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Variety is key to Patricia Racette’s repertoire

PatriciRacette performs June 22 Ravinia’s MartTheatre. | DevCass Photo

Patricia Racette performs at June 22 at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre. | Devon Cass Photo

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Patricia Racette, with Craig Terry, 8 p.m. June 22, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, Highland Park. $10-$75. (847) 266-5100;

Updated: July 22, 2013 4:54PM

The first line of Patricia Racette’s on-line biography describes her not as a singer but a singing actress — a subtle but important distinction that anyone who has ever experienced one of her performances readily understands.

Whether it’s the title character in Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” or Leos Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova,” the esteemed soprano does not just perform a role, she inhabits it, melding her compelling voice with a complex, in-depth dramatic portrayal.

“I remember hearing a very talented singer say recently that it’s about making sound, it’s about the music,” Racette said from her home in Santa Fe., N.M. “I wholeheartedly disagree.”

“Because we have text, because we have the privilege of telling a story, whether it be through a song or a journey of a character through an opera, we have such a rich opportunity to paint so many colors and transport our audiences through so many experiences. That’s what is exciting. That is the reason to make the sound. Not the other way around.”

Racette has appeared in six Lyric Opera of Chicago productions, including the lead role in “Madama Butterfly” in 2008-09, but she returns to the city June 22 for a totally different kind of program at the Ravinia Festival. She will present a live performance of “Diva on Detour,” an album she released in January with pianist Craig Terry, who was recently named music director of the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric’s professional training program. The line-up features not operatic arias but Edith Piaf favorites and standards by such popular songwriters as Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and James Van Heusen.

It’s no secret that similar crossover attempts by other opera singers have wound up being duds because the vocalists couldn’t adapt to what is a contrasting style. But that is not a problem for Racette, who as a student at North Texas State University, aspired to be a jazz singer before switching to opera studies.

“This is what I started doing,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s what comes more naturally to me, but it’s kind of the truth.”

Racette has been actively touring “Diva on Detour,” including five nights at the end of March at 54 Below in New York City.

“It’s so much fun,” she said, “to perform for an audience that is A) so close to you, B) slightly intoxicated and C) happy to participate in the concert with their comments or applause or whatever. It’s nice to experience the informality of performance sometimes.”

While the singer plans to keep jazz and cabaret as a regular part of her schedule, she is by no means giving up the operatic stage. Her calendar continues to be chock full of engagements, with her usual mix of classic and lesser-known operas.

“I really like the variety pack,” Racette said. “It keeps me invigorated. It keeps me spontaneous. It keeps me interested.”

With three appearances on the cover of Opera News magazine and regular engagements at top opera houses in the United States and Europe, Racette might not be a full-fledged superstar but she has enjoyed the kind of career to which many others in her field can only aspire.

“I’m very pleased, but I’m also very ambitious,” she said. “One always wants more. I want every single opera house to want me to open their season with the opera of my choice, cast of my choice and conductor of my choice.

“My teacher calls this the black hole. Will I ever be totally satisfied and happy? Absolutely not. But it does keep me striving – slightly tortured, but striving — and engaged in this wild, incredible profession.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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