The following interview took place at the Santa Fe Opera Ranch the day after Ms Perez’ festival debut as Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust”. The facilitation of this interview by the Santa Fe Opera is gratefully acknowledged.
Wm: You were raised in the Chicago area. When and where were your earliest memories of opera?
AP: I was born in Chicago. My parents never had known opera. When I was six we moved to Elk Grove Village, a Northeast suburb of Chicago, halfway through the school year.
[Below: Lyric soprano Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite in Stephen Lawless’ production of Gounod’s “Faust”; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
My earliest memory of the new school was the music class. The teacher decorated the room with pictures that I later came to know were musical notes, chords, clefs, rests, and the like, but when I first entered the class I didn’t know what they were. I was so lost. I thought to myself, I want to learn this. As part of the school music program, they gave the students recorders. As I progressed in the music program, I took on the cello and flute and played in the school band throughout Junior High.
I went to Elk Grove High School and joined the choir. Vocal music was something that I felt I wanted to do. I wanted to get a role in the school musical, but to be able to try out for a part, I had to take voice lessons. I took voice lessons from Carl Lawrenz, a former heldentenor. He taught the classic means of supported sound and emphasized singing down into the words. He suggested I learn O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicci”. I could understand the text and the emotion. That was the day that I truly fell in love with opera.
Carl also had me listen to Maria Callas. When I heard the refrain from the first act duet from Verdi’s “La Traviata” that she sang with Giuseppe di Stefano, I was in love with the music and the emotion!
Wm: During that period that you pursued musical studies in the public schools in the Cook County suburb of Oak Park Village, did you attend any performances of the Lyric Opera of Chicago?
AP: No. The first time I ever attended an opera at the Lyric was in January 2010, to see my husband, Stephen Costello, as Camille in Lehar’s “Merry Widow”. However, I have this amazing Uncle Joe who would take care of my father’s family. I since have found out that Uncle Joe would buy a one seat subscription to the Lyric Opera and would share that one seat with other members of the family.
I finally met Uncle Joe this year after singing my first Marguerite with the San Diego Opera. How incredible! He said to me “Do you know how much it means to me that you are an opera singer. We are so grateful that you are connecting with the members of your family who love the Lyric” (and it’s wonderful for me also to have gotten to know family who understand what opera means to me.)
Wm: Explain the pathway from your musical experiences in Chicago-area elementary and secondary schools to your opera career.
AP: Because my family was of modest means, I was counseled to apply for a music scholarship. It was amazing to me that I was pursuing advanced vocal studies. No one else in my family had done anything like this. Carl encouraged me to audition for a vocal scholarship to the top five schools.
I was accepted at Indiana University and able to study with Distinguished Professor Martina Arroyo. With Ms Arroyo’s support and Gwyn Richards’ determination, I was able to attend school with scholarship and financial aid. I was one of two undergraduates accepted into Professor Arroyo’s studio, which in turn allowed me such a rich experience as I was around graduate students in weekly master classes. Ms Arroyo and the late Professor Leonard Hokanson’s collaborations over their careers influenced our studios to partner in his weekly graduate lied master class.
After graduating from IU, I studied with Virginia Zeani. She is a big Romantic presence, full of glamour and imagination, like an Elizabeth Taylor. She has a big soul, and is a generous woman who loves young singers.
[Below: Soprano Virginia Zeani; resized image of an historic photograph, from leoonardociampo.com.]
Zeani organized my participation in the Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera (EPCASO). I also auditioned for the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and was accepted. My role assignment for the first year included the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. So I went to EPCASO and prepared the role with Claudia Pinza (Ezio’s daughter), Enza Ferrari, and Maestro Maurizio Arena.
[Below: The Gina Antognoli Scanlon portrait of Claudia Pinza with her father Ezio in background; resized image, based on a representation of the copyrighted portrait at antognoliscanlon.com.]
Wm: What were the factors or influences that led to our auditioning for a position at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia?
