Lesbian mezzo and SMU grad Beth Clayton makes her Bass Hall debut
A FESTIVAL OF SONG
The Fort Worth Opera Festival begins with "Carmen" on April 25, May 3 (matinee) and 8. It is followed by "Cinderella" on April 26 (matinee), May 1 and 9 and gay composer Jake Heggie’s "Dead Man Walking" May 2 and 10 (matinee). Bass Hall, 525 Commerce St., Fort Worth. Evenings at 8 p.m., matinees at 2 p.m. FWOpera.org.
It is perhaps the best-known and most widely performed opera in the world, and even though mezzo soprano Beth Clayton had played the fiery factory worker six times in the past, that doesn’t diminish one iota her enthusiasm for appearing in her seventh production of Bizet’s "Carmen," which kicks off the Fort Worth Opera’s new festival season Saturday.
Although the Southern Methodist University alumna has performed with the Dallas Opera before, this production marks her debut with the FWO, and her first time in the notoriously wonderful Bass Performance Hall. But even if it weren’t, Clayton would be just as committed to keeping her performance — and the entire production — fresh.
"For many people, ‘Carmen’ will be the first opera they have ever seen. It would be boring for me to come in and do my Carmen," she says during a break from rehearsals. "You’re constantly honing your craft even from a vocal standpoint, looking for a light bulb moment. I’ve had a few already this process, which excites me."
Clayton credits John de los Santos, a seasoned choreographer with the FWO making his directorial debut with the company, with many of those moments.
"We did a ‘Carmen’ together last year in Austin — he just wasn’t in the captain’s chair," she says. "This is big for him. I’m excited because John’s excited. It’s all a matter of collaboration, peppering it with different flavors and dynamics."
"Beth is definitely not a cookie-cutter type leading lady," says de los Santos. "She’s beautiful and has a beautiful voice but also very collaborative and trying to push herself with an interesting vision of this character. I’m really trying to highlight the oppression of women in this society and how they have to fight and struggle in this chauvinistic world."
Clayton can certainly relate to that. As an out lesbian, for many she embodies the ideal of the defiant feminist.
"Women do have power in their sensuality and their sexuality, but the smartest women have a self-awareness about it. You have to enjoy it," she says. "In Carmen’s case, she has to use it to her benefit. She has to live the life she’s destined to live."
Clayton and her partner, acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette, have been together "a happy dozen" and wed in 2005. They never hid their sexuality or their relationship, but they "officially" came out as opera’s reigning same-sex power couple in a 2002 cover story for The Opera News. But being with a fellow opera diva has its pros and cons, Clayton admits.
"The upside, absolutely, is not having to explain anything. The downside is, we never get a break from opera," she says. "Home is wherever she is and that’s not necessarily home. It’s exhausting — we need some non-opera time. When we’re off-duty we call it ‘wife-ing.’ I love being Mrs. Racette when we’re traveling."
The migratory schedule of the opera diva means that Racette and Clayton rarely have time to participate in many gay events.
"I’m always a little sorry I can’t do more for the gay community," Clayton admits. "But if our lives can be an example, or offer any fortitude or hope, that’s tiny way we can give back."
Because Clayton is a mezzo and Racette a soprano, the two haven’t found themselves up for the same roles — yet. "We do joke about later in life when we do character parts we’ll be up for the same roles," she says. "The older we get the more we learn we have to celebrate one another. I admire her work so I don’t just love her, I have great respect for her as an artist."
But the couple hopes to eventually develop their own project, an opera adaptation of a German film from a decade ago.
"It’s a dream of a piece we would love because we could sing together — we don’t get to do that too often," she says. Until then, they will simply have to continue making beautiful music together — separately onstage, and as a couple off.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 24, 2009.