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In a stunning piece of casting, internationally acclaimed soprano and 30-year opera veteran, Patricia Racette plays Desirée Armfeldt in Arizona Opera’s production of a Little Night Music, and even better, Racette will be performing alongside her wife, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton (in the role of Charlotte Malcolm).
Racette came out as gay in print on the cover of Opera News in 2002—in what was a landmark coming out for the opera community. The Los Angeles Times called Racette “the most fearless woman in opera.” She and Clayton met in 1997 and were married for the first time in 2005. When New Mexico (where the couple live with their beloved pooch, Zoe) legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, they tied the knot again—and again after the 2015 Supreme Court ruling.
In addition to being a talented operatic singer Clayton also has a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She currently combines her performance experience with the platform of total mental well-being in a private practice geared towards the specific needs of performing artists but also those in the LGBTQ community and beyond.
Patricia Racette (left) and her wife Beth Clayton (right)Tim Trumble
Racette and Clayton caught up with OUTvoices ahead of their upcoming roles in A Little Night Music.
Your casting in these roles is delightful. And of course for those in the know there is an added layer of meaning now. But how are you each approaching your characters and what does it feel like to live, love and be on the same stage together?
Racette: We think so, too, and are so pleased that Arizona Opera was into the idea! Our two particular characters are, shall we say, not fond of one another! Desiree is having an affair with Charlotte's (Beth's) husband, and Charlotte is painfully aware of it. There are a couple of on-stage moments when Charlotte and Desiree exchange 'zingers' at one another, which is great fun to play! Because of the nature of each of our repertories, we did not have many opportunities to share the stage while both of us were actively singing. We did meet while singing La Traviata in Santa Fe, in which the plot took a twist when Violetta went home with Flora instead...! We also had the chance to sing Eugene Onegin in which we played sisters, Tatiana and Olga. Doing that opening duet in the Jonathan Miller production in Santa Fe, we faced upstage and held hands gazing into the Santa Fe desert skies. Those in the know got a particular kick out of our 'sisterly' relationship!
Clayton: For me, approaching Charlotte is both specific and general in that the goal is always to bring authenticity and life to the character. In this instance, Charlotte is quippy and wry and quick-witted, but she is also wounded and, in spite of herself, in love with her husband, Carl-Magnus. Her lines are incredibly dry, which allows such latitude in bringing the humor to the precipice without jumping over the cliff!
Racette: I approach this character as I have approached all my characters: my process is to always flesh out the person in the most authentic and viscerally connected way possible. That being said, playing a character who is in 'the twilight' of her career has a unique resonance! As I embrace this new chapter in my professional life in terms of my involvement in the profession and as I explore my evolving repertoire, I find particular resonance with Desiree.
Clayton and RacetteTim Trumble
Patricia, "Send In the Clowns" strikes me as a challenge if not for any other reason than it's a standard - Sinatra, Collins. But how are you going to do it?
Racette: I don't see it a challenge—I find it a privilege to infuse a song that has the capability of allowing the interpreter to express so much nuance and authentic connection to the text and to the context of that text within the scene. How am I going to do it? Come and see!
What is your history with Arizona the state—and with Arizona Opera?
Racette: This is my debut with Arizona Opera! I have a great affinity for General Director Joe Specter, and I have a long-standing musical relationship with Chris Cano. I think this company is really making its mark on the opera world, and I am happy to be a part of that trajectory!
Clayton: As for Arizona in general, we have a 'neighborly' relationship since we have called Santa Fe, NM home for over 20 years. We LOVE the desert! In terms of AZ Opera, I actually debuted here in 2010 singing the title role of Carmen, a role that I sang more than any other. Sadly, I found myself in a vocal challenge in that moment--most singers have these moments at one point or another. One of mine just happened to occur then. I share this because, as Frederick Egerman says to Desiree in A Little Night Music, "you might say my motives for coming here were...mixed."
I wanted to return here and 'come out' of my so-called singing retirement to: a) revisit a musical that was an early career highlight for me 25 years ago for a "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcast appearance; b) be on stage with my wife in a full production in a year that also marks our 25th anniversary; c) have a moment of 're-do' on these two AZ Opera stages; d) to have FUN doing this art form that is forever a part of me regardless of my newer path in the mental well-being world.
Racette and Clayton on their wedding dayCourtesy of Racette and Clayton
Married three times to each other and together 25 years. What is your secret!?
Racette: The secret? A lot of laughs, a ton of trust, and a love and respect that runs deeper than can be articulated.
