American Tune

American Tune

On the night of last year’s Richard Tucker Gala, 2012 laureate Ailyn Pérez stepped out at the evening’s onset to sing the familiar, coquettish gavotte from Massenet’s Manon. It was an apt entrance for the soprano, who fetchingly delivered “Je marche sur tous les chemins” and “Obéissons quand leur voix appelle” with a self-possessed confidence. She imbued Manon with just the right amount of love for the idea of who her character has become, with an additional layer of doubt beneath the deluge of live-in-the-moment bravado in “Obéissons.”

But while Pérez, like Manon, is one to savor such moments as they come—her Twitter feed that evening teemed with Instagram photos from backstage—she also has her eye firmly trained on the future. “There’s a 30-year plan,” she says as a car service whisks her, her husband Stephen Costello, me, and the couple’s dog to JFK. She’s due to be in Miami and Costello’s on his way to Berlin; coincidentally, they’re both traveling to sing Bohème. “Five years are already preplanned. I have to think beyond.”

It helps to have an active plan toward the future when your husband shares the same goals and values. Even though Pérez has been collecting a number of awards (in addition to being the first Hispanic singer to net the Richard Tucker Award, she also scored second prize in the 2006 Operalia competition and, in the same year, netted the Leonie Rysanek award in the George London competition), she really hit the lottery when she met tenor Stephen Costello while they were both students at the Academy of Vocal Arts.

Costello clamped eyes on Pérez at a winter recital at AVA in 2003 and later met her that spring when he went to audition for the conservatory and she was working the front desk.

“I forgot the first time I met him because he didn’t speak to me,” says Pérez of the night of her recital, though a more lasting impression was created during Costello’s audition when Pérez remarked that he looked like an actor whose name she couldn’t place.

“I look like the fat kid from Stand by Me,” interjects Costello with his blunt sense of humor.

“That’s probably why he just answered ‘Jerry O’Connell’ and then just zipped out of the room,” Pérez laughs.

The conversation became more extended when Costello was accepted into AVA and was asked to sing the first duet from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore with Pérez. “I hadn’t really heard him sing up until that day,” Pérez recalls. “And he sang and I just . . . the phrasing, the Italian was impeccable.”

Costello remembers his first meeting with Pérez a bit differently, being introduced to her through a mutual friend who was hoping to date the soprano. That never quite panned out for the friend, as Costello recalls thinking, “You’re never gonna get her!”

He was right.

Costello says there were some elements of the first act of La bohème (the second work the pair sang together at AVA following “Elisir”) similar to his first encounters with Pérez, with a major spark of attraction, but their relationship was more of a slow burn from being close colleagues to becoming more than friends.

The sheer amount of time they spent with each other thanks to classes and rehearsals was what helped to seal the deal. As Pérez explains, “You spend sometimes 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily with each other, in groups, hanging out.” Costello concurs that time was the magic ingredient in their connection—though the music didn’t hurt, either.

By the time they transitioned from rustic Italian peasants in the spring of 2004 to urban Parisian bohemians in the spring of 2005, Pérez and Costello became an item, something they initially hid from their friends and colleagues at the school. As any singer who has dated a fellow musician can attest, it’s not always an easy road, especially when you’re at the onset of a career, navigating an industry where knowing who to trust can be difficult.

Pérez notes that one of the biggest challenges she faced at that time in her life was mitigating a large amount of fear and anxiety. Like Costello, she grew up in a working-class family without a birthright entrée into opera. The eldest of three children, Pérez was born in Chicago to Mexican immigrants from Jalisco, Guadalajara. Her father spent over 30 years as a machinist for Brach’s Candy Company while her mother focused on quality control and repacking for Sonoco Clear Pack. Similarly, Costello was born in Philadelphia to an auto mechanic father (the oldest of 10 children and now a consultant to OnStar) and a mother who manages admissions for an assisted living facility.

“I think in America you’re able to see so many different types of people. And I think not coming from wealthy backgrounds, we never had anything to fall back on,” Costello says. “So if you’re going to do something, you have to do it and commit to it and excel at it.” He cites his maternal uncle, who worked his way up as a checker in Acme Markets to vice president of the company, as a particular inspiration, particularly as it applies to a strong work ethic.

