The most fearless woman in opera? Patricia Racette on coming out, Trump, nudity and the demands of 'Salome'

One weeknight in 1985, a sophomore music student at the University of North Texas sat on the floor of her apartment and listened to a cassette tape that changed the course of her life.

Patricia Racette recalls the moment vividly: Italian soprano Renata Scotto sang Puccini’s “Senza Mamma” aria from Suor Angelica. A 20-year-old Racette followed along with the score, captivated by the vocal and dramatic opulence of the art she was consuming.

“Like a lightning bolt,” Racette says.

Before that point, the pieces she had been given to sing “might have suited me vocally, but they did not suit my temperament. My teacher was smart enough to see that, so she gave me a little pain and suffering. Some ‘Senza Mamma.’ And we were off,” Racette recalls with a smile.

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Since that transformative encounter with Puccini’s music, Racette — singing the title role in the Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” — has proved herself to be one of the premier American sopranos of her generation.

By the time she finished her undergraduate studies in Denton, Texas, in 1987, she had earned first prize in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola program for developing artists. By 1995 — just 10 years after she first listened to that cassette of Scotto singing “Senza Mamma” — Racette was starring on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She remains a regular on the Met stage.

The bulk of Racette’s career has centered on Puccini’s and Verdi’s most beloved heroines. She has thrived as Violetta in “La Traviata,” Mimi in “La Bohème” and Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly,” singing those roles at the world’s most prestigious opera houses.

In 2009, she delivered her heart-wrenching version of “Senza Mamma” on the San Francisco Opera stage.

“Salome” marks a new vocal adventure for Racette. The demands of Strauss’ score are more dramatic and angular than the lyrical Puccini arias she is used to singing. At this point in her career, Racette says, those vocal and dramatic challenges are exactly what she is craving.

“Bodies and voices change as years go by,” she says. “It’s a natural physical evolution and one I have certainly felt vocally. Right now, my voice is really happy singing ‘Salome.’ ”

L.A. Opera’s production marks Racette’s third recent appearance in “Salome.” She sang the role in Pittsburgh in October and again at the Met in December.

“I have been living, eating and breathing ‘Salome,’ ” Racette says.

In L.A., Racette will have a close friend and collaborator in the orchestra pit. This production marks the 12th time she and L.A. Opera music director James Conlon have collaborated over the last 20 years. Last weekend, they became Grammy winners together, he for conducting and she for singing on the 2015 L.A. Opera recording of “The Ghosts of Versailles.” 

“We know each other very well,” Conlon says. “Each time, our collaboration starts where the last one stopped in the sense that we can communicate our ideas and needs quickly and easily. There’s a mutual trust between us.”

The demands of “Salome” are diverse and unrelenting. Conlon says the part is notoriously difficult because of its range, the strength required to sing over its dominant orchestral part, the intricacy and complexity of the vocal lines and the staying power it requires.

“It takes somebody who knows how to marshal their vocal forces to sustain all of that,” Conlon says. “And she has to be able to act too. It’s really a part that, if you do it right, requires everything of an artist.”

“Salome” is unique among operas in that it incorporates a lengthy and physically demanding dance. It is a seductive strip tease that involves no singing but does end in total nudity.

“The rehearsals are unbelievably punishing,” she says. “But I asked the choreographer specifically not to dumb it down because I’m a singer. I love the opportunity to express myself through movement. It’s something that comes naturally to me.”

She says that when she is onstage in that moment, the nudity is not awkward. “I don’t feel like Patricia Racette disrobing. I feel like Salome in that moment, and it is driven by the energy of the character.”

Of course, she says, “it still takes a certain level of courage and confidence. But I’m not one to apologize. Go for it. That’s what I think.”

Throughout her career, Racette has displayed courage, confidence, vulnerability and honesty onstage. In 2002, when she came out as gay in an Opera News cover story, she revealed that she possesses those same qualities in her personal life, and her fans embraced her all the more for it.

Since 2002, Racette has stated repeatedly in interviews that being authentic and true to herself is a must. That authenticity carries over into her Twitter feed, where she is vocal about her “very strong feelings” regarding the Trump administration. 

“I’m daily and actively concerned on many levels, and I do think that there are aspects of ‘Salome’ that are immediately translatable to what is happening,” she says, pointing to the “baseness and narrow-mindedness” of many of the opera’s characters. 

Racette and her wife, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, make their home in Santa Fe, but in 2003, they purchased a Manhattan apartment in Trump Place, just a few blocks away from the Met at Lincoln Center. For Racette, just knowing the president’s name is on the building is difficult. (“I was all excited because I heard they were taking the name off some of the buildings, but it turned out it was the rentals just down the way a little bit, not ours,” she says.)

In some ways, Racette sees the opera stage as an escape from politics, Twitter and the barrage of the 24-hour news cycle. She believes that opera’s ability to transport audiences is one of its greatest strengths. 

In her 50s, Racette is not that different from the girl she was at 20. She is still captivated by beautiful music and drawn to the opportunity to communicate pain and suffering through her instrument. She views Salome not as a monster, but as a broken, damaged woman, and she is invigorated by the opportunity this year has brought her to get know this dark, complex character intimately. 

“There’s nothing quite as fun and interesting to portray onstage as a really poorly behaved person,” Racette says. “And Salome is that, if nothing else. This, for me, is truly a theatrical feast.” 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

L.A. Opera’s ‘Salome’

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25 and March 2; 2 p.m. March 5; 7:30 p.m. March 16; 2 p.m. March 19

Tickets: $19-$329 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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