Opera star Patricia Racette sings locally
Acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette and Long Beach Opera make their South Bay debut
by Bondo Wyszpolski
She’s sung with many of the world’s leading opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Paris Opera, the Royal Opera House, La Scala, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and so to have soprano Patricia Racette appear in the South Bay is quite special. Furthermore, it’s not simply a recital accompanied by a lone pianist, but an entire opera, “The Consul,” composed by Gian Carlo Menotti.
The work, described as a “politically charged refugee thriller,” is a tragic tale of state oppression and insensitivity, with Kafka’s “The Trial” certainly coming to mind. Menotti, probably best known for “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” based the opera on a newspaper article about a Polish woman denied entry into the United States after arriving at Ellis Island early in 1947. In despair, she took her own life. Menotti composed both music and libretto, and the work premiered on March 1, 1950. It received the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Although “The Consul” has been slighted as somewhat melodramatic, the work has also been singled out as one long overdue for a revival.
BIG SHOWS, LITTLE SHOWS
Patricia Racette has also starred at LA Opera, most recently in the title role of “Salome,” presented earlier this year. But now we’re sipping cokes and sitting in the back of a downscale taco shop in Long Beach near to where she’s been rehearsing with Long Beach Opera, before the company relocates to the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts where the opera opens this Saturday night.
Andreas Mitisek has been the artistic and general director of Long Beach Opera since 2003, and he spent the past five years overseeing Chicago Opera Theater as well. It was in Chicago that he staged “La Voix Humaine” with Racette, and they got along, she says, “famously.”
And then, she continues, “I basically said to Andreas, Let’s do ‘The Consul.’ It’s on my bucket list to do this role. And, lo and behold, Long Beach decided to plan it. So I’m thrilled to be able to bring it to life.”
(“La Voix Humaine” was later presented locally, in a former bank vault, with Suzan Hanson. Long Beach Opera is notorious for its stagings in diverse venues.)Among the many things that impresses me about Racette is her willingness to undertake roles in little-known or brand new works as well as the operas everyone’s heard of. For example, she has originated the role in at least three operas by Tobias Picker (“An American Tragedy,” “Emmeline,” and “Dolores Claiborne”) in addition to works by Paul Moravec and Carlisle Floyd.
“That’s my personal taste,” she says. “I’ve made a huge career on doing iconic roles. Now, in the past seven or eight years, it’s been more important to me to zero in on the stories, the pieces, the roles that speak to me, both interpretively and vocally. After hundreds of “Bohémes” and hundreds of “Traviatas” and two hundreds of “Butterflies,” and quite a few Toscas,” I love doing something off the beaten path, something with different challenges and different expectations.”
At times, Racette finds out about upcoming roles through her agent, “but really it’s putting it out into the universe in a certain sense.”
The conversation pauses as someone stops by our table to ask if the restroom behind us is free. “It’s all yours,” I tell him.
“Be sure and include the bathroom chronicles in [the article],” Racette says with a laugh.
“I learned about this role,” she resumes, “because I’d sung the aria from it called the ‘Papers’ aria or ‘To This We’ve Come.’ It’s about 12 minutes; it’s really quite powerful and incredible, and I had sung it in concert settings several times. It’s an excerptable piece that people do, and I thought, I really want to take on this entire role. So I put it on my wish list.”
But the work isn’t revisited very often.
“It’s not,” Racette replies. “I don’t know why. I always say you don’t truly learn about a piece and have the experience, as a performer, until you’ve performed it, but first of all, just in of itself, [‘The Consul’] is a powerful, poignant story. It’s disturbing. And what’s disturbing about it is its relevance to what’s going on in our world right now. I think that audience members might be incredibly cathartic or upset, but it’ll be something that will touch us in a very direct and real way, and I think that’s part of the importance. It’s also humanity versus bureaucracy. In the story, bureaucracy certainly loses, which is not always the case.”
YOU WON’T GO HOME LAUGHING
In the opera, Racette has the part of Magda Sorel, the wife of a political dissident who’s on the run. He instructs her to go to the consulate and get a visa so she can join her husband at the border. Now, remember, we’re in an unnamed East European country and…
“It’s the decade after World War Two,” Racette says, “and none of those things finished nice with Ziploc seals. And also we have to talk geographically, how different places respond to either victory, recovery, whatever it may be.”
As befits an oppressive bureaucracy, there’s the secretary, the paperwork, the long wait, all of this before one gets to the Consul himself. As with Kafka, the tone is dark and unsettling.
“There are some specific texts in there that make it obvious what situation we might be in,” Racette explains, “but I think the ambiguity is very compelling in this piece. Andreas (who’s also directing the work) has decided to take that lead, and so it’s not important that we know what city and state or country we’re in. We’re in a situation. We are in some place. But what’s vital and important are the stories and the journeys and the pain and suffering that some of these people are going through.”
It’s not uncommon for Long Beach Opera to inject topical asides about current political or social issues (as we saw in their take on Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”), but “The Consul” may play better if left nebulous. People can draw their own connections.“I think it’s important for our audiences to be presented with an opportunity to think and form their own opinion, and I think any live performance can err on the side of spelling it all out for us.” With regard to compelling theater, Racette adds, “one thing will mean something to you, and one thing will mean something to the person next to you. But the important thing is that it means something, and the collective reception of those interpretive ideas… I think somehow in the cosmos they collide and the create a better theatrical experience.”
As indicated by the numerous opera houses in which she’s performed, Racette travels the world and probably has a suitcase or two permanently parked by the front door of her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It must be a nice place to return to, this writer says.
“Yes. It’s glorious,” Racette replies, “because opera happens in urban areas; and to go home and have sky and peace and quiet is, for me, essential. And, let’s face it, if you’re in this profession all you have to do is have access to an airport.”
Racette is in talks with LA Opera but isn’t scheduled to appear there anytime soon. However, her priorities as a singer have changed or evolved over the three decades she’s been performing. In some ways, her focus is narrowing, in others it’s clearly expanding.
“My wish list of the kind of roles I want to do right now is a much shorter list. It’s very specific because I’m also venturing into other aspects of the profession.
“I’m making my directorial debut in the spring at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and I also have this seminar called Integrated Artistry that I gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and we’ll be returning there. I’m going to Julliard to do a week at the end of this year, and I’m going to Washington National Opera to work with their young artists.”
That’s probably just half of what she has coming up.
“My passion [for] this art form is vast,” Racette says, “and I’m loving this splintering of my energies and attentions in addition to performing.”
The Consul, directed by Andreas Mitisek and conducted by Kristoff Van Grysperre, with Patricia Racette in the leading role, is being performed by Long Beach Opera on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., plus Friday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 22, at 2:30 p.m., in the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts, 14901 S. Inglewood Ave., Lawndale. Pre-opera talks with the director take place an hour before each performance. Tickets, $49 to $150 (space permitting, student rush tickets are $15). Call (562) 470-7464 or go to longbeachopera.org. ER