Patricia Racette, Butterfly in this month’s Sydney revival of Moffatt Oxenbould’s production for Opera Australia, is a busy woman. But she doesn’t allow the schedule to get to her. Minutes after checking in at her Sydney hotel (at 6.30pm on a Friday afternoon), the soprano good-naturedly takes a break to talk to Allerta!, chatting away while putting down her bags, moving the phone and finding a comfortable spot.
Having last performed in Sydney in 2001, as Marguerite in Faust, Racette laughs when asked why it’s taken a decade to return.
“You’ll have to ask Opera Australia that! But seriously, I’ve been so booked these past 10 years, it’s a miracle that this engagement fitted in. I’m very happy to be here.” And jetlag has not got the better of her. “The time difference is so extreme that everything is turned upside down. You try not to sleep during the day and before you know it, you’re in the new zone.”
Butterfly has long been one of Racette’s calling cards – many local opera lovers would have seen her in the Met HD screening of Anthony Minghella’s production last year. She first heard about Oxenbould’s production from her old friend Patrick Summers, Music Director of Houston Grand Opera, who conducted its Sydney première 14 years ago. “Patrick and I have talked about this production often, of how wonderful it is, so when Opera Australia asked me to be in it, I said, ‘Oh yes!’.”
Puccini is perfect for her voice. “The vocal line has a linear, legato quality that really suits the way my voice functions,” she says. “I can train my voice to function in other styles, but Puccini and Janáček come naturally to it.” Dramatically, Puccini suits her too. “I identify with the verismo quality of his characters and I find his female characters’ emotional vulnerability very appealing. I love telling the stories of these women with their beautiful, complex and amazing journeys.”
Not that Butterfly is a walk in the park. “It’s the longest role in my repertoire; it’s just unrelenting, a huge athletic event. It’s also an intense, even excruciating emotional journey.” The rewards? “If you’re successful, the audience just falls in love with Butterfly – they scream and leap to their feet.”
Making a role one’s own can be challenging when it has been sung by so many famous singers, and when a production has been revived so many times. “Moffatt has been really terrific; he told me to make my own discoveries, because that was the best chance of success that the show had. If you try to follow someone else’s discovery, it never works. The next step, as a dramatic artist, is to figure out how a character’s journey attaches to your own heart, because that enables you to infuse the role with your unique interpretation. And that’s really what touches any other human being. What I love about Butterfly is her strength, which reveals itself in her unbelievable ability to hope in the face of such dire reality. Her belief is her honour and her nobility.”
If Racette talks about opera as if it were always a part of her life, the truth is that opera was not what she’d intended studying when she set off for music school . “I went to a school that was known for its jazz program, but once there, I was advised that my voice was best suited to classical music.” She laughs. “I was not yet that familiar with opera, so I wasn’t thrilled with the news! But I learned to love it very quickly, I love it passionately now, and clearly it was something that I was meant to do.”
Did she begin to go to a lot of opera after she’d been told that this was where her future lay? She laughs again. “The right answer would be that yes I did, but…no, I didn’t. I didn’t listen to recordings either. I started learning and performing the music and that’s how I became hooked on it.”
Now an old hand at the art form, Racette’s career has been studded with highlights. Asked to single out a few, she calls out to her partner, mezzo soprano Beth Clayton: “Beth! What have been the highlights of my career?”, to which Clayton responds with, “The Anthony Minghella Butterfly and doing all three soprano roles in Il trittico at San Francisco and the Met!” Racette laughs at this. “She came up with the right answers – I married well, what can I say.”
Clayton being a Handel specialist, the singers seldom have the opportunity to perform in the same production, so that in the 14 years that they’ve been together, they’ve had to plan to accommodate both careers. “We’ve had to look at our calendars and decide what makes sense for us as a family,” Racette says. “And when I say family I mean the both of us and the dog, Saffo, an eccentric and slightly insane toy poodle.” Saffo stays with a family friend in Santa Fe when the singers are away.
Having conquered so many operatic mountains, it’ difficult not to speculate on what Racette might embark on next. She laughs when asked about it. “My life has been so consumed by this profession and this music and this art form…sometimes I envy those who have a choice, who can think, hmmm…what shall I do now? But I do wonder if some German repertoire will be coming my way at some point…I think it’s something that will come and greet me, rather than me seeking it out.”