Both Costello and Pérez also attribute their careers to an early love of music fostered by public school systems. Costello’s earliest musical memories (beyond his father singing Elvis Presley songs) were of seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra play on school trips. He soon went into his school’s instrumental program “to get out of class for a little while” and kindled his love of the art form by playing trumpet at George Washington High School.

Concurrently, Pérez was inspired to play cello after a fourth grade class trip to hear the Chicago Symphony, a desire that was easily facilitated by her grammar school’s comprehensive music program. For her parents, whose main concern was that their children all stay in school, the added interest in academic activities was a happy dose of insurance that their daughter would eventually graduate. Though Pérez’s frequent late-night practice sessions at Elk Grove High School did leave her father concerned.

“I told him I was practicing and he didn’t actually believe that,” she laughs. A school custodian would open the doors for Mr. Pérez and confirm that his daughter would indeed be sawing away at her cello in the chorus room or working on a show choir routine or finishing up musical rehearsal. Not only did she graduate high school, she went on to do her bachelor’s degree at Indiana University before moving on to AVA. Costello, ever the Philly boy, stayed local at the University of the Arts before his post-graduate education.

To that end, there’s no shortage of American dream references you can make with regards to Costello and Pérez’s careers, both separate and combined. However, as both note, realizing one’s dream is possible only with no small amount of work and the willingness to take risks and take advantage of the opportunities presented.

Knowing where to start is, as Costello explains, often the hardest part: “There’s so much out there, [but] one thing I had trouble with when I was younger is how do you find that? Where do you go? Who do you trust?” Gradually in his studies, he found that his preferred method was to look at singers at the top of their game in the business and to look at the steps they took to get to that point, which is what in part led him to AVA. A common thread that he discovered between such singers (especially after landing his first job at the Met, as Arturo in the 2007 premiere of Mary Zimmerman’s Lucia di Lammermoor), beyond their stage deportment and vocal skills, was that “98 percent of them are the nicest people in the world. They’re all approachable. You can go up to them, ask questions, talk to them. And if they have the time they’ll gladly sit down and talk. And that’s ultimately what makes them who they are. When they’re that nice and that good, people want to work with them, people want to work for them.

“Had I even known as a young artist in school that you could go to these productions, that you could meet these people and they would talk to you, I probably would have done more than that,” he adds. “We need to encourage people, especially teachers need to encourage people, just go out and do it and be brave.”

With all of the advice, however, Costello and Pérez found helpful a piece of proffered wisdom that they have no more than four people in their respective circles to turn to for opinions in their career. Any more or less will confuse the issue. But for both singers, those members of their trusted inner circles were also some of the biggest opponents for their operatic pairing offstage.

“They worry about the kind of support system you need as a singer. But we fell in love,” says Pérez, who ignored such warnings. “Maybe they were foreseeing all these challenges that we’re seeing now a little bit with the distance apart and things like that. But at that time, we were together in Philadelphia just starting out. He was finishing up school. We were just being managed, getting first jobs—and who can relate to you more than someone who’s going through it with you?”

Pérez also credits Costello’s perspective and more id-like tendencies as helping her out of her super-ego shell, encouraging her to just audition rather than worrying about auditioning. Likewise, Costello found his relationship with Pérez was a comforting constant as he adjusted to living outside of Philadelphia for the first time in his life. The year he graduated AVA, he was contracted for the Met’s Lucia and went from singing Arturo throughout the initial run to singing Edgardo in the final performance at the request of James Levine. It was his first time singing the role, which he learned in conjunction with Arturo, and it was Levine’s encouragement that made the singer feel ready to take on one of the landmark parts in the tenor repertoire.

His work with Edgardo paid off in the form of another Met opening night in 2010 as Percy in Anna Bolena, opposite Anna Netrebko and Ildar Abdrazakov, a perk that was better than any check for the tenor. The added HD exposure, much like his and Pérez’s omnipresence on YouTube, also made it easier for them to find work as they became better known entities.

