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Blog Post: Feb. 2, 2021

“Pay It Forward”: an Interview with Patricia Racette, Artistic Director of Young Artist Programs

Over the course of 46 years, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has built one of the finest young artist programs in the country. The Gerdine Young Artist Program offers early-career artists — who are commonly in their twenties or early thirties — the chance to get valuable stage experience, to appear in small supporting roles, and to receive professional coaching from a robust and acclaimed music staff.

In a typical OTSL season, all of this training occurs within an incredibly condensed period of time, from the first week of May through the last week of June. This means that Gerdine Young Artists (GYAs) must arrive fully prepared — and already highly trained — for the demands of a festival season. But in the age of a global pandemic and resulting advances in technology, one silver lining has emerged: companies now have the tools to better prepare their young artists across the country for months leading up to an in-person contract. And Patricia Racette, famed soprano and OTSL’s Artistic Director of Young Artist Programs, is embracing these new opportunities with gusto!

“With our expanded program in the months leading up to the regular season, I am excited to develop a broader platform to bring seasoned artists and other industry professionals together with our GYAs,” says Racette. “Many alumni of programs are now out there performing at the highest levels, and I believe they have both the opportunity and the obligation to serve as models and ambassadors to our younger generation. Pay it forward! I hope that an expanded Gerdine Young Artist Program will help foster total ownership of the skills that produce potent and invested artists.”

So what exactly is different? “For this first outing of the program, I have invited seven clinicians to coach and teach our young artists from January through April. Through this virtual experience, our GYAs will have the opportunity to work on audition repertoire, study new roles, and even train on movement and dance…and these are just a few of things we hope to implement! The expansion also gives our GYAs the opportunity to hone their skills in a professional capacity, with the realization that being an artist is much more than doing things ‘correctly;’ it’s a matter of incorporating one’s specific life lens and experiences to create a unique artistic identity.”

Future plans for the Gerdine Young Artist Program expansion include training on diction, career management, freelance budgeting, and more. The ultimate goal is to ensure that young artists depart from Opera Theatre having gained much more than just musical experience. “In these programs we have the ability to offer consistent training over an intensive period, including vocal, linguistic, and theatrical work,” explains Racette. “To be an operatic artist, one must master not only the voice but also invest in interpretive energies: the physicality, the stylistic demands, and the linguistic requirements. I say this often: this is a virtuosic endeavor and one that requires ongoing dedication, commitment, and monitoring.”

The ambitious scope of the expansion should be of no surprise to those who know Racette personally or professionally. Since her professional debut in 1989, Racette has sung at every major opera company in the world. She remains a favorite at the Metropolitan Opera, and has won numerous awards including the coveted Richard Tucker Award.

Racette first performed at OTSL in 1993, when she sang the role of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, and returned for the title role of Iphigenia in Tauris in 1994. But her most notable debut at OTSL came in 2018, when she made her stage directing debut with an all-new production of Verdi’s La traviata. “For me,” she recalls, “the move to the ‘other side of the curtain’ was one that was natural and a real fit. As a performer, I was always aware and invested in the total performing experience, not relegated simply to my role. Many people may have said that I have been directing for years — long before my official directorial debut at OTSL! I have worked with hundreds of directors, conductors, designers, and fellow singers — each with skills that must be coordinated and disseminated by the stage director. Plainly put, the opportunity to help create multiple artists’ interpretive paths is beyond gratifying!”

Despite her legendary status as a performer and widespread critical acclaim for her directing work, Racette was nevertheless still surprised to get a call from General Director Andrew Jorgensen the following year when he invited her to become OTSL’s new Artistic Director of Young Artist Programs. But luckily for Opera Theatre, Racette didn’t need much convincing.

“My passion for the development and curation of my younger colleagues is mighty! I have strong views regarding how this art form functions at its best in terms of the participation and development of artists. I had previously created a seminar called Integrative Artistry, an intensive program which I have presented and continue to offer at various institutions across the country, so Andrew’s proposal made sense because it gave me the opportunity to take the more rounded approach and expand the work I am already doing.”

Racette’s vision for the Gerdine Young Artist Program is born out of a lifetime of experience. “I was a beneficiary of being in a young artist program, without which my career would have been hugely different. This may come as a surprise to some, but as a young singer, I was not confident about my own abilities. While my own ‘greenness’ allowed me to be quite a ‘blank slate’ in terms of literally building my artistry from the ground level up, I can say that I would love to have been given more positive affirmation of my strengths.

“My priorities both as a performer and a teacher/coach/clinician have remained constant throughout my career, placing emphasis on the total integration of what it means to be a performing artist. Mastering language, musical style, physicality, and, of course, exhibiting vocal prowess all unite to serve as the vehicle for unique and individualized interpretive expression.”

Racette’s plans to expand the GYA program began as early as fall 2019 — all before the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has taken an unimaginable toll on the livelihoods of performing artists who rely upon packed theaters and live audiences for their sustenance. In this, life has been no different for young artists than for major stars. Even Racette herself has lost several performance opportunities since the start of the pandemic. Yet she remains optimistic about finding new ways to provide artists with creative outlets.

“I believe the best training for our young artists is to give them time on stage, whether in fully realized cover stagings, scene programs, or concert performances. Obviously we must remain flexible as we move forward with plans, but we are committed at OTSL to forge performance opportunities both virtually and in person. I want the GYAs front and center as often as possible.”

For young singers who are out of work, Racette offers these thoughts on advancing professional development while under lockdown. “My advice is to take this time to learn a language (or two!), learn a role on your wish list, and refine your physicality through whatever exercises might optimize your instrument which happens to be housed in your body. All these suggestions are an investment in your future, even if it feels like a strain to spend money, but I acknowledge that there is also financial reality! In terms of generating income, become a teacher yourself — of young children, teenagers, or older adults interested in singing avocationally. Alternatively, split your time as a singer and capitalize on doing something completely different! Most singers are typically organized, disciplined, and creative — qualities welcomed in most fields. Casting a wide net is tantamount!”

When live auditions and performances resume once again, Racette is determined to make Opera Theatre’s young artist programs — which are already highly competitive — the most enticing in the nation.

“The proliferation of training possibilities through our newly launched young artist expansion program is something of which I am very proud. This expansion gives our program a real advantage in the added training and fundamental relationship building that can happen before we ever gather in person. OTSL is the kind of company that can boast the duality of a caring, familial atmosphere while promulgating world-class production values and opportunities. It is through these experiences that we can foster true ownership and the discovery of the artist’s unique and individual interpretive voice.

“Finally, to say something both frank and personal, my hire shows that OTSL understands the importance of choosing an artistic director with decades of lived experience on the stage. I am honored and passionate about sharing those experiences in ways that not just train but inspire future artists. The unrelenting search for the artist within is a lifelong task and one I am honored to aid in guiding.”