Three weeks before the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne at San Francisco Opera, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, originally slated to play the Maine housekeeper from Stephen King’s 1993 bestseller who murders her abusive husband, withdrew because of health problems. San Francisco Opera’s general director David Gockley and Tobias Picker, the opera’s composer, turned to soprano Patricia Racette, who also stars in the company’s season opener, Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele, based on Goethe’s Faust.
But don’t ask Racette how she felt being offered the role.
“This was not an offer,” she said. “I was asked. Offer sounds way too gentle and lovely and not as insane as this has been. To say this is nerve-wracking is just a wild understatement.”
Fortunately, Racette enjoys a challenge. She also says she feels great loyalty to San Francisco Opera, which she considers her artistic home, and to Gockley, who has supported her career. And she liked working with Picker before, both on his first opera Emmeline, as well as An American Tragedy. For those reasons. and because the New Hampshire native wanted to sing the part of King’s working-class heroine falsely accused of killing her employer, she decided to learn a whole new role less than a month before Dolores Claiborne opened on September 18 to rave reviews for her performance.
“The more reasonable side of myself said, ‘That’s nuts, there’s not enough time to take this on,’” she said. “But I really want to portray this character who’s sort of sulky and tough and older. Usually I portray an innocent maiden that’s been wronged somehow. This is something unique to do as an artist. I love the transformative process of becoming a character. That’s what really gets me excited.”
That love of transforming herself actually makes it fun for Racette to alternate between Mefistofele and Dolores Claiborne.
“I’m a very good multitasker—I like having a lot going on,” she said. “That’s where I feel like my strength as a performer is enhanced.”
Racette sees the story of Dolores Claiborne (which also became a movie starring Kathy Bates in 1995), who kills her husband to protect the daughter he has been molesting, as high drama.
“It’s got all the stuff opera is made of,” she said. “Well, there’s not much in the way of romance, but there’s death and scandal and wrong accusation.”
Before taking on the role, Racette talked it over with her wife, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton.
“When I was presented with this situation—notice I didn’t say offer—we sat down to make a decision together,” Racette said. “It’s affected every aspect of our lives. Even our poor dog is not getting the walks she usually gets.”
She and Clayton aren’t relaxing with their morning coffee, Racette says. Instead over breakfast, they turn to scene six.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say I spend every waking hour with my nose in the score,” Racette said. “And she’s putting in the same hours as me and doing things on my behalf. We approach life as a team and this is team effort in turbo mode.”
The role has taken over her life temporarily, but playing such a complex character offers her a lot as an artist, Racette says.
“I think the way in which Kathy Bates portrayed her was indescribably brilliant. Dolores is grumpy and she’s blunt, and that’s interesting to play,” Racette said. “Inside she’s quietly unraveling, but outside there’s this hard shell. She’s in a severely dysfunctional family, and Dolores really wants to try and fix this for her child, and it’s not fixable.”