Ailyn Pérez made a welcome return visit to The Royal Opera a few weeks ago to sing two performances of Massenet’s Manon, marking the first of a trio of roles at the House in the coming months. After wowing London with her exquisitely vulnerable Violetta in 2011, she appears for another run of La traviata (sharing the role with Diana Damrau) in May, singing opposite the Alfredo of her husband, Stephen Costello, while she makes her role debut as Liù tomorrow in Puccini’s Turandot. I caught up with her during a break early in rehearsals to discuss these roles, on performing opposite her husband and on how Ailyn got into music in the first place.
How did you first get into music/ opera?
I was born in Chicago, the oldest of three kids, and grew up in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, where, thankfully, there were music and language classes as part of our education. When I first entered music classes at school, they were a mystery – writing on the chalkboard and people clapping and shaking instruments – that I just had to know what was going on! In Fourth Grade they gave you a recorder for a dime and you could take it home as long as you brought it back. With my brother and sister, we’d make lots of musical entertainment – musical theatre such as Annie. Music was always part of our culture. My parents emigrated to the United States in the 1960s/70s, so the mentality of when and how I grew up was one of my parents sacrificing much to give us much, so we never took anything for granted.
As long as my activity was school-related, it was allowed! So it was always a positive option to be part of a band, part of the orchestra or part of the drama team, cheerleading, volleyball… as long as I was active in school and getting good grades, I could pretty much stay out until 11:30 at night. My father didn’t really believe I’d be practising until that time, so he once went to the High School to check up on me, suspecting that I was up to other things and sure enough, he found me and my friends rehearsing a number!
My first opera experience was singing the role of Despina in Così fan tutte at Indiana University in Bloomington. Paul Biss (father of pianist Jonathan) conducted and said ‘You’ve got talent. You’re gonna be fine!’ I went to university for four years and studied for a Bachelor of Music. I hadn’t been to the Lyric Opera in Chicago until much later. The Chicago Symphony always had programmes inviting students, but opera hadn’t been a part of my life until then. Suddenly, this voice, and the talent and the aptitude for languages that I had is what made opera a possibility, but what really made the difference was the fact that I got a vocal scholarship to go and study music, which terrified my parents… it was a big risk. A friend gave me a pamphlet for the Academy of Vocal Arts, an institution in Philadelphia; it was a four year programme dedicated to opera. Had I not gone to AVA, I don’t know that I’d have had a chance of this career. It’s near to New York and every student that joins gets a role assignment, so at some point in the year you get to perform, or understudy, a lead role and you work with the maestro for a long time before you get to the staging. It was a great experience. I wouldn’t trade AVA for anything.
In my first year, I had never sung above a high C with my singing teacher at university and my first role assignment was Lucia di Lammermoor! Eglise Gutiérrez was a year ahead of me and I learned a lot from her too. All my colleagues at AVA worked really hard and stretched our imaginations, working from the text, getting into the music and the language and the drama. Making the transition to this career, it’s important to build in that time to study yourself. That’s something that’s been bumpy along the way.
How difficult is it choosing the right roles?
In some cases, I’ll be honest, I’ve just gone with the work! You want to make anything work when you’re starting out and you need to get the jobs.
Are there any roles that you’ve regretted taking on?
No. I’m lucky that way because I’m a lyric, so I’ve never fallen into any danger… I’ve never tried a Tosca yet! Sometimes, you want to tell certain people that they need to wait for a certain role, but in my case, I didn’t want to wait for Traviata. Just as with actors, you don’t want to hear the word ‘no’.
What does the role of Violetta, which you’re reprising at the Royal Opera this summer, mean to you?
She means everything. There aren’t many opportunities to be able to live in a performance and sing and be expressive. Violetta has it all! It’s bel canto, but dramatic. When you think about Verdi, if you can’t hear a heartbeat, he’ll show you where the heartbeat is in the score. There’s also this incredible relationship in duet between a soprano and a baritone; it’s there in Rigoletto, in Traviata, in Simon Boccanegra. I think that there’s something about him and his style of music and the text and the story that you cannot wait to play. You need to care about the character. You need to be free not to be thinking ‘how long can I hold this E flat?’
What are the technical challenges?
Act I is just ridiculous. I started Traviata in English in 2007. My first one in Italian was with San Francisco Opera and then I went on to Berlin in 2009, so as long as I’ve been married, I’ve been singing Traviata. I need to be ‘warm’ for pretty much two and a half hours before. You sit through make-up and you wait, then you get into your costume… then Act I is a beast! You need to be so ready that you can never underestimate it.
