For Opera Stars Beth Clayton and Patricia Racette, It’s All About the ‘Zing’

For Opera Stars Beth Clayton and Patricia Racette, It’s All About the ‘Zing’

Normally, life is nonstop for Grammy-winning soprano Patricia Racette and her wife, mezzo-soprano and mental wellness performance coach Beth Clayton. Jetting around the world is just what they do. One day, it’s a performance of Kátia Kabànova in Barcelona. The next, it’s Dead Man Walking in Chicago.

But all that ground to a halt in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Clayton saw the effects first hand: Through her wellness practice, she saw artists struggle to find the motivation to keep working. Grief was mounting. The world was in mourning.

 

It was a time to go back to basics, to determine what really mattered. And that’s how Clayton and Racette found themselves back at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, enjoying something they rarely had time for: a slice of uninterrupted domestic bliss.

“That has been a major silver lining for both of us to be in our home for that long. We actually got to sit four consecutive seasons in our home,” Racette says. “I don't think either of us has experienced that since we were with our parents.”

In Santa Fe, the couple got on first-name basis with their neighbors. They discovered hiking trails they never knew existed. They bought fishing rods and whiled away hours at the Pecos River.

“It has to be noted that we caught nothing,” Racette laughs. “But we sort of experienced life in a different way.”

Being together—and being open about being together—has long been a point of principle for the couple. Clayton and Racette originally met in New York City in 1997. The very next year, they were cast together as Violetta and Flora in a Santa Fe Opera production of La Traviata. They confess they felt an instant attraction.

But it took until 2002 for Clayton and Racette to go public with their relationship. Racette was set to be on the cover of Opera News magazine. Together, they made the decision that this would be their moment. This would be their stand. The article opened with a description of the two artists at home and Racette cracking a joke: "I think it's the only time Violetta ever went home with Flora!”

Clayton and Racette first exchanged marriage vows in June 18, 2005, a full decade before the U.S. Supreme Court would strike down bans on marriage equality in all 50 states—and well before same-sex marriages were legal in New Mexico. They would hold other marriage ceremonies later on, too.

But even now, over 20 years into their relationship, they still giggle like newlyweds. Reached by phone at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where Racette and Clayton are collaborating on the one-woman opera La Voix Humaine, they share what that landmark 2002 cover story meant to them—and why they remain outspoken about their love.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I read that you met in 1997 at a party in New York City. What do you remember about that first ships-in-the-night meeting?

RACETTE: It was in the spring. It was early April of 1997. It was at [director] Francesca Zambello’s apartment. She was throwing a big old party. I wasn't actually going to be able to go. I was supposed to go to Winnipeg to sing La Traviata, but they had horrible floods. So my flight was postponed a day or two. And so I was able to go to the party. Beth was there, and keep in mind, we have the same manager. Our manager said to both of us separately: “Oh, I think you guys would really hit it off.” Meaning just as friends, because Beth—

CLAYTON: I was in a relationship at the time.

RACETTE: So I met Beth and her significant other at the party. The energy, the chemistry was rather immediate. In fact, it's inadvertently documented in Manuela Hoelterhoff’s book. There's a page where I have a glass of wine and I'm laughing hardily, and you can see the back of Beth's head.

CLAYTON: We call it the zing factor. Once we got to Santa Fe that summer to sing together in La Traviata, I was doing another world-premiere piece, and my significant other was an apprentice. So it was a very lesbian-dramatic moment.

RACETTE: It was a scandale! A lot of people said it was a fling, but we’re celebrating next month 24 years together. So it's a really, really long fling.

CLAYTON: From zing to the fling!

RACETTE: Zing to the fling!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Were you nervous at all? Beth, you talk about La Traviata and having your significant other there.

RACETTE: You know the party scene when Violetta and the Baron come in, after she's left Alfredo? And the chorus and the people at the party look up to her and sing, “Voi, Violetta,” with this scorn and disdain?

CLAYTON: Contempt!

RACETTE: Yeah. It was palpable.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Why was that though?

CLAYTON: Because my significant other was in the chorus of that! Because the apprentices have to sing in the chorus of all the operas. And she has some support from some of her colleagues.

RACETTE: Nothing untoward went on. Beth just was very honest.

CLAYTON: It was just a thunderbolt moment. A big thunderbolt moment. I just said, “I have to see what this is. I’m leaving.” And I did. I'd never done anything quite like that before. So it was quite life-changing.

RACETTE: I'm not exaggerating or being hyperbolic, but like four days later, she moved into where I was staying. We’re so stereotypical.

CLAYTON: Come on. Lesbian U-Haul jokes. There’s a straight line to them. [Clayton and Racette start to laugh.]

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Beth, can I ask you: What did you first notice about Patricia?

CLAYTON: Well, her vivacious personality, of course. And her green eyes when she's in a really good mood. Her eyes get greener and greener.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you guys realized that this was not just a “zing fling?” That it was something long-term?