Beth—the pandemic has been tough on everyone's mental health. But especially on LGBTQ folks and performers. What did you try to offer your clients during this time and what did you also discover about your own wellbeing?
Clayton: Tough—yes! And I wish the pandemic could be referred to in past tense, but we are definitely still dealing with it and its wake. One thing that I continue to remind clients (and myself) throughout this time is to remember that we possess such rich skillsets as performers beyond what our literal instrument might dictate--singers, for example, possess the ability to communicate, to memorize huge amounts of music and libretti, to speak other languages, to organize, to be disciplined in completing tasks. All of those skills have multifunctionality in life, even when we were prevented from doing our craft for live audiences.
In some ways creativity has been pushed to the forefront, and I cannot think of a more creativity-driven population than the LGBTQ+ community! We know adversity and we know resilience.
Get your tickets to A Little Night Music here.
What better way to celebrate Black History Month by enjoying some history in the making, this time in the traditionally white field of opera.
We caught up with Phoenix native and rising opera star Terrence Chin-Loy for a chat about his role in the upcoming production of A Little Night Music. The distinguished tenor and first generation Jamaican-American will play the part of Henrik Egerman.
Studio Spotlight & Scenes in the Wittcoff Concerts
Terrence, how did it feel to be cast as Henrik Egerman and are things starting to improve with more diverse casting in opera given that the canon is already so white?
Terrence: I still remember when I received my Resident Artist contract from Arizona Opera for the 21-22 season and I saw that instead of one of the Liebeslieders, which I expected to be cast as, I was cast as Henrik. I was very aware that shows like A Little Night Music are often cast with completely white casts, not because they necessarily need to be, but because they focus on familial relationships and it makes sense to most people.
Historically, musical theater has been much more adamant on sticking to what we would call typecasting, and part of that is race-based casting. It was so heartening when my boss, Chris Cano, told me that “...[the general director] and I just really hear this role in your voice.” I was very emotional when he said that because I think anyone of any race goes into opera because they want to sing. When we think of singing, we are thinking of the voice. It means a lot to me that in my time here at Arizona Opera, I have always felt that everyone around me considers the voice primarily, and therefore I’ve never really felt any limitations regarding what was possible for me. The idea that the opera canon is “white” is really a mindset. In most operas, and even in most musicals, there’s no real specification that a character must be white; it’s just often what we default to. I think as we as a society make more and more strides in diversity and inclusion, the arts as well as other institutions will continue to reflect those values.
Tim Trumble Photography
Congratulations on Fire Shut Up in My Bones. What do you think it will take for more Black stories to enter the canon - because there are more than plenty of true Black stories out there that remain untold. And do you ever feel like writing something yourself based on your own background?
Terrence: I think this is part of a larger question that opera is answering currently. Most new opera does not enter the canon; it’s performed once or a couple of times at co-producing theaters and then archived. Opera is a large-scale art form that takes a long time to create and eventually produce. I do think people in power are taking initiative to find and encourage these stories to be written, but it’s not an overnight fix. I think someone like Terence Blanchard is a great example, because he had not really written an opera before Champion, which he was encouraged to compose by an opera director.
A lot of composition initiatives that engage composers of color are already taking root, but opera is a specific idiom and these composers, often coming from other idioms, need support and time to become proficient in operatic storytelling. I think that’s where the opera companies come in as they have the power to work with composers from all backgrounds and see their visions become operatic reality. I don’t consider myself a composer, but outside of singing, I do quite a bit of writing. I am very interested in writing a libretto one day!
Yale Spotlight on Terrence Chin-Loy '14 youtu.be
Tim Trumble Photography
What in the storyline and themes of A Little Night Music most resonates with you personally, and as an artist?
Terrence: A Little Night Music is so beautiful because the characters are complex. No one can be said to be doing the completely right or wrong thing, but rather we see each individual character as very human, which is to say idiosyncratic. Desire is a strong theme that runs through the piece. I really connect with my character Henrik because he is stuck between the desire to be morally upstanding and the desire to feel love and passion. I think even though Henrik is not queer, there’s a personal resonance there for anyone who has grown up not wanting to be gay because it felt “wrong.” No matter what our experience, we probably have all felt this tension between something that we felt we should do and the thing we actually want or need to do. Other characters in the show work through this same dilemma in their own ways, and what we see on stage that still makes this piece so relevant today is that sometimes being happy isn’t about what’s right and what’s wrong. I think A Little Night Music is about listening to your heart to find clarity.
