Patricia Racette may be one of the only opera singers able to cross over to cabaret successfully. She offered evidence of her cabaret chops on Wednesday evening at the Winspear Opera House. In an event for Dallas Opera patrons and season ticket holders, she sang everything from American standards such as "Here's That Rainy Day" (music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Johnny Burke) to Edith Piaf songs such as "La vie en rose" and "Padam…Padam."
Most of her program was on the dour side, with many of the ballads dealing with sorrow, heartache and lost love. One set in particular was a medley of songs that describe a particularly painful ending of a relationship. First, there is the first notice that something was wrong ("You've Changed" written by Bill Carey and Carl Fischer). Then, there is the painful discovery of cheating ("Guess Who I Saw?" by Murray Grand with lyrics by Elisse Boyd). The awkward breakup is next ("Where Do You Start" by Johnny Mandel and Alan and Marilyn Bergman). Last is the solitary grieving afterwards. This state of despair was achieved by a negative take on "So in Love" from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate.
All this moping was a surprise considering how happily married Racette is to mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton (who was in the audience). They share a love story that inspires others in the arts to come out and enjoy life. But this happiness was only expressed in the opening combination of Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm" and Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Get Happy."
Vocally, Racette was stellar. She easily moves from her chest voice to her diva range without a break. In fact, the change of register is barely noticeable unless she decides to make a point of it for effect. She can carry the chest voice way up into the top of a tenor's range and teeters on basso profundo territory for the bottom notes. It is really quite remarkable and as rare a vocal ability as Yma Sumac's stratospheric high C above high C, but not nearly as painful to hear. The voice is rich and creamy from top to bottom and has a mellow, as opposed to strident, spinto sound that makes her ideal for Puccini's distraught heroines such as Tosca and Butterfly. It is little wonder that she is singing both of these roles at the Met this season. When she put down the microphone and sang "La Vie en Rose" in her operatic voice, she stunned the audience.
Her diction was excellent. We got all her words. Even her French was superb in the Piaf songs. French uses the so-called mask (nose and sinuses) much more than English and since she sings naturally in the mask, the French vowels had little room to maneuver. Thus, her French has a honk to it that is both endearing and much like what you might hear on the streets of Paris.
The other carry-over from opera to cabaret is her acting ability. She is able to inhabit characters and their emotions are as real as they can be without any of the over exaggerations that opera singers are wont to do. She treats each song as a little mini-opera and portrays that character in a riveting manner. Perhaps this is why the program is so laden with unhappiness since this is an emotion that cabaret shares with opera.
The big question is what kind of vocal toll a performance like Wednesday's cabaret will take on the voice over time. Racette studies with Trish McCaffrey, one of the best voice teachers working today, who teaches both opera and pop stars. This combination makes her the perfect teacher for Racette, who aspires to both styles. Hopefully, she is keeping a careful ear out for any sign on damage.
Racette is still young and the voice has amazing flexibility, not to mention that anyone who can sing Tosca or Butterfly has endurance to spare. However, by the end of the evening you could detect some wear. It was most noticeable in her speaking voice as she gave her usual and charming introductions to what she was singing next.
This worry aside, Racette presented a first class cabaret performance that will linger in the memory for years to come.
◊ Read Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' interview with Racette in the Dallas Voice.