As soprano Patricia Racette takes on the herculean task of creating the title role in Tobias Picker's world premiere opera Dolores Claiborne
AND performing the role of Margherita in Mefistopheles
this fall at San Francisco Opera, it is safe to say that this soprano's plate is full. But, lucky for us (in more ways than one!), the effervescent Racette took time out to participate in our 5 Questions blog.
You are performing the role of Margherita in Mefistofele
this fall and have recently taken on the title role of Dolores Claiborne, which means you will be learning a new work while simultanously performing another opera.
Patricia Racette as Margherita. Photo by Cory Weaver.
That cannot be easy! So, how do you go about learning a new work? Is it just sitting down and memorizing lines, or do you have a specific/particular technique you can share?
What a loaded question! I have a VERY specific way that I learn music.. it's a process and a detailed one that has just been asked to jump into turbo mode beyond anything I have ever done, really! With Mefistofele, the new component this time around was adding the role of Helen of Troy-- Elena-- in addition to revisiting Margherita after a number of years. But DOLORES is a whole other ballgame! The process would ideally span many months-- as it has for the other cast members!-- but now I must accelerate all aspects. Before I can conceive of memorizing, I have to learn the pitches and rhythms, which tends to be a more painstaking and time consuming process in a piece that is brand new. That takes mental and vocal energy under any circumstance but especially for a tour de force role like DOLORES. Normally I like to have that component accomplished so that it's 'second nature' before I ever arrive to start rehearsing any piece, but in this case, the opera has already been staged! See where I am going with this?! Amidst my remaining rehearsals for Mefistofele, I am drilling pitches, rhythms while my partner Beth picks it apart on the full size keyboard that we purchased for this sudden task so that this work can be done at our 'home away from home' here in San Fran. I ask her to record my part--first under tempo and then at appropriate speed- for every scene so that I can drill it and ingest it as quickly as possible. Then I add the next layer.. page by page, scene by scene--constantly going back to review and test myself... the countdown to September 18th has begun! I have to go now-- I still have 14 pages of Act I, scene 6 to learn today before my Mefistofele sitzprobe this afternoon!!!!
Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne. Photo by Scott Wall.
You’ve worked with Tobias Picker on two other world premieres. What do you like about his music and writing style?
Tobias and I do have quite a history! His first opera Emmeline was and will always be a pivotal and wonderful experience for me. In some ways, the character of Dolores is like Emmeline 'grown up!' Their literal stories are not parallel, although both are set in the Northeast, where I also happen to have grown up, but the characters both experience such devastating hardships. I love that Tobias is drawn to telling these gritty American stories; he has the gift of creating not only drama but atmosphere. I hear strains of EMMELINE as well as AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY in DOLORES-- which, in my opinion, is the sign of a composer's accomplishment of creating his own discernible 'voice' if you will.
You have an album out of cabaret classics called Diva on Detour
. What prompted you to record a non-classical music album?
"Non-classical" is where I began! I went to college to study jazz and was DEVASTATED when my first real voice teacher told me that I was destined for opera! That devastation wore off, of course, since I happen to LOVE what I do and would not have had it any other way! However, returning to this music that "lit my fire" as a young person is so incredibly gratifying. Cabaret songs are like mini-operas in and of themselves-- every one has a story. I get the opportunity not to sing differently necessarily, but rather to use my voice and my technique to different effect. I really feel a sort of cathartic symbiosis between my operatic day job and my increasingly more frequent cabaret moonlighting!
Over the years you have been in many productions at San Francisco Opera. Do you have a favorite opera or Company memory?
Funny you should ask that this time around, as my most clarion memory with SFO exists with this very production of Mefistofele! In 1989 I was here in San Francisco as an Adler Fellow. Among my many assignments was that of covering the great Gabriele Benackova as Margherita. During the final dress rehearsal, for which there was quite a crowd, I was sitting in the audience watching. Sarah Billinghurst approached me at first intermission and told me I was needed backstage. The next thing I knew I was thrown onto the stage in my white turtleneck and a rehearsal skirt to perform the role in its entirety! It was one of those moments that will live in my memory forever-- the crowd (that GREAT San Francisco audience that I have grown to adore!) seemed to feel just as excited as I was! It was a magical night, and I can't tell you how happy I am to be 'living' this production in my own right these years later.
What is your favorite spot in San Francisco? Be it a restaurant, park or boutique that you absolutely must check out when you’re in town
Two things immediately come to mind: North Beach and Ocean Beach-- for two very different reasons! I am a huge fan of Italian cuisine, so having favorite restaurants like Da Flora or the famous Tony's Pizza in my temporary neighborhood is a real treat. The second "Beach" reference come to mind because we have always taken our now aged poodle Sappho to Ocean Beach and watched her prance along the shoreline or just get down and dirty digging holes in the sand. She is almost fifteen now, but when we take her there, her puppyhood comes out in full force!