Operatic soprano Patricia Racette is ticking off the names of her favorite film actors: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and, most of all, Meryl Streep. "You don't see her putting on a character; you see her being that character," says Racette. "You forget that she's acting, because you're lost in the story. And I approach my craft in the same way. I don't want people to be aware that I'm singing for them. I want to transport them. I want them to taste the story."
Arriving at what she concedes was an "ever so slightly insane" decision, Racette agreed to double her singing and story-telling duties this fall at San Francisco Opera. Already set to star in the season-opening production of Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele" -- a 19th century Italian epic based on Goethe's "Faust" in which she sings not one, but two roles -- Racette accepted an emergency request that she take over the title role in "Dolores Claiborne," composer Tobias Picker's new opera based on the 1993 Stephen King thriller.
As "Mefistofele" continues (it opened Sept. 6), "Claiborne" will have its world premiere Sept. 18 at War Memorial Opera House. It has a 245-page score. It had been billed as a "tour de force" for mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick -- who dropped out on Aug. 26, after health issues erupted.
Rehearsals were well under way when Racette agreed to take on the task with just three weeks to commit the new score to memory. She will sing throughout most of the opera's two-plus hours, as well as performing in Boito's nearly three-hour work, singing the roles of a peasant girl and Helen of Troy.
"Insane," she says again. She then adds this about "Dolores Claiborne": "It's going to be to the wire, but it's do-able. I wouldn't take it otherwise. I love an intense challenge. I like having the ability to rise to it."
She speaks in staccato bursts, leaning toward her interviewer in an office at the opera house. The intensity she shows onstage as a singing actress -- she's a regular at New York's Metropolitan Opera as well as in San Francisco and at other leading houses -- pours forth even in conversation.
Yes, this double-duty is taking her "a little bit out of her comfort zone." But she's always been like this. Growing up in New Hampshire, she once fashioned an ice rink in her yard when she got tired of waiting for her parents to take her skating: "Just insatiable," she says, when asked to describe her childhood self. "I needed a lot of stimuli around me. I wanted a lot of activity and projects."
New take on Dolores
Thank goodness Racette "had the courage and the chutzpah" to take on "Dolores Claiborne," says David Gockley, San Francisco Opera's general director.
The new work, Picker's sixth, spins the story of the eponymous Dolores, a working-class woman in rural Maine. For 40 years, she is caretaker to a rich woman, Vera Donovan, who dies from a fall down a flight of stairs. Falsely accused of the murder, Claiborne re-lives a different murder that she brought about years earlier: that of her husband, Joe St. George, who beat her and sexually molested their daughter, Selena.
With libretto by poet and literary critic J.D. McClatchy, it's an adult opera with an "emotional core and dramatic situation that is irresistible to me," says composer Picker, who calls King "perhaps America's best storyteller."
The book has had a life. In 1995, it became a film, with Kathy Bates in the leading role. That was an "awesome, amazing, pinnacle performance," says Racette, whose own performance will in many ways rest on Picker's music. He's known as a melodist, and the new work has "sweet melody," says Racette, along with "jagged dissonances and eerie nuances." The composer writes for "the extremes of the voice, which creates certain challenges."
At a handful of points in those 245 pages, he is building cues into the score to ease her learning process just a bit. Amid a dissonant orchestral thicket, for instance, a trumpet now foreshadows the first note of a phrase that Racette must soon sing. Like a warning shout, it lets her hear and grab onto the note, which she otherwise would have to pull out of thin air. "Thank you, Tobias!" Racette says.
When Gockley first came to her last month, asking that she consider the role, she hesitated. Then she examined the story, quickly, and decided that, while it was intended for the mezzo Zajick (mezzos have lower ranges than sopranos), it really was a "soprano part with some low extensions," suiting her own voice, which is "very happy" in its lower regions.
Her partner, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, also took a look and said, "I think you can do this. I'll help you." Clayton bought a four-foot electronic keyboard for the apartment in which they are staying, and the two went to work.
"Every single minute, she has helped me through," says Racette. "We wake up, and we have a cup of coffee, and we don't relax; we open to Scene 6."
Luckily, says Racette, "Music tends to memorize itself for me." But that's not the only reason she is going out on a limb with this role.
She identifies with the opera's American-ness, and even more so with Dolores Claiborne's New England roots. She cherishes the character's complexity and the changes she goes through over the story's 40-year span: "I love the transformative aspects of theater. That turns me on, to sink my teeth into that."
What else? She feels close to Picker and his music; this will be the third of his operas in which she has performed, after "Emmeline" (which premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 1996) and "An American Tragedy" (which debuted at the Met in 2005). And she feels huge loyalty toward San Francisco Opera. It's her "home house," where she has performed in more than 30 productions since debuting as the Priestess in Verdi's "Aida" in 1989.
Add it all up, says Racette, and "it took my reason away, and had me say, 'Yes.'"
San Francisco Opera
World premiere of Tobias Picker's "Dolores Claiborne," based on the novel by Stephen King; starring soprano Patricia Racette
When: Sept. 18-Oct. 4 (Catherine Cook subs for Racette in the final two performances)
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $23-$385; 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Also: Racette performs in the San Francisco Symphony production of Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele" through Oct. 2; and she sings songs by Gershwin, Sondheim and Porter in the recital "Diva on Detour," Oct. 4 at Jewish Community Center of San Francisco; www.jccsf.org.