Aria there yet?

Patricia Racette, half of the lesbian power couple of opera, has certainly arrived. And that’s music to our ears

PR-Devon-Cass-5

QUEEN OF OPERA | Stunning soprano Patricia Racette was disappointed when the Dallas Opera canceled her production of ‘Katya Kabanova,’ but she still gets to perform at the Winspear this week with a cabaret performance featuring jazz and pop classics. (Photo courtesy Devon Cass)

 

GREGORY SULLIVAN ISAACS | Contributing Writer
gregoryisaacs@theaterjones.com

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AN EVENING OF CABARET
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St. Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. Free to Dallas Opera season
subscribers. DallasOpera.org.
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From the outside, the opera world seems like a gay haven — costumes, wigs, oversized egos, passionately dying divas full of drama. The fans are legendary in their devotion — the term “opera queen” is one that is used for self-identification more than it is tossed as a jab.

On the inside, however, it is mostly a gloriously appointed closet. While those who work in the opera, both onstage and off, are mostly straight, a large contingent are lesbians and gay men. They may be out to one another, and even show up at the gala with their partners, but few are out beyond the curtains.

Not so for the stunningly beautiful opera star Patricia Racette. “I am out and proud,” say the soprano in a phone interview. “Everyone has their own timing and their own issues to face, but I have never regretted coming out.”

Racette, who will sing leading roles in both Tosca and Madame Butterfly at the Met in 2012, is married to Beth Clayton, a mezzo-soprano justifiably famous for her smoldering portrayal of Carmen. They met while singing a production of La Traviata in Santa Fe in 1997, Racette playing the ill-fated Violetta and Clayton portraying her loyal friend Flora. (I always wondered about those two characters.) The couple married in 2005.

“It is inconceivable that we would be hiding our relationship,” Racette says. “If I were to be lying to everyone about such a huge aspect of my life, it would affect my performance. I am a total package and I certainly can’t leave part of me at home when I walk onstage.”

Any irony in a lesbian playing Tosca, the ultimate straight woman? Racette laughs at that thought. “We are past that nonsense in the theater and on television as more and more actors come out. In Tosca, I am portraying the circumstances of being passionately in love and I have my own love for Beth to dig into for motivation.”

In this, she is absolutely correct — you don’t need to be a whore to play Carmen. “There is a certain suspension of reality in opera,” Racette adds.

Racette admits to some apprehension at the start of her decision to come out, but it was short-lived. She looked at it in reverse: All her straight colleagues talked freely about their personal lives and the demands of spending so much time on the road, why not her?

“I thought, wait a minute. If I try to avoid these kinds of questions about my personal life, they will think that I am ashamed, like my love for Beth is some kind of dirty secret. For decades, the ‘It’s nobody’s business’ mantra kept opera singers in the closet. I can’t judge what other people do, but when

I hear that I think, ‘Too bad.’ They have no idea how liberating it is to just put all that baggage in the trash and live openly. If I want everyone else to think that my life is great, I have to show how great it is myself.”

Has this adversely affected her career? Hardly, as her Met engagements indicate. Clayton as well continues to get juicy roles. But she realizes that you can never know what you didn’t get.

“I am always asked this question and I always give the same answer. I just don’t know, and can never know unless someone tattles later. However, it really doesn’t matter. The opera world is full of as many disappointments as triumphs.”

One big disappointment was the cancellation of Janacek’s opera Katya Kabanova at the Dallas Opera this season. Racette was scheduled to sing the leading role in a glorious production in which she has triumphed in the past. “That one really hit me in the gut. I was so excited to return to Dallas. I went to school at North Texas State University and have many friends still in the area. I was especially looking forward to singing in the new house opera house.”

She will get to sing in the Winspear on Nov. 9, but it will be a far cry from Janacek. Racette performs her one-night cabaret as a bonus show to TDO patrons. Unlike other classical artists that seem stiff in crossover work, Racette started out singing jazz and cabaret; she switched to opera at the suggestion of an astute teacher. Accordingly, her program is a tribute to songs made famous by some of her favorite singers, and like any good gay person, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf top that list.

“Don’t expect any high notes,” she laughs. “I do in fact belt a few higher notes in the evening, but the reality is that my technique is speech-based. That translates into whatever style of music I sing. Sometimes, my opera fans are surprised that I can sing this way and not hurt my ‘other’ voice. But my technique allows for both styles and I sing in exactly same way — just in wildly different ranges.”

I ask Racette about Tosca’s great moment when she leaps off the castle wall to her death, cursing her tormentor on the way down. “Katya makes a leap as well, but into a river. Of course, Tosca is an opera diva, so her leap is much more spectacular. I always tell them to make it real and take some chances. However, I may feel like I am 17 when I am flying through the air, but I feel like I am every bit of 46 when I land.”

There is another unique “coming out” from Racette: She’s an opera singer who admits her age.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas