Opera is like beets -- people love it or hate it. But regardless of one's taste for opera, Patricia Racette is one to watch -- and a feather in the gay community's cap.
An acclaimed soprano, Racette has graced stages across the United States and Europe as a leading lady. And she graced the cover of Opera News magazine in 2002, coming out to the opera world as a lesbian.
In her day-to-day life, she makes her home in Santa Fe, N.M., with her partner and fellow opera singer, Beth Clayton. Defying the tragedy of opera, the two found joy on stage. Their relationship blossomed at the Santa Fe Opera as both performed in La Traviata.
Today, the couple continues their operatic ascent. Racette has broadened her scope with cabaret, including a recent performance at the Birchmere in Alexandria. But the main reason for Racette's arrival in Washington is for Jenůfa, a Czech opera by Leo Janáček, presented by the Washington National Opera. Racette plays the title role -- a lovelorn woman who suffers, and suffers some more. The Houston Chronicle praised her portrayal of the character in 2004, offering: ''Patricia Racette sang radiantly as she moved through Jenůfa's rampaging emotions.... [S]he transformed herself from a vocally alluring singer to a mesmerizing singing actress.''
Still, Racette says, in one vein, she's simply a song-and-dance girl with a down-to-earth attitude. Don't expect much in the way of diva.
METRO WEEKLY: You hear the term diva all the time, but when applied to you, it actually has meaning. How do you define it?
PATRICIA RACETTE: They use it more now in pop culture, but it belonged to the operatic genre forever. ''Diva'' -- I believe the literal translation for the word is ''goddess.'' [Laughs.]
MW: When you hear it applied to you, are you flattered?
RACETTE: Well, it's used in a derogatory manner a lot of the time. I don't hear it applied to me very often in that respect, which I'm pleased about. [Laughs.] When said with a certain tone of voice or intention, it can mean a self-centered, self-promoting, ''must be my way'' kind of person. I'm not that person. Professionally, collaboration is a very, very important aspect of what I do. I think the art form is richest when there are high levels of collaboration.
That being said, collaboration is not always going to be without conflict. And I'm not afraid of confrontation or conflict. It can be incredibly productive. But I don't behave like a diva in a sense that, because I sing, I think I'm better than other people. I see that sometimes in singers. Because of that gift, they don't treat others well. I don't understand that.
MW: So, to be clear, you're not the sort who'll hurl perfume bottles across her dressing room?
RACETTE: I don't even wear perfume. I did throw a wig across the dressing room, because it was hideous. I was furious because they wouldn't change it, but I didn't get my way.
Like anything in life, I find that handling things with humor and charm and understanding for the other person's position is always a better way to go. As soon as you state a strong opinion or are at all insistent -- and you have to be passionate about your choices as an artist, and I am -- you can be easily and wrongly labeled a diva. ''Oh, she's having a 'diva fit.''' When, in fact, you're just standing up for what you wish, instead of throwing a fit for absolutely nothing. Whenever I'm really insistent, it's for clear, artistic reasons -- not just so my ego can be stroked appropriately. [Laughs.]
MW: Does that sense of passion carry into other parts of your life?
RACETTE: What comes first, the chicken or the egg? I've always been a person who seeks out what I want. And I want to be treated with respect. Basically, I'm a very down-to-earth person, and very accessible. It sometimes works against me, because there is a preconceived idea of what a soprano is and they expect a certain amount of attitude and behavior and non-accessibility -- as you say, perfume bottles thrown across the room -- and I'm nothing like that. There are, in fact, quite a few aspects to being an opera singer that don't suit me as a person at all. If someone's looking for the traditional diva persona, I'm not their girl.
MW: When did you realize you wanted a career in opera?
RACETTE: I didn't know I wanted a career in it. I happened into opera. I went to a school in Texas, then called North Texas State University, because of their great jazz program. I was interested in singing jazz/cabaret/pop.
It was made clear to me by teachers and whatnot that I clearly had an operatic or ''classical'' voice. My voice really lent itself to that sort of vocal expression. So there we have it. It found me. I think that happens a lot.
MW: What sort of singing were you doing before college, back in high school in New Hampshire?
RACETTE: I was playing my guitar and writing my own songs and singing sort of... I guess you characterize it as ''folksy.'' I was singing in a jazz chorale group and loving it. Really, what I found is that I wanted to sing. And while I pursued in high school and early college a career singing jazz and cabaret, it wasn't that specific because I hadn't been exposed to enough material to know what really suited me. When I realized the theatricality inherent in opera, that's when I really fell in love with it. Part of my thing is being a stage animal. That's what really won me over.
MW: When you're performing opera, is the experience as passionate for you as it is for the audience, or is it more a technical exercise?
