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Ailyn and Steve: The new operatic power couple?

When Audra McDonald called them an opera power couple on the recent PBS broadcast of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala, I broke out laughing. Not at McDonald, and not because she was inaccurate: Soprano Ailyn Perez and tenor Stephen Costello fit the definition – both are headed toward the top of the opera profession if they aren’t there already – but they don’t fit the part, which was delightfully apparent in odd, peripheral moments on the telecast (still available for streaming here).

imgresAren’t power couples supposed to be awe-inspiring? Bullet-proof? Untouchable?

Certainly, power couples are not sensible. They don’t go to Sears for a new flat-screen TV – which is what Costello was doing when he found out that his wife had won this year’s Tucker award. (He won it three years ago; they’re the first married couple to do so.) Perez is the one who decided that Philadelphia taxes were too high considering how little time they had come to spend there – and thus moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Is that a power-couple thing to do?

Seeing them together, one could easily envision these two in a reality show. Each puzzles over the other’s received ethnic tendencies. She ponders his Irish pessimism. (Yes, Costello is mostly Irish. And Ailyn, by the way, is pronounced “Eileen.”) He doesn’t get how her entire Mexican family can spend an evening together in a restaurant and then another 20 minutes in the parking lot saying goodbye, even though they’re all headed for the same home. She’s a Bikram yoga devotee; last time I checked, he was still fighting the idea of hiring a trainer. At the Met, he sometimes warns stagehands that he occasionally forgets to breathe, so if he passes out, just drag him offstage, give him a minute or two and he’ll be singing again. (To my knowledge, this has never actually happened.)

Their talent developed along different trajectories. Perez arrived at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts having first gone to Indiana University. I heard her first public performance at AVA – a Reynaldo Hahn song – and I swear that the talent was all there, fully formed, with a warm, natural stage presence and a Victoria de los Angeles-ish voice. She only needed to bolster her coloratura technique, since it’s the Violettas and Gildas that build great careers (even though she’s a lyric soprano at heart).

Growing up in working-class Philadelphia, Costello started out playing trumpet, discovered his tenor voice and was accepted at the AVA. Since then, he has evolved by the year. He could barely navigate a stage until he was cast as Cassio in Otello at the 2008 Salzburg Festival. I sometimes feared for his vocal health until last year’s tonsillectomy. Some critics still didn’t love his high notes in last season’s Met Anna Bolena, but I heard a turning point – so I was pleased not only to hear him singing better than ever at the Tucker gala, but also with a deeper sense of Italianate style.

If his career has gone a bit faster than hers, it’s because tenors are in greater demand. Also, for all her exterior poise, Perez can sometimes be derailed by nerves. (That was occasionally detectable, manifested as pitch problems, at the Tucker gala, though by the Traviata ensemble with her husband she was on firm ground.)

They also sang the so-called Cherry Duet from L’Amico Fritz – and their dynamic is interesting. There’s no doubt that they enjoy each other onstage, but there’s never any sense that they absolutely need each other. They’re sturdy individual talents on their own.

But wasn’t it sweet when, at the end of the duet, savvy lip-readers could see him quietly saying “I love you” to his wife? Well, don’t we all?


  1. Rafael de Acha says:

    Patrick – I LOVE this post. I saw them in La Traviata this past summer here in Cincinnati and they were superlative. He is an ideal Alfredo, with the right look, the perfect voice and personality for the role. She was marvelous as Violetta, with a voice that — are you sitting down? — brought back old memories of de los Angeles and Moffo and Sayao…She is gorgeous, a committed actress and a perfect Violetta with the right squillo in the voice to pin you back in the final act and the necessary agility to sail through Sempre Libera in one piece. Yes, this is the next power couple in Opera.

  2. ROBERT J. HASL says:

    I agree with Rafael: What a Traviata we were blessed to experience. As to their being a power couple, there is no doubt that they are that indeed. It is just that they are not phony. They are real. They are normal. In Cincinnati they were pursuing the top 100 burgers in the area. When they had, finally, a chance to do it, they spent time at Walt Disney World and visited the Mouse. You see, David Patrick, they are normal. They relate to people appropriately, and that is what endears them to the rest of us…their humanity.

    • They’re real indeed – and great fun.
      I’m really glad Cincinnati went well. I’m a Midwest guy and the Cincinnati Opera was my first encounter with the the real thing. I saw performances there that remain firm points of reference with certain works. DPS

  3. My wife and I were invited to a private recital in Calistoga, California to hear Ailyn Perez while she was an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera. We were really privileged to chat with her for about 15 minutes. There is not one ounce of pretension in this gorgeous young singer.

    Then recently, at a panel discussion just prior to the opening of Moby-Dick at the San Francisco Opera, Stephen Costello (Greenhorn in the opera), said he was singing in Chicago in 2010 when he was asked to come to Dallas to audition for Moby-Dick. He said he was not inclined to get involved in a new opera project because it’s a lot of work preparing it and it usually only lasts a few performances. But since Ailyn was singing in Dallas he decided to fly on down and take a look at the music. He said he instantly fell in love with it, and of course the rest is history.

    Moby-Dick is coming to Cincinnati, so don’t miss it. The pair will sing Traviata in San Francisco in the summer of 2014.

