Opera’s Lesbian Divas

 
 

Opera has a tremendous
gay following, and the amalgamation of creative arts that it requires — music,
theater, dance and design — attracts many gay artists. But the advent of openly
gay opera singers remains rare. This makes Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton
all the more trailblazing: Not only are these renowned singers both out and
proud, but their 10-year relationship is public as well.

I had the opportunity to
sit with them in their New York City
apartment to discuss their careers in opera, their relationship, and how they
keep it all together. Their apartment is modern but modest. The friskiest
member of this household is their dog, Sappho. They referred to her several
times as their "daughter" and, when she took a liking to me, Racette
pointed out with great irony that "she loves men."

The couple considers New York their second home after Santa Fe, N.M., where they are building a new house
they’ve designed together. But Racette is originally from a very different
environment: Manchester, N.H.

It wasn’t until just
before college that she actually began voice lessons, with an eye (or ear) on
jazz. It was her voice teacher who suggested that she was well-suited to life
on the high C’s. "I was devastated," she recalled. "My teacher
said, ‘I really think the classical genre is going to be for you’ … and I was
like, ‘Oh, no!’" But she grew to
love opera in college, and a star was born.

Clayton, on the other
hand, grew up doing plenty of singing; her father is a Methodist minister. She
fell in love with opera after a summer at Tanglewood.

Both of the singers had
been out personally before they met. "It was a gradual thing for me,"
said Racette. "It was in college. But I’ve never spent too much energy being closeted."

Clayton came out to her
family in college: "I fell in love with a woman for the first time and
that kinda shook things up a little bit. I went to SMU in Dallas, and I fell in love with another
long-haired woman so it was a little bit ‘ahh!’
A little interesting for everybody, including me. But it was not a phase, as my
family perhaps thought at the time."

Then came a fateful 1997
production of Verdi’s La Traviata in Santa Fe. The two met at a
party before the production began. "It was pretty clear that there was a
lot of energy there," Racette remembered. "And then we got together in the
summer and we started our staging, and it was lots of fireworks. It was pretty
palpable. It was just a matter of time — let’s put it that way."

Racette was playing the
heroine, Violetta, and Clayton her best friend, Flora. Normally Violetta falls
in love with the handsome Alfredo, but this was probably the first time she
fell for Flora instead.

In Act II, during a scene
where Violetta faints at Flora’s home, Racette recalled an "illegal
kiss": "I was on the floor with Beth and, per the staging, she comes
in and scoops me up. But she leaned over and just plants one on me! I had to
turn my entire body into her because I couldn’t stop laughing when I was
supposed to be passed out!"

Despite these high jinks,
Racette received great notice for her portrayal of the amorous Violetta.
"Falling in love will do that to a girl," she quipped.

Racette (left) and Clayton

Since then their careers
have taken off, and often take them in different directions. For Racette, high
points have included the lead in Emmeline
— a world premiere — and her first performance at America’s leading house, the Metropolitan Opera
in New York,
in 1995. "My Met debut was really a magical evening — this was pre-Beth,
mind you! — but I was so excited," Racette recalled. "Everything was
right, the audience was great, and I had such a cross-section of my life
attending."

More recently, Racette
has received great notice for her searing portrayal of Madama Butterfly.
Although often portrayed as a victim, Racette brings new strength to this
classic character.

"I love her
journey," she said. "There is a complexity of that character. If you
were that person — and that’s how I approach any role, really putting myself
into that situation — this is someone that has nothing. Who has not heard from
her husband for three years. Has had his child. The amount of strength and
patience and the ability to hang on to that hope, I don’t know that I could do that. She does, and that’s what
makes it heartbreaking."

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