Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Patricia Racette, who sings all three roles in Puccini's Il Trittico with the San Francisco Opera, September 2009

Material from the Classical Music Column September 16, 2009 Preview Section, Bay Area News Group, under the headline, "Racette makes a lifelong run with Puccini's Senza Mama."

by Cheryl North

Have you ever had a melody that you just can't seem to get out of your head? Sometimes it goes away, but it can become so much a part of you that it keeps coming back, often at quite unexpected moments.

Patricia Racette, the Hollywood-beautiful, vivacious lyric spinto soprano in her ongoing triple-play turn with the San Francisco Opera's production of Puccini's Il Trittico, has a unique melody that keeps recurring, not just in her head, but at important junctures in her life. She revealed the rather amazing tale of her relationship with this tune during an interview at the War Memorial Opera House last week

Actually, it's not just a "tune," but an especially affecting Puccini aria: Senza mamma, from his Suor Angelica. She takes on the herculean task of singing the soprano leads in all three operas that comprise Il Trittico for six performances, opening Tuesday and continuing tonight through Oct. 3.

When I expressed surprise that she would even consider such a daunting project, she chuckled and said, "Oh, that's nothing. Right after we finish here, both the conductor, Patrick Summers, and I must fly to New York and do the same thing at the Met!"

"Actually," she hastily added, "it's been one of my great dreams to sing all three Il Trittico heroines. My other dream role is to sing the title role in Tosca, which I am scheduled to do next year, again under Summers' direction, in Houston."

The three very different one-act operas of Il Trittico - Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi - are traditionally performed within the same evening, but by three separate casts. Senza mamma is the gorgeous aria sung by Sister Angelica, the noble but tragic nun in the second opera. It's a lament for her out-of-wedlock little son, forced to live and finally die without the loving presence of his mother, confined to a convent as punishment for her sin. Hence, the aria's title is "Without Mama."

Racette's first encounter with this poignant aria was in 1984 at North Texas State University, when she was an entering freshman. A native of New Hampshire, she had piled into a bus with her whole family and traveled for three straight days to get to the school, known for its excellent jazz program. Racette was bent on becoming a jazz singer.

Alas, she overslept the morning of her crucial audition and was told she had missed her opportunity to sing in the jazz choir that term. She was directed to the opera class, which still had some openings.

The bitterly disappointed freshman trudged over to the class and sang for the professor, who realized she had a selling job to do to convince the young jazz buff to give opera a try.

Racette's face lit up with a broad smile as she recalled, "After telling me that my voice was much better suited to grand opera than to pop or jazz, the professor put on a recording of Italian opera star Renata Scotto singing Senza mamma. I was blown away!" Entranced by the aria, she willingly submitted herself to what was for her a completely unfamiliar art form and earned a bachelor of arts degree in voice. She then headed to New York City for auditions the S.F. Opera's Merola training program was holding there. Senza mamma was the piece she chose for her audition. She was quickly accepted into the program and headed off to San Francisco in 1988.

Among her fellow Merolini that summer was Patrick Summers, who since has become one of her closest friends and collaborators. Racette was chosen to sing the taxing role of Cio-Cio-San, the heroine of Puccini's Madama Butterfly for Merola's summer performances at Villa Montalvo, and Summers was to conduct. Since then, the role of vulnerable, determined Butterfly has become one of her signatures in opera houses throughout the world. Since her Merola days, she has sung leading roles in such diverse operas as Janacek's Jenufa and Kat'a Kabanova, Verdi's Othello and La Traviata, both Mimi and Musetta in Puccini's La Boheme, Freia and Helmwige in Wagner's Ring cycle and several world premieres of contemporary works throughout the world. She maintains close ties with New York's Metropolitan, Chicago, Santa Fe, Houston, Fort Worth and many European opera companies.

Although she calls San Francisco Opera "my home company," she and her life partner, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, make their home in Santa Fe.

Ah, but there's yet another Senza mamma anecdote in Racette's story. Just two years ago, she was chosen to present the Opera News magazine award to Renata Scotto. And what was the background music as Scotto accepted the award? A recording of Scotto herself singing Senza mamma.

Cheryl North, Patrica Racette, and
Warner North, backstage at the
War Memorial Opera House,
September 15, 2009

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