San Antonio — Soprano Patricia Racette has an amazingly varied career. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1994 and other major opera houses around the world followed soon thereafter. Further, she is one of the few opera singers that also excel at cabaret; she is just as likely to sing Cole Porter as Giacomo Puccini. Her cabaret performance in Dallas in 2011 electrified and surprised the audience. My review is here.
Now she is taking on one of the most difficult roles in all of opera, Salome, for the newly reconstructed Opera San Antonio.
Vocally, it is a brutal role, running the gamut from contralto to soprano ranges, all sung over one of the largest orchestras ever squeezed into the pit. The Dallas Opera’s wonderful 2014 production showed us, by necessity, two very different sopranos singing the role, but what they had in common was that they sing the Wagnerian spinto roles. Deborah Voigt, who had to pass on the second performance due to an injury, is the leading Brüunhilde (in Wagner’s Ring Cycle) of our day. Last minute and flown-in replacement Lise Lindstrom sings the steely voiced role of Turandot (including recently in Dallas). My comparison of the two sopranos as Salome is here.
Racette, on the other hand, is best known for the lyric roles, such as the lead in Puccini’s Butterfly and Mimi in La bohème. Unlike Lindstrom, Racette’s role in Turandot is the other soprano, the slave girl Liu, who has to float lovely soft high notes as opposed to the way Turandot trumpets.
“This will be my first time singing the role on stage,” Racette says. “I sang it in a concert version at Ravinia [summer home of the Chicago Symphony] but that is a very different experience from singing it on stage. A concert version is static, but a staged version is very active. There is the dance for one thing.”
That would be the Dance of the Seven Veils.
In short, Salome is the nubile daughter of Herodias and her stepfather, Herod, is drooling over her in a most blatant way. She, on the other hand, is drooling over the prophet John the Baptist, who is rotting in Herod’s dungeon and has dismissed her advances with disgust. Herod asks her to dance and promises her anything if she will. She agrees and this is where that famous dance happens. Afterwards, the “anything” she wants is the prophet’s head on a silver platter so she can finally kiss him. The opera ends with Herod ordering her killed as she is in an ecstatic state, making love to the severed head. It is all in the Bible, by the way.
That “dance” has been the Waterloo of most sopranos (and mezzo-sopranos for that matter) who attempt the role. In Dallas, it was highly choreographed with some backup dancers, which worked quite nicely, but lacked the spontaneity that would be there in a spur-of-the-moment improvisation for Herod. Some famous sopranos, such as Birgit Nilsson, didn’t even make the attempt and had a dancer “double” (no one believed it, however).
“I intend to go for it,” Racette says without giving anything away. “My cabaret work has been a big help in that I am used to a direct connection to the audience. Also, I did some shuffling—you couldn’t really call it dance—in a recent production of Show Boat. The way I see it, as she drops the veils she feels that it is not her body being revealed but it is her power as a woman that is being unwrapped.”
Racette has one big advantage in that Candace Evans is the director and choreographer. Evans is well known to local audiences; she has directed for both the Dallas and Fort Worth operas, as well as the musical theater company Lyric Stage. She is justifiably famous for her integrated approach to stage action in which there is no line between stage movement and dance, even in shows that do not feature “dance” per se. As a dancer herself, Evans knows what the body can and, more importantly, cannot, do.
As to the vocal challenges of the role, Racette is ready to take them on.
“When you really think about it, in my opinion at least, the role of Salome offers such a rich palette that different voices and different types of singers can mold the role in such a way as to put an individual stamp on it,” she says. “There is a lot of interpretative room to explore. Besides, my cabaret work gives me strength in the lower register that other sopranos may not have.”
As to the character of Salome, Racette has a lot to say on that front as well.
“She is incredibly manipulative,” she says, “a teenager who has never been told ‘no’ in her life. When the prophet says ‘no’ she is flabbergasted and, more importantly, frustrated.”
When asked about the necrophilia presented by a severed head, Racette has a novel take.
“I don’t think it was her first thought. However, after Herod made such a fool of himself insisting on the dance, she thought ‘what is the most ridiculous thing I could ask for.’ Then she was stuck with her decision: she certainly wasn’t going to back down, but then the depravity of it intrigued her. She could take care of Herod and reverse her first ‘no’—all at the same time.”