As I make my way toward the rehearsal hall through holiday droves of children on their way to see Rudolph in a matinee performance at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, I must admit to a moment of butterflies as I proceed. It isn't everyday that one gets the opportunity to sit down to chat with an internationally-renowned opera star such as Patricia Racette, a diva in the truest sense of the word – and well-earned.
With a career spanning more than 20 years, Racette has performed in leading roles at the best opera houses in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Houston Grand Opera, the Washington National Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Santa Fe Opera. She has won acclaim for her performances in the title roles of "Madame Butterfly," "Tosca," "Jenůfa," "Kátya Kabanová," and all three leading soprano roles in "Il Trittico," and this is just the tip of her performance iceberg.
Now, she brings her star power to town, premiering the title role of "Salome" with OPERA San Antonio. Not only is this the first fully staged opera at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts H-E-B Performance Hall, it is the world premiere of this new turn on Richard Strauss’ monumental opera, under the direction of the acclaimed Candace Evans. This also marks Racette’s first time bringing the title role of Salome to life on the stage.
Her presence in San Antonio is no surprise considering her relationship with Opera San Antonio Artistic Director Tobias Picker. Racette has worked with him on "Dolores Claiborne," "An American Tragedy," and "Emmeline," three of his original operas. She laughingly acknowledged that she is his “greatest frequent flyer.”
Laughter and good humor, to my great relief, punctuated our brief but juicy conversation. Racette is a most un-diva-like diva. She was just finishing up rehearsal. It is an unusually short and intense rehearsal period for this very demanding one-act opera, and many things must happen before the opening on Jan. 8. Although she is on a short timeline to make it to the airport, she shares her passion for her craft and this production with a zest and down-to-earth style that is infectious.
Tell me about "Salome." What do San Antonio audiences need to know?
“Well, it is a disturbing story. It’s a story that is based in real feelings and situations. This is a very dysfunctional family, and Salome is an incredibly dysfunctional young woman.
"It is also a magnificent story with a magnificent score. Strauss brings complexity to the listener, to the artists, to the orchestration in order to give life to the situation. Complexity barely describes it. It is a detailed and psychological piece. What is really interesting is peering into the lives of these – I’ll use a nice term – ‘complicated’ people.
“We see this in our society. We see the child go wrong for lack of character instilled by her parents or family," she said.
Richard Strauss’ "Salome," a one-act opera based on the play by Oscar Wilde, was originally performed in Dresden at the Semperoper in 1905. This production created quite an uproar that continues to this day in many quarters. The centerpiece of this production is the scandalous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” in which Salome seduces Herod to her salacious bidding, shedding her veils until finishing in the nude at his feet. Racette is really enjoying this challenging physical aspect of the production.
“We’ve worked extensively on the dance. For a 90-minute opera to have a nine-and-a-half minute dance...Well, it is unlike any other opera. Candace (Evans) is very detailed in her choreography, and I love the challenge of the movement," Racette said. "I am a visceral performer. I am at my best when my body is warmed up and I can just chew the scenery. This is all about just going for it."
Although Racette doesn’t have a dance background, she has a movement background. This is borne of the fact that throughout her career, she has embodied so many characters who are completely unlike herself.
“Movement and physicality has always been a part of what I bring to the table as a performer. I’ve never been a ‘Park and Barker,’ as I call it. The movement and the physical attitude of the character I am portraying is as important, and sometimes even more important, than the vocalism of the role.”
Racette continued in a teasing tone. “You know, in the production Salome gets naked. I have had people ask, ‘So, are you actually going to get naked?’ I say buy a ticket and come and find out. I encourage you to print that."
Originally from New Hampshire, another aspect of Racette’s Texas connection is that she earned her bachelors degree in music from North Texas State University before joining the Merola Opera Program and the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera.
Racette ended up at North Texas because they had a great jazz program, and jazz was her first love. “Actually, singing was my first love, and my high school music director guided me toward what he loved. North Texas was a great school for me at the time. One I could afford and one that was also very good.”
On that note, it is quite wonderful that San Antonio audiences have a very special opportunity to see the renowned soprano in "Diva on Detour" at 8 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Accompanied by pianist Craig Terry, Racette will share her first love in a cabaret-style performance. “This is a show that I have done quite a few times, and I am so excited to be doing it at the Tobin.”
The beauty of it all is that she found her way to where she belongs in the opera world, but she is still able to perform these great standards that she came to love in her youth. “What appeals to me about cabaret is the immediacy of the storytelling and the intimacy of the stories,” she said.
In this great setting, the audience can savor this dynamic performer in favorites from Cole Porter to Edith Piaf.
“Don’t get me wrong. I belong in the opera, I love it, it’s what I am supposed to be doing," she said. "But I also feel like the cabaret genre is something that I am meant to be sharing.”
This collection of standards is also available on CD via iTunes, Amazon, or gprrecords.com.
In addition to the Diva, the San Antonio Symphony will also offer a symphonic toast of waltzes and polkas by Johann Strauss, Jr., joined by singers from the cast of "Salome" in light operetta favorites from Old Vienna under the baton of Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing. After the concert, stay for a special New Year’s Eve performance with the Rick Cavender Band in the lobby of the Tobin Center. Before the evening's performances, there is also a limited seating dinner package available to make the evening complete. A black tie is optional, of course.
Tickets are still available for both performances of "Salome" on Thursday, Jan. 8, and Sunday, Jan. 11. For more details and ticketing, visit the Tobin Center Box Office online or by phone at (210) 223-8624.
Tickets are still available for "Diva on Detour" and the New Year's Eve bash at the Tobin. Visit the Tobin Center Box Office online. There may still be limited seating for the dinner package by calling OPERA San Antonio at (210) 673-7270.
*Featured/top image: Patricia Racette in Diva On Detour. Courtesy photo.