How long have you lived in Phoenix and what do you like about it and the scene, the community, and culture?
Terrence: I have lived in Phoenix since August 2020, and this place and its people have really surprised me in the best way. Discovering my love for hiking has been one of the best things about living here. The American Southwest is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and getting to experience that in Phoenix and Arizona at large has been such a joy. I’m a Florida boy at heart, and having the sunshine as a mainstay of daily life has been a beautiful way of living to return to.
Get your tickets to A Little Night Music here.
Adam Diegel has made a home for himself with opera companies around the world. He's performed in Wagner's Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera, sung Don José in Bizet's Carmen with San Francisco, and will appear with Nashville Opera this weekend, starring as Lieutenant Pinkerton in the season opening production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly.
Singing Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly has become one of your signature roles. We regularly see mature caucasian actresses sing the role of the 15-year-old Cio-Cio San. But even as we live in an era with colorblind casting, there's something unique about being a half-German / half-Korean artist singing a role that embodies the worst of American / Western imperialism. Is your approach to the role made any different by your heritage or is it simply a matter of playing the part?
Diegel: A little bit of both. It's funny... the irony... my father is American-German and my mother is Korean and they met while he was stationed in Korea. I'm the youngest of two and we moved to the states when I was two years old. There's not a lot of my life that can relate to Korean culture, although I obviously know so much about Korean culture.
I don't, for better for worse, see myself as Korean, mostly American. And it is, especially these days in opera and other art forms, not requisite, but kind of 'heavy air quotes' preferred that the person look like the role.
My only answer or rationalization for this is that the voice has to speak before the aesthetics, the physical aesthetics. Puccini is known for a really, really deep and full orchestra sound. And you need a voice that can carry over 70 instruments in the orchestra pit. There's a lot of brass, there's a lot of winds, they're all doubled, which just intensifies the sound. And if you don't have a voice with the quality to really carry through the orchestra, it seems a little lackluster.
Pinkerton is a lieutenant and he's supposed to be this strong character type. And, for me, the voice has to match that. So there's that aural aesthetic, if you will, and then there's just the sheer physical prowess of someone's voice. It's a really tough position for companies to be in, but that's how I approach it.
Adam Diegel--Don Jose (Flower Song) 2020 youtu.be
You've played Pinkerton in the Metropolitan Opera's Anthony Minghella production of Madame Butterfly and with at least six other companies around the world. What it's like to rehearse a role you're so intimately familiar with for a new company? Do you find something new in him or is it more molding the character to a new director's vision?
Diegel: I like to learn something new on every production. Rarely do you get to work with the same director or the same conductor even twice in two or three years. So it's always interesting. I always look for something new that I haven't experienced or heard from a director or a conductor. And it helps me to bring something new to that production and in those performances. Even if I didn't do that, there's always someone in the audience who's never heard Madame Butterfly before. It's my job to present Pinkerton or whatever character it is to the best of my ability and to the best of the storyline's abilities for that audience member.
You spent much of your young life in Memphis, Tennessee. Can you pinpoint what made you fall in love with opera? Was there a composer, a singer, or a work that made you think "Yup, that's for me"?
Diegel: Well, I wasn't actually exposed to a lot of what Memphis is known for: the blues. My father was in the military. Before moving to Memphis, we lived in Germany for two years in Virginia for two years. He was a big classical music fan and my mother was a classical ballet dancer. So there was always an emphasis more on the classical side of music. She was a big opera fan and he always had the CDs or cassettes back in the day that just had opera hits, certain duets or certain arias.
He bought one of the first Three Tenors recordings - Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras. I just remember hearing that music and just thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard in my life. And with their ability to communicate that music, it just really spoke to me. I remember hearing the Butterfly duet, "Bimba, dagli occhi pieni di malia," and playing that over and over and over and just thinking, "I have no idea what these people are talking about, but it's gorgeous." And so I think, even if I was exposed to other types of music, it's the one that resonated, no pun intended, the most with me.
It's interesting that this music has lasted and survived 300 years in some cases. It's timeless. The themes are timeless, harmonies are timeless, and the resolutions, I mean, everything. I think that's where it just kind of everything kind of clicked.
I never had an ambition to sing music or opera. I started really, really late, when I was 24, with an appreciation for opera. I met a teacher in Memphis who heard the potential and she said, "You know what? You can definitely do this." So we gave it a go.
Is there a production or performance you recall just standing in the wings and hearing a castmate sing and pinching yourself while thinking "Damn, I'm actually here and doing this"?
