A Diva and a Don Start Things Off in a Rich Washington Opera Season
Opera singers are identified by voice—as in soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass, tenor and so on, as if it’s part of their birth name—as in Soprano Patricia Racette and Soprano Angela Meade. That’s one thing both singers have in common. Another is that Racette and Meade will open the Washington National Opera spring season—Racette beginning Saturday, May 2 in the title role of Puccini’s romantic early master work “Manon Lescaut”, Meade in the title role of Bellini’s hallmark bel canto work “Norma” beginning March 9.
One other touchstone—besides the fact that both women are shining stars in the opera firmament—is that neither knew early on that opera stardom, an opera singer’s life, would be their destiny as is more common in the world of classical music, where prodigies are the norm, not the exception.
“I think, early on, I had my heart set on becoming a cabaret or jazz singer, doing the Great American Songbook works, that kind of thing,” Racette, who grew up in New Hampshire, said. “Then along came this teacher in college, who heard me, and said, nope, you are an opera singer and that was that. I cried for a couple of days and then I set on my path.”
Meade, who is known an uncommonly beautiful natural voice, did not clearly know what she wanted to do or what gifts she had until in her late teens, growing up in Centralia, Washington State, another teacher at Centralia College, told her pretty much the same thing. “You’re an opera singer, I was told, and my immediate reaction was ‘What does that mean?’” Obviously, both women found out what it meant and albeit possibly considered late bloomers, found their way to stardom, through different routes, paths and roles. Racette is a familiar presence as a star, with a thick resume of star turns, most notably her highly praised turn in “Madame Butterfly”. She is known for her acting ability, and the emotional clarity and detail she brings to her performances. “I think acting—the emotions, the character—are equally if not more important than voice and technique. I don’t like when technique is solely emphasis, I want to know how audiences feel, I want to make them feel. Certainly you can’t have one without the other.”
Both will find challenges and its expected fulfillment in the roles they’re taking on for the WNO spring season. “With Manon Lescaut, it’s a tricky thing,” Racette said. “The music is beautiful, but the part is a little dangerous because on the surface she’s in that line of courtesan types—Violetta in ‘La Traviata’ is a shining example, but there are others. Manon is young. She doesn’t quite know what she wants. She’s obviously attracted to the young, romantic student Des Grieux, but she’s also forced by her situation to live in the house of the much older and rich Geronte, who providers her with a lavish life style. She can be thoughtless and a little bit of a young girl interested in fine things, the material world. She is in the end a tragic heroine, and you have to make the audience see and hear that she has substance, and deep feelings of love.” This is a first portrayal of Manon for Racette, who’s had her share of tragic as well as strong female characters in her repertoire, Mimi in “La Boheme”, Nedda in “Pagliacci”, Ellen Orford in “Peter Grimes” and the title role in “Madama Butterfly”, Violetta in “La Traviata”, She was last seen and very much heard in a powerful, passionately brave performance as “Tosca” at the Washington National Opera where she navigated the bel canto storms adeptly. At the WNO she also appeared in “Iphigenie at Taurid”, “Peter Grimes” and “Jenuva”.
Meade’s appearance as “Norma” has been highly anticipated by audiences, but it’s also a role she has wanted to perform, in terms of a challenge, in terms of the fact that “Norma” is a kind of check point when it comes to the great bel canto roles, one of which—“Anna Bolena” which she has already conquered. “I’ve done a concert version but not a production,” Meade said, “Ever since, I’ve just been dying to do the role. It’s just such a challenge and such a complicated role. There’s a lot of anger and fury here—this is a high priestess in ancient Britain who’s had a long love affair with the Roman ruler, had children with him and then he basically leaves her for a younger woman. There is a point there, yes, she resembles Medea, although maybe not quite so bad.”
There are some big shadows in the history of “Norma”, as there were in “Bolena”, Callas and Sutherland among them, speaking of high priestesses of a different sort. “You know, you can’t go into something comparing yourself to others. You’re aware of all that, but you have to do the best that you do, bring to it your own gifts and abilities.”
Meade’s rise—once she did indeed realize that she was and would be an opera singer has been nothing less than meteoric, although not necessarily typical. She entered auditions—“I always tell people who are going through this, sing something they haven’t heard before,” she said. She made her professional debut only five years ago by entering over 50 singing and vocal competitions and winning them all, the last ending with the best result. She sang on the Metropolitan Opera stage for the first time as one of the finalists (and winner) of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and was invited to join the cast of “Ernani” as a backup. When soprano Sondra Rodvanosky became ill, Meade stepped into the role in her actual debut at the Met and was critically well received. That was some five years ago, and ever since, Meade’s ascent has been swift with critical praise, major roles like “Il Trovatore”, another “Ernani”, and “Anna Bolena” , as well as a concert version of “Norma.”
“Your life changes, that’s certain,” she said. “I haven’t sung in Europe that much, although I’ve done a few things, and there’s still so much ahead of you,” she said. “And your days and nights are always filled up. It was hard to get used to at first, there’s not much time for a kind of real life.” She and her boyfriend, who is also a singer and whom she met in Ireland last year, live in New York. “He’s a singer also, and you have to find that balance trying to spend time together with professional concerns.” She recently added the Beverly Sills Award and the Richard Tucker award to a long list of honors. More importantly, she recently went to Centralia and performed a benefit concert at Centralia College to establish a music scholarship in honor of her late mother Deborah. “That was coming home again, and you miss that a lot sometimes,” she said.
The New Yorker called her “astounding” and another critic said she could be the next great Verdi soprano. But listening to her, you hear the voice of a clear-headed, pragmatic young American woman, no frills, serious and getting accustomed to her rising fame.
Racette has been a star for some time, one of the great voices and great performers of the opera world. She’s appeared in most of the great roles, and most of the great venues—La Scala, the Opera National de Paris, the English National Opera, the Vienna Staatsoper and of course at the Met where her performances of “Madama Butterfly” and “Peter Grimes were seen in HD in movie theaters across the world as part of “The Met: Live in HD”
She has also taken as serious interest in new work, works by contemporary composers which then encourages by her presence and participation. She originated the role of Leslie Crosbie in the world premiere of “The Letter” by Paul Moravec at the Santa Fe Opera and sung the part of Robert Alden in Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy, also in Santa Fe. “We have to rejuvenate the form with new works,” she said. “You can’t just sing the same roles over and over and over.” Several years ago, in an interview with Opera News, came out about her relationship with her partner, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton. The two, who met in 1998, have since married in 2005. “We both share the same world, which makes things that much better. I think it was time to talk about that, and I did. “
As to her early dream of becoming a jazz and cabaret singer—well, you might want to check out her CD on GPR records called “Diva on Detour”, in which she tackles Billie Holliday, Stephen Sondheim and Broadway tunes with a rangy, gifted, sometimes earthy voice in the service of American songs, jazz and a little bluesy lilt.
Listening to Racette, you hear a voice that dives into music and moves forward with it, she sees opera, her own voice, and other musical forms as a creative mix that’s never static, alive to the possibility of the new, full of dreams undreamt as well as fulfilled, on a detour, moving straight ahead.
For details on dates, times, tickets and casts of “Manon Lescot” and “Norma” visit the Washington National Opera’s webpage](http://www.kennedy-center.org/events/?event=ONOSA).