Interview with Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich

Susannah and Sam Polk Speak: An Interview with Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich

The San Francisco Opera premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah on September 6, 2014 was one of those big nights. The opera had been performed in the House before in 1967 by the affiliated yet separate Spring Opera Theater Company (with the composer-librettist himself also acting as stage director), but even as she racked up hundreds of performances worldwide, Susannah had to wait another five decades for a return. When the lean and turbulent work opened in 2014, in Michael Cavanagh’s bold new staging, it was the fulfillment of a long-held wish by then General Director David Gockley, who had championed Floyd’s works in his time at Houston Grand Opera. The show also featured an incredible starring cast, including Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk and Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk.

Racette’s roots with the Company are as deep as they come: she began here in the Merola Opera Program and as an Adler Fellow and has since portrayed more than 30 roles with the Company from Mimì and Violetta to Jenůfa and Dolores Claiborne. Following the last performance of Susannah in 2014, she was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest honor, on the occasion of her 25th anniversary with the Company.

Jovanovich, who made his San Francisco Opera debut in 2007 as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly opposite Racette’s Cio-Cio-San, has also portrayed Wagnerian heroes in Die Walküre, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and was the Prince in the 2019 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka.

I sat down for a Zoom call with Racette and Jovanovich to talk about Susannah, the effects of the pandemic, and some of their fondest memories on the War Memorial stage. The Company premiere of Susannah six years ago stood out as a highlight for each of them, not just as a chance to perform this American masterpiece but also as another of their memorable collaborations. (They previously appeared together in Madama Butterfly in 2007 and Il Tabarro in 2009.) It was evident from the start that these two San Francisco Opera stalwarts are not only great colleagues, but also dear friends who enjoy making each other laugh.

Before Jovanovich joined the call, Racette and I discussed the production of Susannah that she was to direct at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) this summer. Like many highly anticipated events of 2020, the production was canceled due to COVID-19. Racette, who made her directorial debut with Verdi’s La Traviata at St. Louis in 2018, was looking forward to working on Floyd’s opera from the other side of the curtain.

“One of the plans I had was for it to be almost interactive. It wasn’t just the audience gazing at Susannah gazing at the beautiful, pretty night. I was actually going to have a planetarium effect. I wanted everyone to feel the beauty, and the oppression, and try to have it be as visceral an experience for the listener and viewer as possible.”

“It’s a tricky piece because the scenes change from indoor to outdoor with very little music to make that happen. I certainly appreciated that in my preparations directorially, which was something I didn’t have to worry about when I sang the part.”

Racette’s connection with the opera goes back to her earliest days as a singer. “Susannah has a special place in my heart. It was the first full role that I sang in college. And I didn’t do it at my university; they weren’t putting it on. It was at a little community college down the road in Fort Worth. I had to pay to audit a class so I could participate.”

How does she utilize her 30-plus years singing some of opera’s greatest heroines when directing an entire company of performers?

“As a singer, you have to be somewhat mono-minded in your task; understand what your character is saying, understand what others are saying, and I don’t mean just literally, but interpretively. Directorially you have to back up that lens a bit and get a wide angle about the entire journey of each character and of the piece overall. I think it’s very important that everyone works from the same palette in terms of physicality, gesture, and how the piece is brought to fruition visually.”

Brandon Jovanovich joined our Zoom call in the middle of our conversation about the canceled OTSL production. “That's a shame,” he said, “Because, by God, Patricia it sounds like you would have frickin’ nailed it. That sounds amazing!” Not missing a beat, Racette replied, “That was the plan.” Any heaviness from talk of the cancellation was immediately dashed as both artists enjoyed a big laugh.

The conversation then turned toward the opera itself. Susannah’s two big arias — “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” and “Trees on the Mountains” — are well known outside the opera and often appear on recital programs. “I won many a competition with them in college,” said Racette with a wry smile. “They were my go-to pieces.” I asked Racette what young sopranos who sing the arias need to know before taking on a fully staged production of Susannah. “Well, you have to look at the parameters of the entire role. Take Traviata as an example. If you just think it is just the Act I cavatina and cabaletta, then you have another thing coming. You’ve got the ‘Amami, Alfredo’ and all of Act III still to come. The demands are extensive and it’s important singers know that.”

“But I think those arias in Susannah are actually quite telling of the vocal demands of the role. ‘Trees on the Mountain’ is perhaps more lilting than some other aspects of the role. In ‘Ain’t It a Pretty Night,’ her first aria, there’s a moment when she goes up to a high B flat and it’s quite stentorian. She has Tosca-sized moments built in vocally, in my view. When she is screaming at her brother and singing ‘it ain’t, it ain’t’ with Blitch … it’s not for a light voice. The arias give a fair indication of the vocal thrust the role requires.”

Switching to Sam Polk, I asked Jovanovich if Sam could have done more to protect his sister in the opera.

“He probably could have done a heckuva lot more to help her out there: ‘Go to church, good luck to you. I’m sure it’s all going to work out for you in the end.’ But, you know, I think that is exactly who he is. I’ve always considered him to be this loner guy who kind of shuns society. He is perfectly content to be out in the woods by himself. So, when you have somebody who doesn’t want to be part of society as a whole, they are more than likely going to run when there is a conflict.”

“Sam and Susannah Polk are outsiders,” Racette added, “You get that sense right away. They are part of a community that is impeded by dogma, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness. It makes me wonder, Brandon, what were their parents like? Maybe they let us think more freely than society thought prudent. Both of us are slightly different from the community around us. Like you said, Sam is a loner, and Susannah is sort of caught in between. The piece opens up with Mrs. McLean basically saying that we are bad seeds, those Polks. That sort of intolerance and mass mentality is still present and alive in our world.”