AP: At IU, I was in school with 500 vocal performance majors. Most students would get the Masters in Vocal Performance followed by a doctorate. It takes a lot of money, and often will lead to a teaching career, rather than becoming a performing artist. I said, maybe this is only a dream of mine, but maybe there’s another path.
The AVA is a tuition free program. I did an audition in Chicago. The AVA faculty told me that I had been accepted in the final round. I so wanted to get in, that I traveled to Philadelphia to do the final audition in person. Kevin McDowell, the AVA school director said, you didn’t have to come here, we had planned to accept you, but I didn’t want the videotape of my Chicago audition to say it all.
Wm: AVA is known for intensity of its training, and the value of the advice and mentorship of its faculty? What did the AVA experience mean to you and your later operatic career?
AP: It meant everything. I prepared and performed over six lead roles with Maestro Cristofer Macatsoris that remain a critical foundation of the artist I am able to be today. I worked with Ruth Golden, and still coach with Master Coaches Danielle Orlando, Richard Raub, and David Lofton. They know me and are wonderful, brilliant and amazing people. My foundation in opera has been laid out for me.
You have to be prepared to perform whatever role that Macatsoris has in mind for you. His imagination is unbounded. He knows just what you need to do to get out of your own shell.
One of things about the AVA program, is that you have to decide to spend the time to hone your craft and not be thinking of money. If you are money-driven or have to earn money during the program, AVA is not going to work out. The amount of time singing doesn’t leave time to be working. If you have means, it may work.
What I went through is maybe not everyone’s experience. Everything I had to do was humbling. It’s amazing that I pulled together resources to pay my rent. But because of that experience, I feel that I am “self made”.
At AVA, I met Stephen, my husband-to-be. Stephen had family in Philly, but you have to live nearby in the central city.
[Below: Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez) is bedeviled by presence of Mephistopheles (Mark S. Doss) in Stephen Lawless’ Santa Fe Opera production of “Faust”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: You entered several prestigious competitions and was the George London Foundation winner. What did that award mean to you? You and your husband, Stephen Costello have participated in fundraising activities and concerts for that foundation. How what you characterize its work in support of young singers?
AP: Yes, in 2006 I was an award winner from the George London Foundation (as was Stephen). The George London Foundation is another institution that has been important to my career. George London was an incredible artist, and his wife, Nora, continues her husband’s work with love. She is at all recitals, competitions, keeping in touch with former winners. Having performances in New York City is very important. Whenever my operatic schedule permits, I intend to “give back” through participation in their fund-raising concerts.
I was deeply honored that the George London Foundation presented me with the Leonie Rysanek award. It was very exciting to get the “Rysanek”. Rysanek’s voice was so sustained and dramatic. She gave everything for her characters. Her soul shown through her words.
I had sung a standard aria with a simple delivery. Roberta Peters was one of the judges and said that I must sing the role of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”. I said that I thought for that role you needed a strong high E flat. She said to me, you have what you need to sing Violetta, the ability to bring emotion to every word she sings. At the end of the day it’s the beauty and expressiveness of the voice.
Wm: Your signature roles at this point in your career appear to be Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust”, Juliette in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”, Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and, of course, Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” – all bread and butter roles for a 21st century lyric soprano’s career. Will you continue to sing these four roles for the indefinite future and which other roles would you like to add to your repertory, or do again?
[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Juliette in the San Diego Opera production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
AP: Now that I found my voice teacher, Bill Schuman, and have been studying with him, I feel more confident performing the roles I’ve been attracted to, roles in which my voice likes to dance. I really love Massenet’s Manon. For the next seven years I plan to perform these younger heroines. For now, I’ll keep dancing. One should amuse oneself. I do not want to leave these operas.
But now that I’m in my early 30s, honestly, my voice is fuller. It’s not quite as easy just to flit around, so I would like to take the title role in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and a couple new Verdi roles – Desdemon in “Otello” and Elisabetta in “Don Carlo”.
[See Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 2 in which Ailyn compares the productions of “Faust” in which she’s recently appeared, and talks about the operas in which she and her husband, Stephen Costello appear together.]