RACETTE: It's not technical. It's incredibly passionate. It's incredibly cathartic, frankly, to portray these stories and these situations. It's remarkable.
MW: With opera being full of such tragic characters, do you need time to recover after a performance?
RACETTE: In a manner of speaking, yes. There is a physical involvement that's very intense, but there's also the emotional. When you're rehearsing these life-and-death situations six days a week, that's when you really feel exhausted. That's when you learn your pacing. Yes, it's exhausting, but it somehow flushes something out emotionally. That's what I mean when I say it's cathartic.
MW: Can you tell me a little about Jenůfa? It sounds so tragic.
RACETTE: It is so tragic, but it's incredible. Janáček is really a master of creating theater on the stage. It's just so believable and so upsetting and so real. These characters are complex. It's a great story and it's amazing music.
MW: What about your other performances, like this recent Birchmere event? Is this a branching out for you?
RACETTE: It's new in terms of it being present in this particular chapter of my life, but it's like returning home, coming back to the stuff I wanted to do originally. I love it. It's that intimate setting, that interaction with the audience, and singing these tunes that are just incredible. I do that whenever I possibly can.
MW: What songs are you singing?
RACETTE: ''Guess Who I Saw Today'' by Elisse Boyd. Billy Barnes' ''Too Long at the Fair.'' A song called ''Not Exactly Paris.'' These are all songs that are not very well known, but I'm just in love with them.
It's cabaret, without question. [The Birchmere] was really fun. There was lots of laughter. It was very casual. By nature, I'm an informal person. Getting back to the earlier question about ''diva,'' there is a formality that people expect from a diva. I mean, I know how to dress up with the best of them, but my true nature is a lot more casual and informal. That's where the cabaret genre really suits me.
MW: Changing gears, can you tell me about your relationship with Beth Clayton, about your wedding?
RACETTE: We're going to celebrate 10 years this year. We got together in '97 in Santa Fe. I was singing Violetta in La Traviata, and she was singing Flora. There was a sort of undeniable energy and chemistry we had. We're a very harmonious, happy couple. We're very lucky.
We decided to have a ceremony during our eighth year, 2005. We did it in Santa Fe. Our families met for the first time. It was beautiful. It was a great celebration, and very validating.
MW: And the ''True Colors'' concert organized by Charles Busch, when the two you sang the Lakmé duet....
RACETTE: It was so cool. It was the week after our wedding, and on my 40th birthday. It was really exciting to be there, to be part of it, having just been married, then to go there and sing in this concert celebrating gay pride. That was a lot of fun for us.
MW: Do you sing to each other much behind closed doors?
RACETTE: No. In fact, we don't even listen to music that much. I sing a little bit in the shower sometimes. But when your life is spent making music -- as with any job, you have to do it even when you don't feel like it -- one ends up valuing their silence. When you're a two-singer family, one really values their silence. You want a break from it all.
MW: So what is your domestic life like? It sounds like you have a dog.
RACETTE: Yes, we do. She's in the car with me now.
MW: What's her name?
RACETTE: Sappho. [Laughs.] Very thematic, don't you think? Sapphie doesn't really know she's a dog. She doesn't rough-it well. She's the diva of the family, truth be told.
Returning to our domesticity, we love cooking together. We're homebodies. There's nothing like sleeping in your own bed and cooking in your own kitchen. We absolutely love that. We worked really hard to make our house cozy and comfortable and a place of relaxation and enjoyment, and it is one.
MW: How did you two decide on Santa Fe? Was it the opera house?
RACETTE: My first time in Santa Fe was 1996, when I debuted there. I was born and raised in New Hampshire. It could not be more different, in terms of landscape, from the green lushness of New England. I just fell in love with the arid, high desert look and feel. I fell in love with the big, open sky. It was magical. It also holds an emotional ''specialness'' because we fell in love in Santa Fe. They call it the land of enchantment, and it really is true.
MW: With your celebrity, do people in Santa Fe stop you on the street and ask you for your autographs?
RACETTE: No. That's what's great about opera. Those who really follow it and like your work, they'll approach you. But, basically, it's not Hollywood. We're really afforded some privacy. That being said, in my neighborhood in Santa Fe, I don't like warming up and seeing my neighbors stop on the street and listen as they're walking their dogs. It feels like my privacy is invaded. On one level, it's flattering. On another level, I really want privacy.
MW: Beyond your first Santa Fe performance, how often have you and Beth performed together?
RACETTE: Not very often.
MW: Are there particular challenges when you do?
RACETTE: Sometimes there can be some tension, but it's fun. It's been very important for Beth to have her own thing. She's younger than I am and started later. She wants to have her own thing and have it be about her -- and rightfully so. We are a couple, but we have our own careers, our own paths. Of course, we consult, check with one another on our choices so that we're able to spend time together. Other than that, it's okay that we don't sing together all the time, frankly.