RACETTE: I don’t know. It took like 20 minutes for me. You know what they say about falling in love? We just watched Moonstruck again last night. But there's this thing: Love isn’t like the fairy tales. It's painful. It's excruciating. It's fantastic. It's terrifying. It's all these things. And it was one of the very few times in my entire life that I just couldn't eat. It was so—

CLAYTON: Visceral.

RACETTE: Visceral. And it shook me to my core to a point where you don't have control over it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: The 2002 Opera News cover was a big deal. But I know that you were worried about the quote-unquote baggage that might be associated with being open about your relationship. What was that baggage?

RACETTE: Even to this day, the question I have been asked the most in interviews—I have lost count as to how many times this question has come up—has been: “Well, do you think that coming out the way you did, when you did, has hurt your career?” And I say, “I have no idea.” I say, “I'm not privy to the discussions and the contemplation about casting and things like that.”

For me, I couldn’t be in the closet about this professionally. We weren't personally anymore. But professionally it was scary. We didn't know what impact it would have on our careers, respectively. But to be closeted would be to act shameful and hide. And why would I act that way about the best thing in my life?

That’s number one. Number two, as an artist, being authentic is something I value deeply and greatly. I feel that that is my strength as an artist. So for me, there wasn't a choice.

CLAYTON: It was a very pivotal moment though. And I was scared at the time only because I was at the beginning of my career. Pat is a couple of years older than I am, but it really doesn't have to do with that. Her career was already on a different trajectory. And I wondered if it would dampen my own trajectory a little bit. It didn’t.

We also realized that as a couple that those two things are separate. You have your two professional identities: as artists and then in terms of being advocates for our couple-hood and our coupledom and using the word “wife.” We had to get used to that.

RACETTE: We had to get used to using the word “wife” and occasionally hearing, “Oh, okay.” Or seeing the discomfort on the person's face.

CLAYTON: Or being in Europe or something and being corrected because you use the feminine “sposa” or “mi esposa.”

RACETTE: It’s sort of our little micro activism. Apropos of the answer I just gave, I remember there was an article in Opera News again, an interview. I think it was with Brian Kellow, may he rest in peace. He asked something about, “Do you want to talk about your personal life?” And I said, “No, I want to keep that personal.”

But I felt ashamed by that. Then that got things really brewing for me. You don't hide the fact that you have a wife or you have a husband if you're a straight person. But I just said, “No.” I stepped into the closet for a second, professionally speaking. I think that was something that inspired the 2002 [article].

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: There seems to be almost a kind of split personality in opera. The theater has always felt like a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community. And yet a lot of the narratives we present in opera still remain very heteronormative. The most popular shows are about a guy meeting a girl.

RACETTE: Come on. All the shows are!

CLAYTON: Well, that’s not true anymore

RACETTE: No, not now, but you're absolutely right. And to follow up on the most-asked interview question that I've had, the next bit would be: “Well, how can you portray effectively Mimì [the main character in La Bohème] if it’s a heterosexual relationship?” I say, “It’s called acting. It’s called theater.”

CLAYTON: I've also had the question because I play so many pants roles, so I was playing the dude with a woman. “Oh, is that so much easier for you because you're a lesbian?” It’s like: No, because in my personal life, as me, I don't dress like a man. That's not my choice. That's not how I am gendered. So no, it doesn't make me a more lascivious pants role because, oooh, I get to kiss a woman. It's still acting. I’m playing a part.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: On one hand, you have people doubting: “Well, how can you play X if you are lesbian?” But I guess the other side of the coin is: Does the lack of representation affect you at all in these shows? And do you see opera changing to embrace non-heteronormative narratives?

CLAYTON: Well, absolutely. The first thing that comes to mind is the Kimberly Reed story. That came to fruition, As One. It was her real life story. She was the consultant on it. And that's been made into an opera. But all these stories are coming. Our stories, they’re on the way. And it's the same for people of color. It's a shift. And it's on.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve had to discuss this [topic] in quite a few interviews. Is there anything that you've ever wanted to say that the no one has asked you?

CLAYTON: My sister is an artist and she's about to do a really big painting for our house. And she was asking both of us to think of something that represents who we are.

RACETTE: We haven't done that yet.

CLAYTON: We haven’t really done that homework, but I keep thinking, over all these years, I always say home is where you are. Period.

RACETTE: That is it. We really love being together.

CLAYTON: I really, really love my wife.

RACETTE: And I, mine. We love being together. So when Beth was still traveling and singing and I was too, we suffered through that. Home was, as Beth said, wherever the other one was. There's just not enough. There will never be enough time for me to show her how much I love her. A lifetime is not enough.

To follow along with the adventures of Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton, please visit their websites—patriciaracette.com and bethclayton.com—or follow on Instagram.

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