Diegel: Probably Wagner's Das Rheingold at the Met. The cast was Stephanie Blythe, Bryn Terfel, Dwayne Croft. Every single night. It was so kind of surreal. And even the first day of rehearsal. You're standing there amongst Wagnerian gods. It's one of those moments where you remember it like it was yesterday. And you kind of questions like, how did that even just happen? You dream of certain things happening and then that realization happens and you're just like, wow, you hope that you say the right things.
You've stated that you look forward to singing weightier tenor roles, including more Wagner. Is there a bucket list you've got going? Perhaps a top three of the operatic Everests you'd like to summit in your career?
Diegel: Well, I'm actually going to proverbially summit two of those this coming season. I've always wanted to sing Manrico in Il Trovatore and I've always wanted to sing Radames in Aida, and I'm doing both of those later this year. I'm over the moon. I also really want to do Otello and I really want to sing Siegmund (in Wagner's Die Walküre). Parsifal is really interesting to me and Lohengrin is as well.
I think it's kind of where my voice wants to go - the more Germanic route. Oh, and also Florestan in Fidelio would be a really, really interesting role for me. Probably that one more than anyone, especially given kind of the times we're living in? Being imprisoned unjustly.
It's really an exciting adventure. I'm learning those roles right now, Manrico and Radames. When you do a deep dives into those roles, into the music, it's just unbelievable how you have one composer writing two different - almost completely different - musical structures for Manrico and Radames. They're completely different roles. It's fascinating.
Finally, opera can be intimidating for newcomers who aren't familiar with the form. They think it will be difficult to understand, that the music isn't for them, or that they don't belong. Do you have any advice for opera novices?
Diegel: I don't want to speak for the company, but I would think that they would say Come as you are and dress how you will.
I think the best approach, if you've never heard an opera before, if you feel compelled to, go to YouTube and look up whatever particular opera you're going to. Just type in whatever opera name and then add "full opera" and there's at least five or six examples of that opera being performed in different venues. That way you can kind of get an idea of what you're in for.
But I think the most important is to come with an open mind and an open heart. I think once we place stereotypes or have a kind of preconceived idea, you know, "It's not over till the fat lady sings," it can jade our experience a little bit. Come to it and just say: "I'm going to let the music and the story speak to me, and I'm going to be open to it." I think opera has an ability to transform lives. And I don't mean that in a facetious, overly dramatic way. It can be such an amazingly beautiful experience.
Madame Butterfly is one of Puccini's greatest compositions. There is a reason why Madame Butterfly is one of the most performed works in the entire opera repertory. So I think that's probably my best advice: be open.
It’s not often that an opera singer goes from a young artists program to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera within a few years. Stories are legend in the opera world of singers spending years – if not decades – abroad, establishing their artistic bona fides before starring at the Met. Not Frederick Ballentine. He made his Met debut on the 2019-20 Season’s gala opening night in the role of Sportin’ Life, the quicksilver opportunist in George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess. Regional audiences had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Ballentine performing the role in Cincinnati Opera’s production of Porgy.
Frederick Ballentine in Recital youtu.be
You’re definitely a star on the rise. You entered the Washington National Opera’s Young Artist Program three years ago and you’re making your Metropolitan Opera debut this fall, which is incredible. What was it that first drew you to the world of opera?
Ballentine: Actually, I started singing opera when I was around 13. There was a performing arts high school in my area and my mom straight up forced me to audition for the school. I had no desire to do that. I wanted to go in law from a very early age and even at 13, I knew that’s what I wanted. But my mom made me audition and the first day they started mentioning scores and I was like, “I don’t even know what the hell that is.” I had no idea it was even opera when I auditioned. I just sang two little songs that I knew and, yeah, the first day I found out it was opera and I went to tell my mom. She’s like, “Oh, that’s news to me.” But yeah, I started doing it then and kept going. I fell in love with it.
I believe your this your third time singing Sportin’ Life? I believe I’d seen in your bio English National Opera and in the Netherlands as well.
Ballentine: I did it first at Glimmerglass Opera. The production that you’ll see here is a scaled-down version of Francesca Zambello’s production. And after that I did a different production, the one that’s going to the Met. I did that in the fall in London and the same production in Amsterdam in the winter. So I guess it’s so this will be my fourth time officially singing Sportin’ Life.
How does your approach to playing Sportin’ Life change through the different directors, different productions, and co-stars?