Around the same time, Pérez felt a turning point when in 2008 she sang Gounod’s Juliette opposite tenor Rolando Villazón in Salzburg under Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who, coincidentally, now heads Costello’s hometown orchestra). Working with Villazón, a tenor who is notably very uninhibited and free in performance, helped in its own way. However, Pérez credits Nézet-Séguin’s “infectious” energy as helping her to gain professional footing and confidence. “He’s on your side, he loves the voice, and he wants to let it run and be free and passionate,” she explains, noting too that Gounod’s liberating score didn’t hurt either. “That’s when I realized I have the wrong idea. I’m too inside my head. I need to be out. Just go out there and sing. Sing the music. If I could have said that to myself when I was 20, I would have.”

It was shortly after Pérez’s Salzburg debut that the couple married in Philadelphia, after announcing their engagement in 2006, and settled in Chattanooga, Tenn. While they had been together for some time before tying the knot, marriage and forging a family together made them in turn become more focused with their careers.

“We both realized if we wanted a family, we would both have to do the work. We have to both be working, we have to both make enough to really support a family,” she says (they started with a dog, a Papillon Chihuahua, named Tequila). Costello was working steadily and earning his own awards for the mantle—winning the 2009 Richard Tucker Award means that the couple is the first husband and wife to both take home the trophy. He also took first prize at the George London Foundation and the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. Pérez meanwhile wrote to their manager, giving a list of roles she knew she could land on her feet and asked him to advise her of any openings. “I was more persistent, more eager,” she says.

Such energy paid off in 2009 when she sang Violetta at the Berlin Staatsoper and was then invited by the intendant to sing Amelia Grimaldi in Simon Boccanegra at the house, opposite Plácido Domingo and under the baton of Daniel Barenboim (in a coproduction with La Scala).

“Anything he says, I pretty much listen to,” she says of working with the legendary tenor, whom she credits with teaching her how to build an audience. “It’s not just about making debuts; you have to keep going back to these theaters and building your audience over the years,” she explains. “And he’s still doing it. He’s still creating his own jobs.” Pérez took the advice to heart, creating opportunities like an audition with the Royal Opera House while visiting her husband in London—the two later sang the roles of Violetta and Alfredo together at Covent Garden when a last-minute soprano was needed in January of 2012.

“Your manager can do only so much for you. They can get you in the door, but you really have to do the rest,” adds Costello. “You have to show up prepared every day; you have to be on top of your game every time you walk into a rehearsal. People think the more famous you become, the more you can slack off. And that’s really not true—the more is expected of you. And there’s always somebody waiting in line to get the next opportunity and there’s always someone that’s a little cheaper than what you’re getting paid at that point. You have to merit your pay, in a way.”

It’s fortunate for the pair, too, that their voices are a velvety fit for one another. In the same Tucker Gala that featured a taste of Pérez’s Manon, Costello joined his wife onstage to sing the Cherry Duet from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz and two ensemble numbers from Traviata. In the former, they had a touching bit of stage business in which Costello, in character as Fritz, goes to hold Pérez’s shoulders and nervously stops himself. When he finally rests his hand on her arm, he’s visibly transported and slowly they work their way into a fuller embrace as the music resolves. It takes all of a few moments, but such moments are jam-packed with pathos and emotion that also takes shape aurally; the final note held in tandem between the two singers was a perfect blend of colorings that at times was hard to distinguish as two separate voices. 

“It’s funny, because when you’re singing you don’t know what you sound like,” says Costello when I note this in our conversation the day after the Tucker Gala. “You know what you’re doing, you know if you’re making a good tone, but you don’t really understand what your voice sounds like in a house. That’s something we can’t pick up.”

“We just love singing with one another. I think we’re really tuning in to the music and each other,” adds Pérez, who cites duos like Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano and Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti as favorites for their vocal precision, blending, and timing of cadenzas as some of her favorite moments in opera. It helps that the pair studied at the same school, under the same teachers, steeped in the same traditions. L’amico Fritz was a particularly enlightening experience for the duo when they first sang it at AVA under Christofer Macatsoris, who studied under Gianandrea Gavazzeni who, in turn, had been in direct contact with Mascagni. Likewise, their voice teacher’s own teacher was deemed by the composer as one of the greatest Suzels in a score dedication.