Violetta is such a great challenge. Technically, you need to be in such good shape to execute it, but I’ve also seen it where the soprano hasn’t perhaps been at her best, but there’s something about the way they play the drama that they can completely win you over. It’s so special as a woman to convey this story. She’s a fully developed character from the start. She’s beyond this world – Verdi pretty much makes her a Madonna. The way she leaves this earth is simple, but with his music it’s miraculous and incredible and devastating. I have to tell you that this production is one of the last gorgeous productions that there is. It’s traditional , but it’s beautiful. The role asks a lot of colour and imagination. You don’t want to ruin the stitching of this masterpiece.
This time, you get to play Violetta opposite your husband, tenor Stephen Costello.
I’ve just been to Giselle and seen Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez dance together and that was pretty special, so I’m looking forward to working with him. What I love about performing with Stephen is that he’s always ready, his sound is always just there, very elegant and cool. Then, you don’t know when his Alfredo’s temper’s going to fly.
I’ve sung opposite him in Traviata in Cincinnati once and then once here (when Ailyn stepped in for a performance in spring 2012).
Which other Verdi roles are on the horizon?
Desdemona at Houston Grand Opera. It’s opposite Simon O’Neill and I thought ‘he’s going to kill me… it’s going to be great!’ I wish to do more Verdi. Gilda is coming up so we’ll see how that goes. There’s no rush for the heavier roles… there is in my soul, but I can wait. The problem is that once you go forward with the bigger roles, you really can’t go back. Your voice doesn’t let you.
The biggest thrill recently was playing Manon.
What do you like about the role, because as a character, she’s not terribly sympathetic?
Not at all! I have no sympathy for her!
Yet we fall in love with her every night!
Well, who wouldn’t? She’s a stunning girl. She becomes the ideal and nobody can help themselves. She can’t help wanting what she wants. I feel awful for Des Grieux! But, at the same time, to be in a theatre playing Manon – and it’s more musical theatre – you have to use the music in your body. The St Sulpice scene won’t work unless you know how you want to say the text and how you want to move and are okay with silence.
I’ve always been so driven to make the right sound and to be on the right beat and musically involved that sometimes you forget the gorgeousness of the piece and the necessity for silence or taking your time.
There are five different roles there… she changes so much across the five different acts!
Oh, she’s bad! It’s so good! So toxic!
Next up is your first Liù. What attracts you to the role?
The chance to sing Puccini! She’s such a big soul. She’s pure love.
What are the differences between the style of vocal writing between Verdi and Puccini?
Totally different. It was hard to believe that Falstaff was written by Verdi – it’s really different – but Puccini has the gift of melody in regards to unpredictable phrasing and not following the bel canto aria-cabaletta pattern. I’m learning a lot from Maestro Nicola Luisotti at the moment. When there is someone at the helm who can follow the text and follow the line and help you out, it’s great. The rubatos are all written, but it’s amazing how poor we can be as readers. To me, it’s always a big joy to work on a new role, but also to sing opposite much heavier voices than usual – Calaf and Turandot – who are more vocally dramatic artists than you’d find in L’elisir d’amore!
Luisotti told me the story about the young woman (Doria Manfredi, Puccini’s maid) who fell in love with the composer and committed suicide and how he was inspired to write Liù as a result. He died right at the end of Liù’s death – she was clearly an important character to him. We’re working on the staging right now and it’s great to work with choreographers. The movements are very stylized. So far, I’ve only sung Lauretta and Mimì, so I can’t wait to sing Liù and I hope I get to live with her for many years. There’s something about Puccini – he knows how to draw on the soprano voice and he knows how to shape it. The music arches upward and it opens and blooms in such a way, like Mimì’s, but it’s tripled, quadrupled by the heavier orchestration. Maestro Luisotti is an excellent shaper of the music and knows exactly what a singer needs. That makes or breaks a show! Here at the Royal Opera everyone strives for that.
Last year, you followed up your Rosenblatt Recital with a splendid disc on Opus Arte. You’ve just done an album of duets with Stephen for Warner Classics. What sort of things can we expect?
It’s our favourite duets from opera and Broadway, which is going to be a nice mix. All of the duets we’ve done on stage, apart from Manon and some of the musical theatre items, but the rest of the repertoire we’ve lived with and we hope that we can use the disc to connect to more people. Recordings are important because they’re like a catalogue charting our progression… that’s why I love collecting recordings – listening to early Freni and Margaret Price. To make our music more available to people, through iTunes or Spotify, allows audiences to come in and offer the long-lived traditions to a new audience.
We’re so fortunate to be able to be cast together. We both have solo careers, but we love collaborating together and this is a way of collaboration. We’re not ‘exclusive’ – and we like that – but it’s wonderful to combine our forces on something.
Ailyn opens in Turandot on Monday 17th February 2014, which runs for seven performances until 10th March. She is scheduled for four performances of La traviata from Tuesday 6th May 2014. Love Duets – from Puccini to Bernstein is released by Warner Classics on 5th May 2014.
This interview was originally published at Opera Britannia.