Soprano Patricia Racette is the greatest advertisement for Puccini's heroines. His operas dominate her resume, and no wonder. She owns a voice that gravitates to his expansive Italian lines and conveys them with the natural clarity so often blurred in less melodious works.

This week she makes her role debut as the title character in his "Manon Lescaut" which Washington National Opera runs in repertory at the Kennedy Center with a new production of Bellini's "Norma."

"Developing a new character can be daunting," she said. "Manon is a different kind of woman, not quite what his 'Butterfly' and 'Tosca' are. You see her falling in love with Chevalier des Grieux, but the second act opens to find her living in Paris with Geronte. It's important to make certain the audience understands the circumstances that brought her to this situation."

After her luxurious life with Geronte, Manon is abandoned and sent to jail for theft. Exiled to Louisiana, she spends her final days with her first love, Grieux. Both Puccini and Massenet ("Manon") based their operas on a novel by Abbe Prevost, as did Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber, whose work is less well known and rarely performed. Curiously, the composers must not have bothered to consult an atlas, as the heroine ends up on a desert "near New Orleans."

Washington National Opera presents Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut'
» Where: Kennedy Center Opera House
» When: Through March 23
» Info: $25 to $300; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324;

"The set design for the final scene shows the ruins of Manon's life," Racette said. "The designers interpreted the location as an arid part of the Louisiana Purchase, not swampy New Orleans. It's scenic, beautiful to look at and traditional, as are all the sets."

Fans of Racette know that she leads a double life in music. When she is not emoting in grand opera or on the stage of a great concert hall, she evolves into a chanteuse delivering a program of cabaret songs in an intimate club. Her programs are a melodic mix of the Great American Songbook, with a splash of Edith Piaf.

"Singing cabaret is like returning home," she said. "I started out singing popular songs and studying jazz. Opera came afterward. I love the variety and how intimate cabaret is in relation to the audience. It allows me to be my contemporary self. My teacher helped me develop a speech-based technique that utilizes a different treatment for air and space. I didn't grow up listening to Piaf, but there is something about the visceral way she speaks to me. I just released an album, 'Diva on Detour,' and will perform at Studio 54 in New York when I leave Washington."

Racette follows that engagement with the role of Madame Lidione in the Met's production of "Les Dialogues des Carmelites, three concerts with the New York Philharmonic, and Diva on Detour at Chicago's Ravinia Festival before heading to Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu for her company debut in the title role of "Madame Butterfly." After a mere week of rest at her home in Santa Fe, she begins the 2013-2014 season in "Mefistofele" at San Francisco Opera where she began training in the famous Merola Program

The winner of prestigious awards, Racette enjoys an operatic career punctuated with leading roles in such traditional works as "La Boheme," "Pagliacci," "Don Carlos," "Faust," "The Turn of the Screw," "Peter Grimes" and "Jenufa," and premieres of contemporary operas by Tobias Picker, Carlisle Floyd and others.

"When I give master classes for young singers, as I did recently for members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, I tell them that they must be unique in their interpretation, say something, and make sure they're invested in what they are singing and why the composer wrote it as he did," she said.

"Although the role of 'Manon Lescaut' doesn't require all the stamina necessary for a tour de force like 'Butterfly,' I still need to maintain tremendous energy. The most important thing for me is to keep relaxed, visit the gym, and stay healthy, rested and focused. I may even catch a museum or two."