15 Minutes with Patricia Racette

Patricia Racette was a good sport when my date unknowingly blocked her way to the stage during her Jan. 27 show at 54 Below. We were nestled in on the side, to the back of the piano (which actually made for a great view once my date turned their chair around), but what we did not know was that our seats were in direct route to the microphone. Of course I had to bring that up to Racette, who flashed us a gracious smile before getting up on stage, when we got on the phone. She laughed and said, “Oh that was you!?” It was then I learned her entrance was timed and she just barely made it to the mic on the beat. She did, however, and once she was there it was obvious she loves what she does. Her black, sequined flowered chiffon robe was fabulous, and she immediately started talking with the crowd. Performing her breakout cabaret album, "Diva on Detour," she kicked off her set with "I got Rhythm/Get Happy" (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin & Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler) and then worked her way to "Here's that Rainy Day" (Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke) which she admitted to the audience was what she sings in the shower. Racette also said she loves singing sad songs and listening to the lyrics of one particular piece, "You've Changed," (Clarie Fischer) prompted me to write "depressing" in the notes I was scribbling on the set list. Elton John was right, sad songs do say so much. Honoring her French-Canadian heritage, Racette performed four songs in that tongue. "You could say the French language has been chasing me all my life," she told the crowd. It was during a French medley ending with La Vie En Rose (Edith Piaf/Marguerite Monnot & Louis Guglielmi) that we were able to experience a taste of her operatic flavor. The audience loved it and she said, "You all like the French stuff, eh? Me too!"
Patricia Racette during her show "Diva on Detour."
Operatically, Racette is a soprano and has appeared in some of the most famous opera houses in the world including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Paris Opera. If you missed her in January, don't worry- she'll be back at 54 Below in Midtown March 26-28 to perform from her "Diva on Detour" album. I highly recommend the show if you are looking for an intimate date night and to get out of your regular dinner, drinks and party routine. There's something romantic about being in a night club, with just a singer and pianist on stage sharing a table with strangers. Here Racette talks about preparing for a show, her favorite role and coming out (her wife is mezzo soprano singer Beth Clayton). What inspired you to record your first breakout cabaret album? And how did you decide on its name? This is coming full circle for me, it’s something I started out doing. Then I was introduced to and pursued my operatic career. It’s something I’ve always loved and always known how to do; it’s really a matter of returning to it. In 2004, I was invited to do a little slot in a concert in Santa Fe [where she and Clayton have a home] and they said do something different, not operatically, and I thought, ‘oh great, I will do some jazz songs or some cabaret songs.' We agreed what those songs would be and it took off from there. I’m not one to be in a recording studio and I told them that when GPR [the producers] approached me. They said, ‘Let’s turn the studio into a live studio.' We recorded it in front of a live audience. Beth has coined the phrase, ‘I thrive on live,’ I really love the energy of the audience as being part of the performance. When they told me we could do this and have the audience to record and get what we needed, I thought it was great. In terms of 'Diva on Detour,' Beth and I were talking about what I should call this and it just seemed so completely accurate and appropriate to call it that. How much do you actually collaborate with Beth? We were lamenting when the CD notebook came out because Craig Terry, my pianist, did in fact arrange a couple of the songs but he only arranged one song himself. Everything else has been a collaboration. Quite honestly Beth has been a part of that collaboration, obviously I have, and from time to time Craig’s husband, Hugh Russell, has also been a contributor. I’ve read in print that Craig has been called music director which is not entirely accurate because some of these songs in fact are medleys that I’ve done before I even met Craig. I musically direct it with assistance mostly from Craig and also from Beth and occasionally from Hugh. How do you decide on the order of the set list? Does that happen right when you get on stage or does it depend on the night? It’s rather spontaneous and what’s interesting about doing these live shows is that you can play around with that order and see how it resonates with the audience. It’s very interesting for us to see that. Do you have a ritual before you go on stage? It’s sort of the same for opera. I keep calm. I keep focused all day, keep somewhat quiet and I do a really good warm up. For the cabaret, I look at all my music, I look at my note cards for the chatter and the patter and I just keep my memory very, very fresh. Do you ever have performance anxiety? I think it would be very untrue if any performer said they didn’t. I do. If anything the anxiety is before, once I’m up there I feel like I’m home. It seems like you embody the emotions of the songs you perform and are able to create a really intimate experience. This is the treat of doing music of this genre, you can really be intimate and tell these very subtle stories as opposed to the opera, which is usually such a grand event, if only through the number of participants that it takes to make that event happen. So it’s a nice change for me as a performer and as an artist.
With Pianist Craig Terry
Do you have a favorite role? I think Tosca is my favorite at the moment. I love the character; Musically, vocally it fits me like a glove and I like the female she is. So often in opera - let’s just put it this way - you don’t find the most feminist of creatures in your leading ladies. It’s just great to portray a character that takes fate into their own hands. That’s fun to realize dramatically. You did an “It Gets Better” video filmed at the Metropolitan Opera with Beth. What was that experience like for you? What sort of feedback did you receive? It was really neat. I was hosting one of the HD broadcasts at the Met and they filmed it in the hallway. Beth was with me so we had the opportunity to do that together. It was a privilege and an honor to do that - to be able to have our sentiments and thoughts on the subject known and also appear as we are- which is out and proud. In that video you talked about how you came out in 2002 in print and you said it was scary for a moment. You said the price wasn’t worth paying to not be true to yourself and your relationship. What article are you referring to and was it something you planned? The article was for our trade magazine, Opera News, and it was my first time on the cover and they were doing a feature on my career. At that point they didn’t know I was planning on coming out in print. Beth and I discussed that it was time to answer those questions not just specifically and honestly but with the celebration of what we actually feel about our life together. To dodge the question and act ashamed didn’t match what we really think and feel. Also, for me to not be an honest person or not be myself 100 percent, I felt that my art, my artistic voice, would suffer. How did it change for you? I was scared for a little bit. You have to work so very, very hard to succeed in this profession. I had achieved much and wanted to achieve more still and I didn’t know if this was going to be a great impediment to doing so. I was scared that the bigotry was going to ruin what I had achieved and not allow me to do more. But honestly I have not seen any evidence of that. Where in New Hampshire did you grow up? How did you end up in Texas for college? A town called Bedford. And, there was a great jazz school in Texas. I still ended up in opera, kicking and screaming. I wanted to do jazz and cabaret but it became very clear early on that my abilities at that time were certainly best led to the operatic genre. I had voice lessons every week and I was obligated to learn repertoire and quite honestly it came very naturally to me. It sort of took on a life of its own and took me along with it. What do you do to unwind after a show? It varies, sometimes I’ll go out with friends. I go home and I might have a little bite to eat but literally I just sit there. Maybe take a hot bath. Sometimes we’ll go out to a party - but it depends how busy you are and what you have going on. You have to be very guarded about staying healthy and keeping your energy up to the best because it’s an enormous amount of energy being a performer. What’s next for you? I am doing Manon Lescaut at the Washington National Opera, and then I come back and do the shows for 'Diva on Detour' in March, which I’m very excited about. Then we go back to Santa Fe and check on things. We come back here [to NYC] to the Metropolitan Opera to do Les Dialogues des Carmelites, opening May 4. Catch Patricia Racette at 54 Below on March 26, 29 & 30 at 8:30PM and on March 27 & 28 at 7PM. 54 Below, "Broadway's Nightclub," is located at 254 West 54th Street in Manhattan.

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