Woman Warrior

Out mezzo Beth Clayton suits up for City Opera’s “Xerxes”

Tall, stunning Beth Clayton has vocal and interpretive gifts that make her one of the hottest young opera singers around. The Arkansas minister’s daughter took City Opera by storm creating the title role in Deborah Drattell’s “Lilith” (2001), and won vociferous acclaim for her powerful Erda in Christopher Alden’s EOS reimagining of “The Rhinegold” (2002).

Clayton and her life partner, renowned soprano Patricia Racette, made public the fact of their relationship in an unprecedented (but seemingly trend-setting) Opera News cover feature two years ago. This summer, Clayton’s doing the American premiere of Richard Rodney Bennett’s intense “The Mines of Sulphur” (1965) at Glimmerglass, where she scored in 2001 as a Keanu-like Nero in Handel’s “Agrippina.”

Handel’s on her dance card again, with the woman warrior Amastre in City Opera’s starrily cast revival of Stephen Wadsworth’s gorgeous, much traveled “Xerxes.”

She spoke with Gay City News by cell phone during a “Xerxes” rehearsal break.

DAVID SHENGOLD: What’s it like fitting into an established production? How do you enjoy doing Amastre?

BETH CLAYTON: It’s going great. Stephen rehearses in a way so that you put your own stamp on it, really capitalizing on who’s doing it. But as far as the thought behind it, it works, so there’s no need to change it. The chemistry of this cast is really good, there’s a very good rapport––and you can’t always say that.

Goodness knows I love wearing Amastre’s 18th century man’s suit! Marty Pakladinez is making me a brand new one and it’s very beautiful.

I love her two “rage arias,” but the best one is that last short beautful thing in act three, which is the Zen moment of absolute transformation: “I am to blame for all my sorrow, and I know why.” Her journey takes a much brighter turn there after a lot of whining all evening! But she’s sympathetic if you do it the right way. I do a varied repertory, typical for mezzos. I wouldn’t want to do Handel all the time; I mean, love it, but I like a balanced diet.

DS: What do you enjoy most? Pants roles or seductress roles?

BC: I’ve done fewer pants roles than I had thought I was going to do. Femme fatale things are evolving more––though I am doing my first Octavian, which I’m quite ecstatic about, in Vancouver next fall. That’ll be Debbie Voigt’s first Marschallin! I’m very happy. And I’m doing my first real “Ring” with Stephen Wadsworth in Seattle next year. I’m very excited to be getting my feet wet with the baby roles in it, Flosshilde [in “Rheingold” and “Götterdämmerung”] and Rossweise [in “Walküre”]; and I’m covering the Erdas and the First Norn. It’s a good way to get a Wagner education, and the production works and is fine tuned. It should be a lot of fun.

DS: You and Patricia met doing Violetta and Flora in “Traviata,” and two summers ago played sisters in Santa Fe’s “Eugene Onegin.” What else have you considered undertaking together?

BC: If Pat could do a Marschallin with me at some point, that would be a welcome thing. In the standard rep, there’s not a lot that suits both of us simultaneously. We have a kind of extreme project that we’re hoping to bring to life. We have to get the right composer and the rights. It’s subject matter that’s intense and wonderful and obviously involves two women. That’s all I can tell you, really. It’s a big dream of both of ours.

DS: What was the reaction to the Opera News piece?

BC: The most honest thing to say is that it would be really rare if someone approached me with something negative! For us, it’s more of a personal joy having that not be an issue. You asked if being a lesbian has shaped your career, and I’d have to say absolutely not. I still sing the same kind of roles regardless. It becomes an adjective rather than a noun at a certain point. I didn’t ever want to be “the lesbian mezzo.” I’m Beth Clayton and I’m a mezzo.

DS: What’s your theatrical and musical training?

BC: For me, the value of the “Lilith” experience was getting to work with Anne Bogart and her City Company; learning from her and her actors changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Very valuable. In my high school in Arkansas––in Malverne, a town of about 10,000––I never took drama classes but was always in the plays. I did great, hilarious productions of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” The videos are in my private archives and they need to stay there. I’ve subjected Pat to them a couple times.

I am the daughter of a Methodist minister and grew up in the church. I sang a lot in that forum. It took official form when [in] high school at the instigation of my choral director I went to the Tanglewood Young Artists Vocal program. That sealed the deal for me. It was clear to me there was no turning back. It was a phenomenal experience for me both as a person and as a singer, a wonderful program.

DS: Do you get back to Arkansas? Have you sung there?

BC: I go to see my family, they’re all there. Not as often as they would like, but… this past season I went back to do a recital, which was very meaningful for me, because it was my first voice teacher, and piano teacher and mentor––and someone who was an inspiration on so many levels, a church musician from Little Rock who does a fine concert series. I opened their season last year. Because of my father’s ministry, we moved around a lot; every little snipppet of my life was represented by some teacher or friend or church member, so it was great. My sister and her family also live in Little Rock and I have a very beloved niece and nephew, so I could actually choose some programming for them.

DS: You are the rare young singer that cops to listening to old recordings.

BC: I’m a huge [Giulietta] Simionato fan. I adore her “Capuleti” recording––I prefer live recordings, [with] a real living, breathing human being in that space for two hours. Roger Pines, the dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, who’s the lord of old recordings and archival information, made me this great compilation of Irina Arkhipova: my jaw dropped, it inspired me to really want to do [Tchaikovsky’s] “Jeanne d’Arc” and, at some point, [Verdi’s] “Eboli.” The sheer force of voice that Arkhipova exudes, she’s so natural and so communicative. Those two would be at the top of my list, but Tatiana Troyanos is pretty much my all-time favorite. I wept listening to tapes of her “Ariodante” from Santa Fe.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes for Playbill, Opera and Opera News, among other venues.

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