    • ROBERT J. HASL says:

      A number of us from Cincinnati Opera were fortunate enough to see Moby Dick in Dallas where it opened. What a thrill to see a brand new opera and know in your heart that this is a successful piece and will have a future. We worked with Jake Heggie in Cincinnati on Dead Man Walking and between his being in Cincinnati and also Sr. Prejean, we were able to prep our audience for another fantastically successful opera, but the work getting the audience ready was invaluable. Same with Margaret Garner. Bob, we are looking forward to seeing Moby Dick again, and I hope and pray that Steve is still in it. Thank you for your comments of this wonderful couple. Since we are getting closer and closer to the big day, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays to all of our readers. Dr. Bob

  4. Mark Stryker says:

    Nice post, David.

    Right on the cusp of their careers really taking off, Perez and Costello performed here in Detroit in early spring 2009 in a Michigan Opera Theatre production of “The Elixer of Love.” It was the first time they had performed together as professionals. I wrote a fun little story about them for the Detroit Free Press. The link is long past dead, but I’ve reprinted big chunks of it below since folks might be interested.
    Detroit — Soprano Ailyn Perez and tenor Stephen Costello, a rare husband-and-wife team entering the upper echelon of the opera world, are working together as professionals for the first time in Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of “The Elixir of Love,” which opens Friday. The young couple, married since September, are still learning to negotiate the boundaries of their professional and personal lives, but they’ve already figured out something important about themselves.

    No rehearsing at home.

    “We have to have a mediator,” says Costello, chuckling, before mentioning objective referees like a vocal coach or conductor. “You’re right,” adds Perez, rewinding her memory. “I remember when we were trying to figure out something at home and it didn’t go well. We do need a mediator.”

    At 27 and 29 respectively, Perez and Costello are fast-rising singers whose joint appearance as the young lovers Adina and Nemorino in Donizetti’s classic late 18th-Century rustic comedy adds an intriguingly naturalistic scrim to the casting. It is not the only unique angle at work. This new production – directed by James Robinson with freshly designed costumes and sets – updates the action, originally set in southern Europe, to early 20th Century in Napa Valley …

    Earlier this week Perez and Costello talked about their relationship in a joint interview at the Detroit Opera House. They are an attractive couple. He’s tall and thin, with blue eyes, short hair and scruffy beard. She has dark eyes, flowing hair and cherubic face and a smile that lights up a room. The couple became friends while performing in a production of “Elixir” as students at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. He had a crush on her but was too shy to say anything; she assumed his silence meant he wasn’t interested. But their relationship slowly morphed into something deeper.

    One night in 2005, when Perez was having relationship trouble, Costello said: “You’re too pretty to be all sad and everything. I’ll take you out salsa dancing. Do you like salsa dancing?”

    Perplexed, she looked at him: “You salsa?!”

    MOT general director David DiChiera, who first heard them a few years ago when auditioning singers in New York, says that Perez and Costello are both level-headed enough – and talented enough – to cope with unique circumstances. “I think it’s a challenge if both are focused on major careers and one doesn’t move as fast or isn’t as successful as the other,” says DiChiera. “But if both have bright prospects, it can be a good thing, especially if they can work together once in a while.” …

    Of course, working together has its pluses and minuses. “The pros are you get to spend a lot of time together,” says Costello. “Before we came here, we were apart for 2- 1/2 months, and sometimes you can be apart for four months depending. Plus, at the end of the day it’s like you’re at home, even though you aren’t in your own apartment. The cons are that after singing a performance or working all day, you just want to go home and veg. You have to worry about the other person’s space; I don’t want to do too much to bother her because I know she has to sing again tomorrow. Or when you don’t agree with something, it can be tricky.

    “Like if I didn’t live with her, we’d have a discussion in rehearsal and then I’d go home and forget about it. But now I’m at home and looking at her across the room and I’m like, ‘Why are you doing that!’ ”

    If one or the other isn’t feeling well during a performance, that can be even greater distraction for the partner than it would be for singers who weren’t married or in a relationship. Then there is the jealousy issue. Costello recalls watching from the fourth row while his wife sang Juliet, and the Romeo on stage climbed on top of her in a bedroom scene. He turned to their manager sitting beside him and said, “I’m a little uncomfortable right now.”

    On the other hand, both Perez and Costello say there is nothing is more exciting than seeing your spouse succeed when you know exactly how much work and sweat goes into singing opera at the highest level. “There’s just a huge joy to see him realize his dreams,” says Perez. You can tell by the way Costello nods in agreement that he feels the same about her ….

    • Thanks! I’ve written a few big pieces on them but this one is better.

    • ROBERT J. HASL says:

      We have met Ailyn and Steve a number of times. What I love about both of them is that they are real, not phony, and one can have an interesting conversation with them talking about things other than opera; one can just be onself. In Cincinnati they are on the hunt to try the 100 best burgers in the city. Is that not great? And like me, they like Mickey Mouse, and are looking forward (at that time, but I’m sure they have been there by now) to going to WDW in Florida. Mark, your points are well made and we are looking forward to seeing this wonderful duo again and again. Dr. Bob

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