For Patricia Racette, Life is (also) a Cabaret

Email a Friend

A friend of mine recently let me know that Patricia Racette will be doing an evening of cabaret at Pace College in New York on March 11. In the parlance of some of my younger friends, I would so be there if I were not already committed to being some place quite different in service to you, my devoted readers. I say this not to seek pity but to encourage you to attend and then write in to tell me what I missed.

Regular readers of my articles know I make no secret of the fact that I think Racette is one of the opera world’s best sopranos. Her core repertory is Verdi and Puccini and her portrayals are insightful, spontaneous and musically secure and compelling. A character played by Racette is someone you care about. If you are in the New York area, you have two more chances to hear her sublime interpretation of Madama Butterfly at the Met (March 2 and 8). Watch the closing scene. Opera does not get better than this. You will also hear Marcello Giordani as Pinkerton and the Suzuki of that superb mezzo Maria Zifchak, who deserves larger roles and a much higher artistic profile than she has.

Racette is also expert at opera in English, in works such as Britten’s Peter Grimes and Picker’s An American Tragedy. Her use of her native language when singing is conversational but with awareness of the flavors and colors that music brings to the words. This is as important in opera (though few singers take such care) as it is in “popular” music, including what is known as the Great American Songbook. I have no problem with an opera singer doing what is pejoratively called “crossing over” if she can perform the music in its own style (musically and textually) and bring her special gifts to it.

I don’t see the worlds of classical/opera and “pop”/Broadway as separated by a wall but as sitting on the same gorgeous field in different zones that sometimes overlap. These art forms are part of a spectrum; certain artists have the gifts to traverse large spaces of this field. Eileen Farrell had a right to the blues. Barbara Cook knows opera well and probably could have done some roles if she wished. She has sung a cappella at the Met, for heaven’s sake! Her pal Marilyn Horne can sing anything she wants, splendidly.

Cook was the original interpreter of "Glitter and Be Gay" in Bernstein’s Candide, music that has been sung by artists as diverse as Kristin Chenoweth, June Anderson and Diana Damrau. Audra McDonald and Patti Lupone have ventured successfully into opera, including a joint appearance in Mahagonny at the Los Angeles Opera. I am sorry I did not hear McDonald do Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine at the Houston Grand Opera.

To paraphrase any number of Broadway babies and opera prima donnas, singing is really easy: it just takes the rare God-given gift of a voice, incredible talent, hard work and luck. That’s all! To this, I would add that it takes a life that has been lived. Such feelings are closer to the surface in cabaret and performances in intimate settings (classical vocal recitals included) than they are in opera, with its large stage, big orchestra and special costumes and make-up.

I was saddened to learn of the death on March 1 of Lucio Dalla. One of Italy’s great singer-songwriters, he engaged in a great deal of “crossover” with his dear friend Luciano Pavarotti. I had the good fortune to be with both of them at a “Pavarotti and Friends” concert in Modena, held annually to raise money for children in need, a cause Luciano was deeply involved in.

Well before Rufus Wainwright ventured from popular music into opera (his Prima Donna was recently performed by New York City Opera), Lucio Dalla lived in both worlds and was frequently seen at the Teatro Comunale in his native Bologna. He wrote a “popular” version of Tosca just as Elton John did with Aïda and Jonathan Larson did when he turned La Bohéme into Rent. Here Pavarotti sings Dalla’s song inspired by Enrico Caruso.

This is a translation of part of the lyrics:

The power of opera,
where every drama is a hoax;
with a little make-up and with mime
you can become someone else.
But two eyes that look at you,
so close and real,
make you forget the words,
confuse your thoughts,
So everything becomes small...

But, yes, it is life that ends
and he did not think so much about it.
On the contrary, he already felt happy 
and continued his song.

The idea of an opera singer doing “popular” song can be seen in this context. Opera is bigger and the orchestral underpinnings supply more colors and force than the work of even the most talented piano partner to a cabaret singer. But the “smallness” of cabaret--the two eyes that look at you--is part of its genius. The song becomes the drama and the singer, whether she is from the opera or “pop” worlds, can make that happen if she knows how.

Reinterpreting a Sondheim Classic

Let’s do some comparative listening. The song, “Losing My Mind,” from Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1971 musical Follies, was written for a specific dramatic moment late in the show when four characters (Buddy, Sally, Phyllis, Ben) each do a different type of Follies number--as a performer--that reveals more about each of them as a character. It is Sondheim at his most brilliant. In the show, “Losing My Mind” initially evoked a wistful sadness that has evolved to being but one element in the interpretations done by cabaret artists who have sung it for forty years. You know the song, but listen as if you did not.

First, listen to Dorothy Collins, the original interpreter of the role of Sally. Bear in mind that it was sung by Collins as a character and not in a cabaret context. Also, presumably, the performance was developed under the close supervision of Stephen Sondheim. These facts certainly don’t make this performance definitive, though it is great, but it gives it an unmistakable specificity.  

Then listen to and watch Barbara Cook--an artist as home on Broadway as she is in cabaret--from a 1985 concert version of Follies at Avery Fisher Hall. She combined her Broadway expertise with her innate genius with words to create an interpretation that is the character of Sally for those who know her and a very personal rendition of the song itself for those who do not know the show.

Here is the performance by Bernadette Peters in the most recent revival of Follies, which began at the Kennedy Center in the spring of 2011 and then came to Broadway, where it closed in January. It soon heads to Los Angeles, though with Victoria Clark as Sally. Peters’s interpretation was highly controversial because she entirely gave her voice and use of the words to Sally in that moment in the story of the show. She sacrificed tonal beauty and, to some audience members, seemed overwrought.

But can you imagine, say, Lucia di Lammermoor losing her mind without being very upset, to say the least? In this moment and in the context of the show, the song can also be seen about Sally actually losing her mind, blurring the lines between the “Follies-type” performance and the character who sings it. Toward the end of the New York engagement of Follies, Peters had changed her interpretation yet again, at least on the night I saw her. Sally was sobbing from the moment we see her, so that the entire song was performed through tears with lots of catching of breaths.

I heard all of these performances live and remember them as if they were yesterday (well, one basically was). That is why I am losing my mind that I will not hear Patricia Racette in cabaret (whether or not this song is on the program). So I will have to accept, for now, this lovely performance that is the match of the three interpreters above and, at the same time, entirely Racette’s. There is a sense of theater here, and a sense of character, but the song stands on its own as well: