Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2

The facilitation of this interview by the San Diego Opera and by the Dallas Opera is gratefully acknowledged.

For the first part of this conversation, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1.

Wm: In my interviews with John Relyea and Brandon Jovanovich, I have asked both about the impact of receiving the Richard Tucker Award had on their careers. Since you were the 2009 winner, have you seen a subsequent impact on your career?

SC: There is no question that you get more work after being recognized by the Tucker Foundation. It helps other opera companies to recognize me and what I’m doing. It does involve being held up to higher standard. I do feel I’m part of an exclusive club. The Tucker Foundation will go out of their way to assist you.

I have a great manager now, and am making debuts in important houses with the right roles. I’m doing Percy in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” at the Met and Vienna. I‘m doing Nemorino in “Elisir” in Vienna. All of this followed the Tucker award. I respect the Tuckers so very much.

Wm  You are married to soprano Ailyn Perez. At San Diego Opera you have sung the title roles in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Faust and Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust”. What other operas do you do together?

SC: We do Verdi’s “La Traviata” together, and Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’amore”, and Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz”.  We work a lot together, but this summer Ailyn will be at the Santa Fe Opera to sing Marguerite in “Faust” and I will be at the Glyndebourne, England summer festival.

[Below: Stephen Costello is Faust and Ailyn Perez is Marguerite in the San Diego Opera production of Gounod’s “Faust”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Wm: Where is your home, and how do you handle two international operatic careers within a marriage?

We just moved to Hixon, Tennessee, near Chattanooga where Ailyn’s parents live. She wanted to be closer to her mom and dad. Now when she’s home by herself she has support from our extended family.

But when we got into our relationship, we decided that for the first few years we have to take the opportunities that are offered to young singers. If we do well in our debuts at each company, there will be more time to say “I won’t do this production”.  She was asked to sing in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” with Placido Domingo. I said, you should take it. We have to be supportive of each other. Communicating by Skype when we are in different cities helps a lot.

We have an understanding that neither of us will talk about our professional pressures at home. Whatever goes on in rehearsal or preparing for a performance, we leave there.We believe that it’s the only way for two artists to handle their careers.

Wm: You created the role of Ishmael the Greenhorn in Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera in 2010. What is it like preparing a new role, when it is possible to consult the composer himself on his intentions. Did he work with you directly on the music written for your part?

SC: Doing a new role threatens the hell out of me. There is nothing you can listen to. Unless you’ve done a lot of Jake Heggie’s music, you have no idea how to approach it.

I called Heggie one day, and told him I was having trouble in a scene between the Greenhorn and Queequeg, where there are a lot of rhythmic changes which were playing with my head.  I asked if I could come to San Francisco and work on it and he agreed to help me. He gave me a lot of insights into the opera. It’s great if you have the composer handy in working on a new role.

I wouldn’t normally take on new operas, since they take so much work. But “Moby Dick” was a special case with its world premiere at Dallas Opera’s new Winspear Theater.  Even so, I was unsure whether I wanted to accept it. I thought it would be a great opportunity, but was on the fence as to whether I was the right voice for the role.

When I got to San Francisco I was still nervous about it. Then Jake played the first act for Ailyn and me.  The music was unbelievable.

[Below: Composer Jake Heggie; resized image of a promotional photograph, from the Calgary Opera.]

So, I worked  with Heggie for three hours a day for five or six days. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer explained what was going on in each scene. Scheer  had worked very closely with the Melville Society in writing the “Moby Dick” libretto.

Now we were on the way. I got to work on my scenes with Jonathan Lemalu,  who was cast as Queegqueg, for the first time. Nobody was disappointed in the scenes.

I  think their appreciation really made us feel at home with the score. It became a labor of love for us. Jake was there every rehearsal. We could ask him anything. I was so impressed to be able to work with a guy like Ben Heppner, who was learning the role of Captain Ahab for the first time.

Ishmael the Greenhorn will be my role debut at the San Francisco Opera. I was also scheduled to perform it at the San Diego Opera, but when they changed it on their schedule from 2011 to 2012, it conflicted with another commitment I had. But I would sign up to do the role again. Based on his track record so far, I would do any piece by Jake.

Wm: I’ve spent a lot of time studying the relationships between the characters in the two major operas based on Melville’s sea stories, Britten’s “Billy Budd” and Heggie’s “Moby Dick”. As the creator of the part of Ishmael, what are your insights into the relationship between Ishmael and Quuequeg?

SC: Ishmael is alone in the world. If he were to stay on land, he would kill himself. He wants to go to sea. If he dies there, it’s no matter. When he meets Queequeg, who seems so strange, he can see that Queequeg is happy and content in his own surroundings. There is something about the way Queegqueg lives that Ishmael loves.

[Below: Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu) prays to his island god as Ishmael (Stephen Costello) looks on in wonder; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

I think Ishmnel sees someone who, like himself, is a social outsider, but who likes who he is. That’s why they made such a strong bond. I think they have developed a brotherly love for each other. The death of Queequeg is upsetting to him but, because of knowing him, Ishmael now has something to live for, He has the spirit of Queequeg with him. I envision Ishmael journeying to Queequeg’s Island of Kavoko and living there as Queequeg would have.

Wm: And, of course, since I’ve been a proponent of reviving and re-evaluating Delibes’ “Lakme”, I see a parallel between that story and Ishmael and Queequeg. It’s my belief that Gerald, after Lakme’s death, “goes native” and spends the rest of his life in the community that Lakme’s father Nilakantha rules.

By the way, I feel compelled to state that the role of Gerald is a perfect one for your voice.

SC: In fact, I was in the advanced stages of planning for “Lakme” at San Diego Opera a few years hence, when the decision was made to do “Fille du Regiment” instead. I still would love to do Gerald.

Wm: I’m hoping to convince a stage director to stage it as a metaphor of an impulsive, adolescent love affair between two very young persons, as passionate as Romeo and Juliet. But, instead of being from feuding houses in the same city, Lakme and Gerald are from two totally different cultures with specific social responsibilities preordained for each other.

SC: That’s a wonderful concept. You need to get it produced.

Wm:   Since you are not yet in your 30s, one anticipates that your voice is still developing. Even so, some opera companies, like San Diego Opera, are casting their 2016 seasons, five years hence. Do you plan to stay with the Italian and French lyric repertory over the next half decade, or are you committing to taking on somewhat heavier roles, like Riccardo in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”?

SC: I’m planning to do all of the major bel canto roles. I will see where my voice’s development leads me. I have committed to doing the lead role in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Houston Grand Opera. If someone wanted me to do Riccardo in “Ballo”, I might put it on the schedule, with the option of canceling it if I’m not vocally ready to do it.

[Below: Stephen Costello as Percy in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”‘; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

For the first 15 roles you agree to perform, you have to make sure your voice can take it. Accepting a demanding Verdi role is not something that should be done lightly. Not only do you have to be technically good, but you have to realize that your voice has to keep projecting all night long. You’re still singing with a voice that will experience wear and tear.

You also shouldn’t sing a role with a smaller voice than the role requires. Every now and then, I’ll accept a new role to see if it works. Sometimes, once you’re performing it, you see it doesn’t work for you.

I don’t like the way the part of Rinuccio in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” sits in my voice. It has the legato line in his aria that I liked, but I’m not doing it again.  I do have contracts for things that are a little bigger, but each contract has a clause in it, that permits me to withdraw with a year’s notice, if it proves not to be a good fit for me. Even if your voice is becoming fuller, it doesn’t mean that it is right for heavier parts.

Wm:  Do you see your career ten years hence remaining centered in the lyric repertory, in the way Alfredo Kraus built his career, or do you see moving into the spinto roles, as Luciano Pavarotti did in his 40s?

SC: I don’t know. I would love to move into some of the bigger roles. I do want to have a longer career, so for now I wil sing most of the lyric repertory. My voice is getting bigger and heavier every year. But, it’s very hard to predict how one’s voice will develop. You have to come out and try things.

It’s fun to try new things. At my first rehearsal I try to figure out what is going on. Usually, I just want to sing my arias and go home. If you have  a good technique for a role, then you can go through the “oo” and “ee” vowels, which is great exercise for one’s passagio, then go through it a second time, singing it a half step higher. Approaching a role that way makes me feel that I am in a concert or competition setting. It keeps my voice high.

Wm:  Speaking of a role that is set high in the tenor voice, have you considered singing Ernesto in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”?

SC: I’ve wanted to do Ernesto. I’ve looked at it, but no one has hired me for it. You have to keep your voice trained to handle the high tessitura. I’m getting to the point that if someone doesn’t offer it to me soon, I may just pass on it.

Wm: You came from a family with no experience with opera, but now you and your wife are international opera stars. What do they think about opera now?

SC: My family loves it. There are supportive. Both Ailyn and I come from huge families. My dad was from a family of ten kids, Ailyn’s is the same. They’re getting more into opera through us.

They all try to make an effort to come. My mom didn’t know anything about opera. She’ll read about the operas and make notes. My dad now can sit through an opera. My parents are very excited . They love to come to the parties. At the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb gave my parents tickets to sit in his box.

Wm: Thank you, Stephen.