended musical moment that reveals her thoughts. It’s almost like the bubble above the head; it’s not a demonstrative moment. It’s a moment of looking inside. In that respect, it’s a jewel, both theatrically and musically.
In the Toscas you’ve done, have you jumped from the parapet onto a mattress?
I like it to be as daredevil as possible. The Washington Post did a special on my jump when I was in Washington, because I made them give me more trajectory. I wanted the audience to gasp when I jump, and I succeeded. And we made sure there is no bouncing up from the mattress, because that just ruins it.
I try to get as much height as possible. I’m not gonna apologize for one second of this character. I want to squeeze every dramatic drop of blood out of this as possible. No apologies.
Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.
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