MW: Were you out long before you met Beth?
RACETTE: Privately, I'd say I've been out since I was 20. In print, I wasn't out till that Opera News cover in 2002. For example, most people who knew me in college knew I was a lesbian. It just wasn't in print, which was somewhat different. It didn't all happen in one event. It sort of trickled into my life.
MW: Was it a welcome trickle?
RACETTE: My mom has since passed away, but [my parents] were great, totally supportive. Beth's family is terrific too. I mean, I really am their daughter-in-law. It's really remarkable. In fact, they paid for our wedding reception. They're great. We're really blessed. We're really fortunate to have family that don't just tolerate, but fully embrace us. For example, Beth has gone to visit my family without me. It's that kind of interaction we have with them. It's just great.
MW: It sounds like coming to terms with your sexual orientation was not too problematic.
RACETTE: On a very personal level, it was. It all first happened when I was 19 and I was completely freaked out. The discovery of that was scary. I was raised Catholic. There were a lot of things to ''disentangle'' in my self-perception. It was very difficult. But nothing is worse than not being your full self. Nothing.
MW: After you came out so publicly in Opera News, were you afraid of being typecast? Perhaps of being pushed toward ''trouser roles,'' playing men?
RACETTE: No, because that's a voice thing. That's sort of the beauty of opera. You can't choose what it is you feel like doing. You just hope that your repertoire is somehow harmonious with the person you are. And trouser roles -- Beth did a lot of them -- are mezzo roles and I'm a soprano. I've done one, and I look terrible in trousers! I'm a curvaceous, busty woman. [Laughs.] I was asked, aren't you afraid that being out and gay will affect how your portray stories onstage? And I said no. Before anyone knew, they found me believable -- it's called acting. Second of all, in sort of more ''cosmic'' sense, it's not that difficult to imagine. I think sexuality is fluid. To be identified with one sexuality is fine, but it doesn't make another so unimaginable or unreachable or unportrayable.
MW: How does coming out in the opera world compare to other professional arenas? Is it a fairly progressive universe, or does it cause as much of a stir as a professional athlete coming out?
RACETTE: I think it's more conservative than the theater, the acting world. But I can't say it's more conservative than Hollywood, where I'm sure there are still closeted actors. There is a level of tolerance in the opera world. It's not like being a banker or a school teacher, that's for sure. That's an added plus.
MW: Can you point to any homophobia you've faced either in the opera realm, or outside of it, aside from institutional homophobia?
RACETTE: Yeah. I had a troubling incident in New York, when I had to rush to the emergency room. It was right after Sept. 11. It ended up being a ''severe peptic attack,'' somebody called it. It was severe. I could not finish two syllables together. I believe the phrase is ''diaphoretic.'' I was completely drenched [in sweat], I couldn't breathe. We went to the hospital at 2 in the morning. It's really one of the worst experiences I've ever had. Beth was there and the male nurse -- Who was an ass! That's the nicest thing I can say about him -- said ''Who are you?'' to her. She said, ''I'm her partner.'' He said, ''Well, you'll have to sit out in the waiting room.'' They were going to call the cops to get her out of the emergency room with me. They just left me sitting there in excruciating pain, and there's Beth not knowing what's wrong with me. Meanwhile, there are people sitting there in the emergency room with their spouses. This was at Mount Sinai in New York.
MW: Returning to opera, do you know if you have a large gay following?
RACETTE: I don't know. I have received notes and flowers and notes of appreciation for coming out because I am in a public profession. It's all been very gratifying. But truth be told, I came out for personal reasons. Being honest about who I am is very important to me.
MW: You haven't suffered any regret for the very public coming-out, right?
RACETTE: That's the one question I'm asked more than any other, I have to tell you. Pretty much every interview includes, ''Have you noticed any negative effects of coming out?'' No, but I don't think I would be privy to that knowledge. If administrators in opera companies who do the hiring have an issue about the fact that I'm a lesbian, I wouldn't know about it. I would just be overlooked, or passed over for a job.
Opera News told me my cover was a huge seller. There were a couple letters that were very displeased that I became public. Which is just phenomenal to me. What is that? I've actually had gay people, older gay people, come up to me and ask, ''Why do you need to come out? Why do you have to advertise it? Just be who you are.'' But if someone asks a heterosexual person if they're married, they don't say, ''I'd rather not talk about that.'' They say, simply, ''Yes.'' I'm tired of it being this extra issue. I'm also not going to be ashamed of something that's the best thing in my life.
Patricia Racette appears in Jenůfa on May 5, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21 and 24 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. For ticket info and availability, call the Washington National Opera at 202-295-2400, 1-800-US-OPERA or visit www.dc-opera.org online.