You can typically count on an opera singer like out soprano Patricia Racette for providing heightened drama onstage.
Racette is due to star in a revival of Madama Butterfly at the Lyric Opera of Chicago this month, and she's had plenty of experience on how to wring out as much emotion and drama from Puccini's classic tragedy of a Japanese geisha who is abandoned by her American naval husband. Racette has performed this signature role more than 100 times, including a run in the Lyric's final staging of its 1980s Harold Prince production in 2008 before they replaced it with one by British director Michael Grandage last year.
But how does Racette react offstage when something major happens that affects her own life? Racette and her fellow opera singer wife, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, have made a home together in Santa Fe, so they were bound to have a joyous response when the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalized gay marriage on Dec. 19, 2013.
"My wife and I were running errands and I was in the car as she was out picking something up, and I got a news bulletin on my phone that said 'Gay marriage approved in New Mexico," Racette said during a recent telephone interview. "I just immediately ran out of the car, left the keys in there, and shouted to her, 'We got it! It's approved!'"
Racette and Clayton have been together as a couple for more than 16 years, first meeting in a Santa Fe Opera production of Verdi's La Traviata in 1997 when Racette starred as Violetta and Clayton was cast as her friend, Flora. Though the couple had already had a 2008 commitment ceremony and reception with friends and family in New Mexico, they plan on getting a state marriage license soon just to make it legally binding. It will add to their New York marriage license they recently obtained following Racette's appearance in the Metropolitan Opera revival of Puccini's Tosca that was simulcast around the world to movie theaters as part of the Live in HD series this past November.
"It's going to be an interesting tax year as well. Because of DOMA, we'll be filing as a married couple for the first time," said Racette about the U.S. Supreme Court striking down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act last year. "But as opera singers, because we work in many different states, I have to file as a single person where it's not recognized in those states and as a married person where it is. Talk about a recipe for confusion."
Last year was also something of a career high for Racette, too.
She showed off her vocal versatility early on with the January 2013 release of her CD "Diva on Detour," which featured her singing jazz and Broadway showtune standards. Racette also got to perform a series of intimate shows tied to the album at 54 Below, the basement cabaret space at Studio 54 in New York.
"It really is one of the best performing experiences I've had," Racette said. "I'm not a boastful person, but I say with full confidence that I don't sound like an opera singer when I'm singing [showtunes]. I sing like a cabaret singer. And the reason is because that's where I started."
Racette also made plenty of headlines in September when she was asked, on short notice, to step into the title role of Tobias Picker's world-premiere opera adaptation of the Stephen King novel Dolores Claiborne at San Francisco Opera. Originally cast opera star Dolora Zajick pulled out of the production late in the game, giving Racette less than three weeks to learn and memorize the role and the staging.
Racette did this on top of simultaneously rehearsing and starring as Margherita in a repertory staging of Bioto's opera Mephistopheles with the same company.
"It was a harrowing experience, and I'm not sure I would do that to myself again," said Racette about her experience starring in her third world premiere Picker opera following Emmeline in 1996 and An American Tragedy in 2005. "I mean I love a challenge like that, but I was literally working from the moment my eyes opened to when I had to close themso about 13 hours a day."
But Racette said she has always been great at multitasking. When asked about the "It Gets Better" anti-suicide video for LGBTQ youth that she and Clayton filmed in 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera, Racette said it happened between intermissions when she was hosting the worldwide Live in HD simulcast of Boris Godunov.
"It was really their idea," Racette said of the Metropolitan Opera, noting that it made sense to film the video at that time since she and Clayton were already "tszujed up" for her international live hosting duties.
Racette and Clayton were pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response they received after their video was posted to YouTube. For many months afterwards, Racette and Clayton would receive physical thank you notes in the many opera houses they performed at.
"We were honored to have been given the opportunity to be activists for a cause," Racette said. "We are out, we are proud and we do take the many opportunities to assert that."
Patricia Racette stars in the remaining six performances of Madama Butterfly in January at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Performance times are at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11, 14, 17 and 20 with 2 p.m. matinees Jan. 23 and 26. Tickets are $64-$299; call 312-332-2244 or visit www.lyricopera.org .