Traviata: Racette's Latest Triumph

Lyric soprano Patricia Racette practically sizzles between rasping coughs in her role as the consumptive Parisian courtesan who dies before she gets her man in La Traviata. As the curtain rises in the Houston Grand Opera's new production, she lies voluptuous and long-suffering on a fuchsia couch, surrounded only by bare stage. It's hard to imagine that this performer -- who brought down the house at the Met last November after veteran soprano Renee Fleming canceled -- first trained in jazz and music education at the University of North Texas.

"I wanted to be a jazz singer, but I got very swept away into the operatic form. I felt truly led.... I loved the demand that opera and singing the fine arts demanded of the artist. I loved the theatrical aspect. That is key for me," says Racette.

After performing as La Traviata's Violetta Valery more than 30 times, the singer has learned something about signature roles. "They find you. You don't find them. I feel a particular affinity for the part. A character like that is a complex, rich person. Violetta's pain, joys, hope and loss of hope can be so easily translated into a contemporary situation." In pouring a lot of herself into the part, the soprano understands the complexity of the courtesan's character and brings new insight to her interpretation of the arias.

The soprano is familiar with Alexander Dumas's play La Dame aux Camelias ("Camille"), on which Verdi based the opera. Abandoned by her mother at an extremely young age, the heroine is drowning, both from her excessive lifestyle and her disease, when Alfredo Germont comes along and falls in love with her. She fantasizes about leading a different life. This preoccupation influences her meaning in the famous aria Sempre Libera ("Always Free"), in which she remains committed to her carefree lifestyle.

"I interpret this song in a bittersweet way, as if to say, 'This damned life.' Many singers are very happy and carefree in interpreting this [aria]. But her situation is truly a tragedy. I can't see how it would be possible to be smiling during 'Sempre Libera'."

Technically, the role of Violetta brings a host of demands to the soprano, Racette says. "It's one of the most challenging in what it asks from the voice. The amount of singing, the kind of singing -- you've got pianissimis [very soft strains], full fortes [loud sections], bel canto [traditional Italian style], a very verismo [Italian realistic] approach -- all in an entire evening. It's the most challenging role in my career to date."

In the HGO production, Racette needed hours of rehearsals to manage many of those styles for a role that required lying in bed wrapped in a corset. "I have to make sure my singing apparatus is positioned right. This production is very edgy and asks a lot."

The New Hampshire native, who was enamored of the old, slow ballads of Sarah Vaughn and Ernestine Anderson, returns to Houston in April as Margherita in Boito's Mephistophele. In May she's a featured soloist in Eschenbach's farewell performance conducting the Houston Symphony in Beethoven's Ninth.

-- Cynthia Greenwood

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Cynthia Greenwood