The other half: Beth Clayton
Arts & Entertainment
The reluctant diva
Lesbian opera singer Patricia Racette talks about life and love, onstage and off
Published Thursday, 15-Apr-2004 in issue 851
She aspired to jazz, became an opera diva and fell in love with the mezzo.
Arguably San Diego’s favorite diva, soprano Patricia Racette is back in town rehearsing the title role in Leos Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, opening April 17 at the San Diego Opera. Local aficionados remember her as Mimi in La Boheme (1995) and Love Simpson in Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree (2001).
Racette has appeared in major roles at Covent Garden, the Bastille in Paris, and La Scala in Milan, among many others. In the United States, she frequently sings at the Metropolitan Opera, and the opera companies of Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Santa Fe, where she and her life partner, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, maintain a home. They recently purchased a new apartment in New York City.
“I began playing guitar when I was 8,” says Racette. “I played rather simply and since there’s nothing to do while you’re strumming chords, I sang.” She used sheet music to learn chords and vocals, recorded herself and then harmonized with the playback.
Racette didn’t study voice formally until she went to North Texas State in Denton.
“I thought I was going to get some sort of jazz degree, and they said, ‘You have a real aptitude for opera. This is what your voice likes to do.’ I was so devastated I cried.
“I was like (she sings in a very low voice), ‘Are we happy? I want to sing down here you know.’ And they were telling me I had to ‘Wooo—ooo’ (a high note with vibrato).”
Racette admits that she paid to make her operatic debut – the title role in Floyd’s Susannah – at a Ft. Worth community college. She was hooked: “This was my language, and the story happens in my country.”
At 22, Racette was accepted into San Francisco’s Merola Program where conductor Patrick Summers, now music director of Houston Grand Opera, was “integral.” Under his baton in September, she opens Houston Grand Opera’s 50th anniversary season as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly.
Backstage: Racette with San Diego Opera General Director Ian Campbell
Directors and conductors love working with Racette.
San Diego Opera General Director Ian Campbell says, “I find Katya Kabanova so compelling that I knew whenever we did Janacek here I would have to direct it. I also knew the only girl to sing it is this one. Among Patricia’s great aspects is the ability to get inside a role.”
Designed by Jane LaMotte, the new production of Katya is very simple in order to keep the focus on the people and the drama, which is set in a small Russian town on the banks of the Volga in 1860.
Katya is married to Tichon (tenor Jay Hunter Morris). Tichon’s formidable mother Kabanicha (Dame Josephine Baker) dominates both. When Tichon goes out of town, Katya begins an affair with Boris (tenor Raymond Very) and discovers for the first time what love can be.
“That changes her,” says Campbell. “She knows she can never go back to her husband because she has sinned; but she has also found out something about herself that is so powerful it destroys her.”
Guilt and fear ultimately draw her into despair until the only way out seems to be to throw herself into the Volga.
Katya is filled with jagged edges musically,” says Racette. There are no set pieces; nothing is extractable; everything flows together in overlapping phrases thanks to conductor John Fiore. You don’t have, as we affectionately call it, the ‘park and bark moment’. You are constantly acting. It’s always alive. It’s always theater.”
With few exceptions, those park and bark moments – where a director says, “And here you sing your aria” – are passe in 20th century opera.
So, too, is the “fat lady”: Racette says today’s opera singer must do more than simply show up; she trains like an athlete for a marathon, sometimes hiring a personal trainer wherever she goes. She rises at 6:30 every morning and spends at least two hours at the gym. Prior to an April 3 rehearsal, she ran five miles. She planned two hours of yoga later.
Surely the opera world’s most glamorous couple, Racette and Clayton, who sang the alto role in San Diego Symphony’s recent Messiah, met in Santa Fe in 1997 when both were cast in La Traviata. They exercise together, own a dog named Sappho (“A mature woman at 5, with just the right amount of heaven and hell in her”), cook together and occasionally wear each other’s clothing, though Clayton, who stands six feet tall, sometimes gets the short end of sleeves and pants.
Of their public coming out in Opera News, Racette says, “At that point we’d been together five years. It was very affirming for both of us and I’m really happy and proud of our decision. For me, to not be honest in your life compromises your potency as an artist. To speak the truth, to be the real thing, matters very much. I’m sharing my life with an amazingly beautiful person, a beautiful woman.”
Katya Kabanova, by Leos Janacek, plays at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., starting 7:00 p.m., April 17 and 20; 8:00 p.m., April 23; and 2:00 p.m., April 26. Call (619) 570-1100 for more information or link to the opera website by going to and clicking on this article.

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