Pérez likens it to pianists studying under Nadia Boulanger in terms of closeness and connection, and a way of delving into a rare work with firm grounding.

“It’s great music, but a terribly boring opera,” says Costello, who sang the work opposite his wife in Moscow last summer. “In today’s time, you could never put it onstage. It doesn’t make any sense. Suzel’s 16; Fritz is in his 40s.”

“It’s kind of like a Fiddler on the Roof story, isn’t it?” Pérez adds. “It’s very country.”

“I like ‘Fritz,’ but I have trouble understanding it as a singer and an artist because the character of Fritz has yet to make sense to me,” Costello adds. “In the Cherry Duet, I can understand him more than I can in the rest of the opera because he’s . . . I don’t know if he’s troubled. I really don’t know what to make of him.”

The pair has an ease onstage and off, and you get the sense with their seamless volley between one another in conversation that there is no question that playing lovers—whether it’s age-appropriate young lovers or a couple with a wider age gap—isn’t a challenge in the way that other singers have said it can be when playing opposite a spouse or partner. Both attribute this to an essential sense of compartmentalization that includes not bringing their work home. Singing together at home is fine, but blocking is avoided. They’re also conscious about being too comfortable onstage and are cautious of making the times when they do sing together too much about them.

“We’re really eager to work with directors who are prepared and have a certain way that they want us to create these roles to tell the story,” says Pérez, who mentions that they rely on directors to regulate the stage action.

“It’s about being part of something together and making it more, using the opinions of other people around you or even incorporating other people into it. You gain the most of your artistry from the people you’re working with; we can’t make it work by ourselves,” adds Costello. “I don’t want the audience to feel like the third wheel.”

Helpful, too, for the couple is singing with other partners. Pérez praises Costello’s performance with Netrebko in Anna Bolena, adding that Bel Canto isn’t her forte the way that it is for her husband, who uses the music of Donizetti as a balm in the same way that other singers, like Pérez herself, rely on Mozart for stabilization. (“It’s like getting in the skinny jeans—no extra anything, just clean technique and beautiful sound,” she says.)

Stabilization is key—and perhaps why Pérez and Costello have managed to buck the odds and succeeded as both individuals and as a couple. Coming from an Irish-Catholic family, Costello admits that he has a predilection to become stressed over miniscule issues, but is currently trying to go through a Zen period in his life.

“I got this new theory to kill everybody with kindness. I don’t know if it works, but it makes me feel better,” he says. “The more and more your career develops and the more that you succeed and the further up you get, the more and more people love you and the more and more people hate you. You can’t find a balance. So you have to find the balance within yourself, with your own relationship.”

“You can’t make everybody happy. And a lot of people around you are going to be very unhappy people,” adds Pérez.

Instead, the two find it better to focus on the positive aspects of their lives, such as what lies ahead. They pair together in “Elisir” in Vienna next month, in between engagements for Pérez as Violetta in Hamburg and for Costello as Tonio in San Diego and Edgardo in Toronto, and have an album of duets in the works. More importantly, though, they’re looking forward to longevity and stability. Both would also love to teach or coach later on down the line, reinvesting in the communities that fostered their careers and successes.

“We’ve been given so much by so many people, it’s only right to give back. Like the movie Pay It Forward, I think it’s the same way,” says Costello, who credits the Tucker Foundation as an organization with similar values and “bringing music back to the United States, to people that wouldn’t normally listen to it.”

Normalcy is big on their priority list, too, which is why the pair have relied on the advice of the Met’s artistic administrator Jonathan Friend, who believes in leaving time free in one’s schedule in order to recharge and be ready for last-minute opportunities—once the bills have been paid. It all leads to what they hope will be a happy, stable life.

“That’s what I hope for,” says Costello before quickly adding with a dry laugh, “And that my kids don’t end up screwed up.”

Pérez lets out a golden laugh as the car pulls into JFK.

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.