Second Chances

Patricia Racette
Wall Street Journal

By David Mermelstein

If there's such a thing as operatic karma, the American soprano Patricia Racette is reaping its rewards. Ms. Racette, praised equally for her rich voice and keen dramatic instincts, is in her prime these days and a favorite at major opera houses throughout the U.S. She recently made headlines by stepping into the breach on very short notice when the San Francisco Opera needed someone to sing the title role in Tobias Picker's "Dolores Claiborne," a company co-commission scheduled to have its premiere here on Wednesday.

Ms. Racette, age 48, was approached while already in the house for a different reason—preparing to sing two roles in Arrigo Boito's "Mephistopheles," which opened the season and runs in repertory with "Dolores Claiborne" through Oct. 2. The new opera, which is based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, was written for the mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, but she withdrew from the production in late August by mutual agreement. With few other options, the company turned to Ms. Racette, whose career had been nurtured in this city. She had also sung prominent roles in two earlier operas by Mr. Picker—the lead in "Emmeline," which had its premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 1996, and the spurned lover in "An American Tragedy," a Metropolitan Opera commission from 2005. And there was something else: When Mr. Picker first conceived of adapting Mr. King's novel, which previously inspired a film starring Kathy Bates, he wanted Ms. Racette for the lead—though by the time he began composing "Dolores Claiborne," Ms. Zajick was confirmed as its star.

The soprano's decision to accept the part at such a late date inevitably involved mixed feelings. (She is to sing the first four of six scheduled performances; Catherine Cook, a mezzo-soprano who was Ms. Zajick's cover, has assumed the remaining two.) "I don't think it's an ideal situation for anyone," Ms. Racette said late one afternoon last week, sitting in the press lounge of the War Memorial Opera House. Dressed casually, entirely in black save for a striking pair of magenta-streaked snakeskin boots, she appeared remarkably relaxed given that she had just come from a rehearsal of "Dolores Claiborne" and would sing in a performance of "Mephistopheles" a few hours later. "I'm going to do my utmost to rise to this monumental challenge, and I'll get there—just. Tobias's opera is fiendishly difficult musically. What I wouldn't give for one more week of rehearsal right now. So I'm feeling absolutely insane for saying yes. But I'm determined to succeed."

She insists she is not fazed that the role was originally written for Ms. Zajick. "It's not a mezzo part, in my opinion," Ms. Racette said, acknowledging the issue's persistence since she joined the production. "It's too unique to describe that way. Is the part high? Yes. Is it low? Yes. Is there a lot of singing in the middle voice? Yes. So I leave it to the authorities to characterize whatever voice type that is."

More pertinent to the soprano at this point are the challenges associated with learning the new part. "The taste these days is writing for extremes," she said. "Some of the tonalities in this opera are set in such short, jagged rhythms that one can't hear the melody above the dissonance. So finding your pitches can be difficult. But it can be achieved by repeating and repeating a sequence, if you have the time. For me, all this has to happen at turbo speed now. Ironically, the majority of the changes to the score require lowering things. The part of Dolores is actually higher than the roles I'm singing in 'Mephistopheles.'"

A native of New Hampshire who went to college in Texas and now lives in New Mexico, Ms. Racette has balanced traditional operatic fare (her Puccini heroines are especially admired) with the efforts of American composers. In addition to her work with Mr. Picker, she has created roles in operas by Carlisle Floyd ("Cold Sassy Tree," 2000) and Paul Moravec ("The Letter," 2009). She suggests that singers have a preternatural connection to music from their own land, cemented by language and culture. "When I did 'Emmeline,'" she said, referring to Mr. Picker's first opera, "I knew the river and those mill towns depicted in that New England story. I know the look and feel of that world. And I also understand that there is more underneath, something visceral—knowing the feel of the cold winter and that sort of thing. When we bring our own experiences to our own stories, it makes for an enhancement of the art form."

Such parts tend to offer other advantages as well, including the appeal of creation and all that comes with it. "It can be a richly collaborative process," said Ms. Racette of building a role from scratch. "When else can you say to a composer, 'I don't think this extreme moment of emotion will carry so well in this part of the voice, because I can only crescendo so loud on a B in the middle of the staff'? That's exciting and intense. Plus, there's no comparison to Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi."

Those divas are aptly invoked, for Ms. Racette inhabits two of their signature roles when she returns to the Met for Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" next month and Umberto Giordano's "Andrea Chénier" in March. And she's back in San Francisco in June, once again in two productions: Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" and Puccini's "Madame Butterfly."

Her passion for it notwithstanding, Ms. Racette came to opera relatively late. In fact, when she went to college to study music, she intended to be a torch singer. "I didn't get hooked until my sophomore year," she recalled. "I had to learn the aria 'Senza Mamma' from Puccini's 'Suor Angelica,' and I sat there listening to a recording of Renata Scotto sing the whole opera. It was like lightning struck. I thought, oh, that's what this is. This is amazing. I have to do this. And when I make up my mind about something, I become quite determined."

Yet even now—more than 25 years later—she still sometimes marvels at her success. "This entire profession took me by surprise," she said. "I come from a blue-collar family. My dad delivered Pepsi, and my mother worked in a grocery store. But opera is for everyone—even if you've never heard any before."