Ballentine: I think that you have to figure out where he’s gonna come from physically a lot with this role. Like, I feel like this character in particular echoes back to a vaudeville style. So there’s a lot of stylized movement that I try to infuse into the character. And once you’ve figured that out, you have to go to the director and understand how they want to do it. The production that we’re doing with James Robinson at the Met, he specifically stated that he does not want the role to be a song and dance character. So I had to figure out how I could still infuse a little bit of that style with somebody that is not a song and dance character. And I figured that out with James’s production through “It Ain’t Necessarily So” because I can throw in some little movements here and there within the small space that I have to do that aria, which is like 15 feet up on a little tiny platform.
Whereas in this production, the music itself is very, very sneaky. And Francesca actually provides space and stillness around my motifs so that I can actually do something that physically echoes what the music is doing. And then after that, you have to figure out what type of person Sportin’ Life is. And I think everybody across the board understands that he’s not necessarily evil. I think he’s just more conniving and out for himself. In the end, he just wants to make sure he gets what he wants. I think if the situation hadn’t been what it was at the end of the opera, he could have gone to New York and had made a living just fine, with or without Bess. But he sees an opportunity when Bess is that a low and he jumps in. That doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person. It does make him an opportunist.
And the leads sort of directly – you partially answered my third question – What is your favorite thing about a character like Sportin’ Life?
Ballentine: I like that there’s so many ways I can change it up within a show. I think that, when I do other roles, you have to get from Point A to Point B within the scope of the opera. And however you get to that Point B is usually pretty laid out for you via what the composer’s going for and what the director wants. You have a little leeway along the way, but more or less, you kind of just play the same thing throughout. And you have to figure out how to make sure that stays exciting throughout the course of a production. But I feel like with Sportin’ Life, I can change it every single time. Sometimes I can make him a little more violent. Sometimes I can make him a little more sinister. Sometimes I can make him the life of the party. You know, you can’t do that with every character. But Sportin’ Life can go, in terms of like how he’s perceived, in different ways in order to get to Point B.
Stepping away from Porgy and Bess here for a minute. You are a young artist and developing and growing your repertory and tenor roles are legendary across the form of opera. Is there an opera or a particular role that you’re really looking forward to learning and begin performing?
Ballentine: I can tell you my number one bucket list has been the same since I became a tenor. I was a baritone up until grad school, but the moment I became a tenor I knew I wanted to do to (Benjamin Britten’s) Peter Grimes one day. It’s some of the most brilliant music. It’s so exciting and so difficult. But it’s something that I definitely would want to work for about five years.
Looking through your bio, you’ve played some very, very diverse roles. I mean, you’ve performed in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles all the way to very classic Mozart. What do you believe that the opera world could do to encourage more modern composers to step into the field?
Ballentine: We need to start emulating companies like Seattle and Cincinnati Opera. What they have with the conservatory here, the Cincinnati Conservatory, they produce new operas nearly every season. I think it’s maybe even more than one new opera every single year. And it’s not just a tiny opera. Some of these are full operas. One of them I just saw this weekend, it’s called Blind Injustice, that was a brilliant piece of music. Had Cincinnati not paired with the Conservatory here and actually put in the money to build up something like this, this brilliant piece of music would never have been created.
Frederick Ballentine (Charlie Parker) as Don José in 2019's CARMEN youtu.be
Companies that actually decide to put in money to create American opera, those are the ones that are going to bring American opera to the forefront and make it a big thing. Washington National Opera does the same thing with their American Opera Initiative. And they do three 20-minute new operas every year in addition to an hour long one as well. It’s like a crash course about for young composers and librettists.
My final question, as we’ve talked about a little bit earlier, Sportin’ Life probably is not the worst of the villains in Porgy and Bess, as you say. He’s sort of an opportunist who sees a chance. Which roles do you find more fun, the good guys or the bad guys?
Ballentine: I love the bad guys. I do love the bad guys. It’s been a while since I’ve played a good guy. I’ve been doing Sportin’ Life now for almost a year. Even when he wants to be a good guy, he’s a bad guy. I forget what it feels like to play a good guy, I’ll be honest with you.
I do feel like the bad guys get the most fun. I do love – I’ve got to say – when I did Don Jose (in Bizet’s Carmen) I loved walking out onstage and people booing me. It’s one of my favorite things. It’s like, “Oh, I did it right! Yay!” I see tenors who are naturally very, very charming on stage play Jose, and at the end, I still love them despite the awful thing they did. And I was like, maybe that’s not quite right for me.