When asked why Susannah, which has been around for more than half a century, is still the most frequently produced American opera, Racette said: “It’s a slice of Americana. It’s one of our stories, of which there are too few. Singing in English to an English-speaking audience also has a considerable impact. The story makes sense to most people, in terms of its relevance and how an audience member might be able to connect with it from whatever perspective. And it’s a magnificent score! Carlisle’s uses of motifs, musically and otherwise, are just so powerful and atmospheric.”

“There are all of these emotional elements that people can just tap into,” continued Jovanovich, “From yearning for something better. Wanting to discover what’s out there. There’s betrayal, helplessness, and seething hatred resulting in someone’s death. You have all of these things wrapped into this story and it just draws you in.”

The conversation then shifted to the present and how each has been coping during the shelter in place.

“As the artistic director of the young singers of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, I spent this entire month coaching, doing master classes, private lessons, group sessions, consultations,” said Racette. “Whenever I teach, I always try to put my voice on what we’re working on, so I’ve been singing everything from ‘Come scoglio’ [in Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte] to ‘Nessun dorma’ [the famous tenor aria in Puccini’s Turandot]. So that’s how I’ve been keeping the voice going.”

“When this first hit, we were all just stunned and not knowing what was going to happen. My last performance was in Europe on February 27 and I didn’t sing for six weeks after that. I’m one of those: I need a finish line to go towards. It’s been a challenge but work-ing with OTSL has saved me. And I’ve started pulling out roles that I either used to do or roles that I still do. Beth sits at the piano and we sing through them. And I’m gardening up a storm!”

“Similar to Pat, when I don’t have a finish line it’s hard to move toward the goal,” said Jovanovich. “In the last two years, I had about two months at home. Other than that, I’ve been on the road. I took four roles on for this spring and was able to do two of them. But then this hit and the Ring cycle [at Lyric Opera of Chicago] got canceled while we were in the middle of rehearsals.” As engagements disappeared from his schedule, Jovanovich threw himself into home improvement projects. “I started tearing out our bathroom. I ripped it down to the studs and it's a big bathroom. What I thought was going to be a two-week project ended up taking three months. Had COVID not hit, I don’t know if I ever would have got it done!”

Jovanovich’s experience drew nods from Racette. “I have not spent so much time in one place since I lived with my parents in high school. It’s a surreal thing, because we are so accustomed to having a transient lifestyle.” Her gardening has been productive. “I’ve got cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, which is great because I love to cook! So there’s some slight silver lining to it.”

Jovanovich concurred, “Yeah. That’s my artistic outlet right there. I finished the bath-room yesterday. I finished painting the house yesterday, all the trim and stuff is all done. And now I’m building a huge porch, which I just started today. We’ve got bees and chickens. It’s all keeping us pretty busy,” he said, but music is still very much on his mind. “Once I have the patio done, I am going to start working on some roles I have for this coming year and, God willing, they will happen.”

With two great performers on the line, I had to know what kinds of music they were listening to during this concentrated period at home.

“You know, I’m pretty eclectic,” Jovanovich says. “I listen to a lot of podcasts, NPR sort of stuff. I have a music playlist that has a lot of country western music like John Denver, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rodgers. I’ve also got Mumford and Sons, some Bruce Springsteen. Also [Dave Brubeck’s] Take Five, some jazz. When I’m bored with all of that, I turn on some classical music. Yesterday I was listening to Mahler. Just fantastic. Kind of life affirming, really.”

Racette has a different approach. “My love and passion for music is mighty, but I really value my silence. We have a beautiful home here in Santa Fe. I love hearing the wind blowing through the trees. That’s really valuable to me. But if I am going to listen to something, in all fairness it’s kind of ‘tasky’; I’m due to do a big Edith Piaf concert, so, I’ve had a lot of Piaf in my ear.”

As Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich both have enjoyed triumphs on the War Memorial Opera House stage, I asked if they would each recall one time when they really felt the love coming across the footlights from the San Francisco audience.

For Racette, it was receiving the Opera Medal following a performance of Susannah in 2014. “When I was given the Opera Medal, it was so profoundly moving,” she said. “I will never forget it. I was acknowledging people in the orchestra and the chorus and then someone from the audience shouted out 'We love you!' I carry that with me. Being able to verbalize my gratitude for the years of exchange between performer and audience was just so rewarding and monumental for me. And then turning upstage and seeing [then General Director] David Gockley just weeping.” At this, Racette’s emotions were evident in her voice. “As Régine Crespin called them, ‘It was a white stone night.’”

“Lord knows I haven’t performed there as many times as Pat,” began Jovanovich. “Holy cats, that’s incredible!”

“Aren’t I old?” she jokingly adds.

“That’s the thing. You’re not. They worked you like a horse, I tell you what! For me, San Francisco kind of launched my American career in bigger houses with the Butterfly in 2007 with you, Pat. But the one that I remember the most was in 2012 when I did Lohengrin.” Jovanovich recalled how his mind was racing before his character’s notoriously difficult entrance aria. “The chorus parted, and my heart was thundering in my chest. Then I started singing. At the end of the night it was like finishing a marathon and coming in maybe not first but coming in second!” He and Racette break into laughs again. “Like you said, Pat, maybe you have five in your career, and that was one of them. To make music with hundreds of people on stage, off stage, down in the pit… and you’re just part of this group that is able to channel this fantastic idea that a composer had maybe 50 or 100 years ago and literally put voice to it and translate it to the audience. That night was one of those moments when I felt a huge sense of gratitude for what I do.”

Don’t miss Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah streaming through San Francisco Opera’s Opera is ON, July 4 & 5.

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