Love is in the aria for opera's new It couple
If Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu were the Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of opera (on again, off again, divorce), husband and wife Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez are the Jay Z and Beyoncé. They’re modern, they’re hot and their marital status is taking them beyond opera’s heartland into Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and YouTube ubiquity that includes the gushy mini-doc An Operatic Love Story.
Labelled opera’s reigning It couple and a power couple, in person “Pérello” are charmingly low-key. We meet in an Italian restaurant round the corner from the Royal Opera House. A squeaky dumbwaiter makes the place a bit Fawlty Towers but it’s a favourite post-show haunt of Covent Garden’s artists; signed photos of Pavarotti, Joseph Calleja and opera’s ultimate power couple, Bob and Ange (Alagna and Gheorghiu), line the walls. The opera-loving owner, Pino, has eyes for petite Pérez; Costello barely gets a look-in. The duo, both in their early thirties, don’t command attention from other diners, but you sense that’s only a matter of time.
Their album, Love Duets, is released today, full of beautiful singing and glossy pictures. Tomorrow they open in La traviata at the ROH. They have sung together on stage once before in London — in January 2012, Pérez jumped in for soprano Ermonela Jaho opposite Costello for one performance of Verdi’s opera — but this is an entire performance run. Not only that, the ROH has chosen it to be its first opera streamed free and globally online, and relayed live to BP Big Screens nationwide. The pair have also just announced a live concert of love duets at the Barbican, London, in January.
Under that kind of spotlight, what’s it like to bring opera’s greatest romances to life with your other half? Is it a cauldron of onstage chemistry? Unbridled passion?
“In something like Traviata it’s extremely difficult,” says Costello. “In our first scene it’s the first time the two characters meet. And it’s hard to recreate the first time you’ve met somebody when you’ve spent the past five years living together.” The pair met at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, brought together by music and trust as they navigated a tough business. They married in 2008.
“What makes it easy is that I know Ailyn as an artist. I’ve seen her sing Traviata a million times . . . I know what she likes to do where. It makes me more comfortable, especially in a duet.”
“What’s most exciting when I’m working with Stephen is there’s a part of me that relaxes a little,” says Pérez. “I know I can count him. He serves the music and the scene, and he’s not unfocused. Sometimes artists go crazy when press happens. It’s me, me, me . . . I don’t get that with him.”
Both say that on stage they sing to the character, not the partner, though Costello concedes he may indulge himself in a recital. “When you’re just doing sections of a piece you . . . have to bring something. And something comes out in me and says: ‘I’m proud to be here with my wife.’ I think the audience can see that.”
If anything, they have to operate as individual performers on stage. “You have to detach to personally do your very best,” says Pérez. “Like, I can’t be worried about how Stephen’s feeling that night, because I have to perform. We’ve learnt not to be so intense.”
If Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu were the Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of opera … husband and wife Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez are the Jay Z and Beyoncé
Pérez and Costello both have blossoming independent careers. Pérez is a Royal Opera favourite, wowing this year as Massenet’s coquettish Manon and in Puccini’s Turandot, with her “luscious, fruity timbre” (The Times). Costello had a phenomenal Metropolitan Opera debut aged 26 in 2007, promoted by maestro James Levine on the season-opening night of Lucia di Lammermoor from singing Arturo to the male lead, Edgardo. He spans from bel canto to contemporary opera and has a wonderful Italianate surety.
Accepting criticism from your nearest and dearest is always a challenge, and there is little room for it in this relationship. “In all honesty, you don’t ask questions if you want an honest answer,” says Costello.
“No, that’s not true,” counters Pérez. “I’m sorry . . . you want support. You want affirmation. We’ve been down that road and . . .”
“It’s not productive,” finishes Costello.
The bread and butter of the soprano and tenor is romantic tension, which brings another mind-bending challenge: watching your partner cavort onstage with another singer. “In Valencia, I watched Ailyn sing Manon with Vittorio Grigolo [an Italian tenor with Rat Pack good looks]. He’s reading the letter [of marriage] between her legs and she’s wearing this nightgown thing. I’m like: ‘I can’t watch this,’ ” says Costello.
He is equally uncomfortable when the tables are turned. “He’s kicked me out of the theatre before,” says Pérez, who seems to handle the eye candy more coolly.
The Mexican-American Pérez and Irish–American Costello both hail from large families and would like children. Now, however, is not the time to disrupt their career momentum. “We have a dog [called Tequila] and she’s really special, like a child,” says Costello.
“We’re young, we’re still proving ourselves and that’s the edge that we have in our shows,” says Pérez. “It’s not like we’ve arrived. We’re not in our Tosca days.”
For now, there’s the album to promote. Love Duets is an enjoyable listen; a mix of operatic favourites (La bohème, La traviata, Faust et al) and some musical theatre (Tony and Maria’s One Hand, One Heart from West Side Story, If I Loved You from Carousel) all accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The pair grew up loving musical theatre, and its inclusion is also a conscious nod to broadening opera’s appeal.
That’s a tough job made harder, Costello feels, by lack of support. If only Jay Z would go to the opera, he says, a generation would follow. In March he was singing in Moby-Dick at the Washington National Opera, “and the president didn’t come to the opera once”, he complains.
“And Moby-Dick was one of Obama’s favourite novels,” points out Pérez. “These people who are in the press all the time — the president or pop stars — they don’t support the other arts. How are we going to get young people interested?”
Essentially, Costello and Pérez are managing three careers: their individual work and the Pérello brand, which is increasingly centre stage. “At first it can bother you but it’s helping us get more jobs,” says Costello. The pair collect their joint production posters, framed at home in Chattanooga. “It’s always great to work together . . . and we’re getting paid twice!”
No, they don’t have a Bob and Ange rate (allegedly two for the price of three rather than an operatic BOGOF for joint appearances). They don’t believe the power-couple hype, either.
“It’s not really true. The Royal Opera aren’t going to hire us both to sing in the same cast just because we’re married,” says Costello. “If they didn’t like one of us, they’d only hire one of us.”
“And we’re not trying to be exclusive,” says Pérez.
“Demanding that we would only work together,” explains Costello. “That’s terrible. That causes a lot of problems. We wouldn’t do that.”
Who’s demanded that? “No comment,” they both reply.
Opera is eager to find another celebrated on-stage partnership with the chemistry of Callas and Di Stefano, Freni and Pavarotti, or Netrebko and Villazón. With their added offstage romance, Pérez and Costello are joining that elite, generating a tangible on-stage frisson. Do they feel it or is it just part of the job?
“Oh, I still feel it,” says Pérez.
“I hope there’s chemistry,” says Costello. “If there isn’t, that would suck. That would be a long night.”
- Emma Pomfret
The Times, May 5, 2014, Emma Pomfret