Life is what happens while we are making other plans. Growing up in blue-collar Bedford, N.H., Patricia Racette sang jazz and played guitar, and when someone asked her to join the choir, her answer was "No, I sing alone." Then she joined anyway, as a second alto.
Not long after, her parents, older sister and younger brother piled onto a Greyhound bus to see Pat safely to North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton, where she meant to study jazz. "I was paying my own way, and the school was affordable," Ms. Racette, 44, said recently in the cathedral lobby of her Trump Place home in Manhattan. "I wept like a baby when my family said goodbye. But I completely blossomed there."
There were more tears when teachers started pushing her toward classical music, and another flood when she listened to Renata Scotto sing "Suor Angelica," Puccini's wrenching tale of an unwed mother banished to a convent to whitewash her noble family's honor. "I was lying on the floor of my apartment one night with the score," Ms. Racette said. "And at the end I was completely hooked."
As Ms. Racette was to learn, "Suor Angelica" is the centerpiece of Puccini's triple bill "Il Trittico," which opens with the shocker "Il Tabarro" ("The Cloak") and closes with the knockabout farce "Gianni Schicchi." For the premiere in 1918, the Metropolitan Opera marshaled Geraldine Farrar, the company's original Madama Butterfly and a reigning Tosca, as Suor Angelica; Claudia Muzio, another top Tosca, as the love-starved Giorgetta in "Il Tabarro"; and Florence Easton, whose repertory ranged from Carmen to Brünnhilde, as Loretta, the doting Gianni Schicchi's ingénue daughter who winds him around her little finger with the Top 10 aria "O mio babbino caro."
This was power casting on a grand scale, like fielding Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland on a single bill. Perhaps inevitably, sopranos eventually appeared who were hungry for all three parts: among them, Ms. Scotto, Catherine Malfitano, Teresa Stratas and Beverly Sills. Tebaldi tackled the complete triptych in the recording studio, as did Mirella Freni.
In September, at the San Francisco Opera, Ms. Racette took up the challenge in a spare but effective production by James Robinson that originated at the New York City Opera. On Friday she steps into Jack O'Brien's colossal staging at the Met.
"I don't think I've ever laughed more and told more jokes than when we were rehearsing 'Suor Angelica,' " she said, harking back to San Francisco. "But by the end of the performance I was bawling my eyes out."
Singing and crying at the same time: isn't that supposed to be impossible? "When you get a lump in your throat, it's because you're filtering the emotion, fighting with it," Ms. Racette said. "I don't do that."
Puccini won immortality by torturing his heroines, so much so that wary sopranos may regard his music as a drug: addictive and hazardous to their health in any but very controlled doses. Though Ms. Freni, for instance, portrayed Butterfly on a recording and on film, she gave the part wide berth in live performance, fearing the toll its anguish would take on her voice.
Ms. Racette sees the matter differently. "What I say in big capital letters is: 'Know thyself.' I love portraying pain. Have I been locked in a convent and lost a child? No, but when I'm onstage, I feel exactly as if I had. My instrument functions best when the emotion is highest."
From the beginning of her career Ms. Racette has staked out an eclectic path. In 1996 she created the title role in Tobias Picker's "Emmeline," a neglected work that many (including Ms. Racette) remember with more than token admiration; in 2005 she led the cast in Mr. Picker's disappointing "American Tragedy," after the Theodor Dreiser novel that was brought to the screen as "A Place in the Sun." Other premieres of American works on her list include "Cold Sassy Tree" (2000), by Carlisle Floyd, and "The Letter" (2009), by Paul Moravec, based on the W. Somerset Maugham play filmed with Bette Davis. Twentieth-century classics in which Ms. Racette has received high praise include Janacek's "Jenufa," Britten's "Peter Grimes" and Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmélites."
Of greater interest to impresarios with thousands of seats to fill, Ms. Racette has triumphed in the bread-and-butter repertory, racking up some 100 performances each of Verdi's "Traviata" and the Puccini favorites "La Bohème" (sometimes as Musetta but much more often as Mimi) and "Madama Butterfly." Butterfly, a marathon part, is her calling card, as she confirmed in March with an HD broadcast from the Met, seen on 1,000 screens in 42 countries.
Reviewing her Butterfly in The New York Times last season Steve Smith wrote: "Her singing was robust, nuanced and passionate, befitting a performer of her skill and experience. Even more striking was the dramatic specificity with which she inhabited the role."
He continued, "In every dimension Ms. Racette's effort was exceptional; hers is a performance not to be missed."
No wonder the San Francisco Opera and the Met came through with offers for the "Trittico" trifecta more or less simultaneously. David Gockley, formerly general director of the Houston Grand Opera and now general director of the San Francisco Opera, was an early champion of Ms. Racette's and continues to showcase her frequently. In a recent interview in San Francisco, Mr. Gockley spoke of the vocal qualities a soprano needs to excel in Puccini.
"The voice has to combine warmth and cutting power," he said. "It has to get over a big orchestra and still convey vulnerability. Suor Angelica fit Pat like a glove. She's no teenager, but she was convincing and fun and vocally voluptuous as Lauretta. Giorgetta took her to more of an extreme, toward Tosca, a role she'll be singing with many companies, including this one, very soon. As a run-up to Tosca her 'Trittico' filled me with confidence. Pat offers such a solid, reliable, complete package. She's really a phenomenon."
Solid, reliable: Ms. Racette has heard those adjectives before, and while she appreciates the tribute to her professionalism, they are not her favorites. "It's true that I'll never collapse on the floor and stamp my foot," she said. "I feel such a sense of privilege and responsibility to be participating in an art form that's so rich. But to perform with abandon, I think it's wise to keep a balance in one's personal life.
"I keep my process to myself. Very few people know the angst and passion and sweat behind the dependable facade. Among the few who do is my partner, Beth Clayton." Ms. Clayton, a mezzo-soprano, is now playing Vashti in the New York City Opera revival of Hugo Weisgall's "Esther."
The thing Ms. Racette insists on above all else in her work is collaboration. "I don't need to have my own way," she said. "But if someone asks me to do something I don't agree with, I am going to have to be convinced. Do you want a puppet, or do you want an artist? Real artists just need to be pointed in the right direction. A great conductor or director will unlock the specific qualities that make you unique. As an artist and as a human being, I'm at my best when I'm being truthful."
She has never studied acting, which is not to say she has had no directorial guidance. "I learn experientially," she said. "When we were rehearsing the letter aria in 'Emmeline,' Francesca Zambello sat by me and said: 'There are all those names. Put a lot of emotion in each one.' That was all I needed to hear to make it come alive. In master classes I always tell students: 'Know what the words mean. And know what they mean to you.' That's what lifts the material off the page. That's what makes it an artistic experience."
Though with luck Ms. Racette has many seasons of opera before her, she is already thinking ahead. "Later on," she said, "I want a cabaret career, singing programs tailor-made with the music that speaks most to me. I love my profession, but there's part of me that doesn't belong in the opera world. Cabaret takes me back to my roots. That's me without the fuss."
Back in the here and now, does "Trittico" feel like the pinnacle of her career? "You always hope there are other pinnacles ahead, but yes," Ms. Racette said. "Telling three stories in one evening, shifting gears so completely: that's a challenge to your invention and concentration. And playing Lauretta was a blast. For once I can giggle and laugh and not be dead at the end. When people in San Francisco told me they hadn't realized that was me in all three roles, all I could say was, 'Mission accomplished.' "