Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 2

The following interview took place at the Santa Fe Opera Ranch the day after Ms Pérez’ festival debut as Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust”. The facilitation of this interview by the Santa Fe Opera is gratefully acknowledged.

See part one of this interview at: Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 1.

[Below: Lyric soprano Ailyn Pérez; edited image of a promotional photograph.]

Wm:  You have done back to back productions of “Faust” with two brilliant stage directors, a restaging of an established production by David Gately at the San Diego Opera, and a wholly new production by Stephen Lawless at Santa Fe Opera. For years, “Faust” was considered by some to be “old hat” and uninteresting to stage. Do you regard the approaches of such directors as Gately and Lawless to demonstrate that there is much still to be found in this iconic French opera?

AP: Absolutely! I’ve found that, not having a concept of the performance traditions, that the score itself seems very simple on the page, with so much music in major moments. Then you work with David Gately and Stephen Lawless. They just get it. They know how to bring these characters to life, how to work with romance, how to show the intensity of attraction that these characters feel for each other. Those two directors do so much preparation.

[Below: Marguerite (Ailyn Pérez), back in her house after her deeply romantic encounter in the garden, confesses her erotic thoughts to the stars; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

This is Lawless’ first Faust. Some of his choices were surprising. In San Diego, as Gately’s Marguerite I talk to my baby, but there’s nothing there. I have hope and I’m waiting for Faust to come. In Lawless’ production you see that the baby’s there. Holding the baby during Siebel’s aria was a big challenge for me.

The church scenes in both the San Diego and Santa Fe productions were very dramatic and imaginative, but so different. Marguerite can’t create the dramatic situation on her own. There’s so much that has to happen around her.

Also, I think that now Stephen Lawless’ approach to the Valentin-Marguerite relationship is very different from David Gately’s. In San Diego, Brian Mulligan had to replace another Valentin with only a few days to rehearse. But in Lawless’ production, the way Valentin in conceptualized is so different. The pain with which Matthew Worth’s Valentin curses his sister shows his complete broken-heartedness and despair.

These are two directors that are inspired by the artists with whom they are working. They keep sight of the importance of the story. Thank God  for these directors.

One of the things that I appreciate about the Lawless production are Benoit Dugardyn’s set designs. Having these focal points – the coffin, Marguerite’s little house, the display cases for the jewelry box and Marguerite’s confessional – means that you as an artist do not have to work as hard to center the audience’s attention. It’s modern, and in these days of austere budgets, it’s amazing that it can be done.

[Below: Marguerite (Ailyn Perez, center) is saved from suicide by the intercession of Faust (Bryan Hymel, left) to the disgust of Mephistopheles (Mark S. Doss, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: Santa Fe Opera had not done a Gounod opera ever until opening night of its 2011 season, when you, Bryan Hymel and Mark S. Doss performed it, conducted by Frederic Chaslin. Not only was it a spectacularly sung performance, it restored almost everything traditionally cut from the opera – including Marguerite’s spinning song and Siebel’s consoling aria, cut from almost all late 19th and 20th century productions and the Walpurgis Nacht and ballet, almost always cut from 21st century productions. What was it like being in a virtually uncut “Faust”?

AP: It wasn’t completely uncut, but I loved seeing the femme fatales dance the Walpurgisnacht ballet, especially since one is Manon. I have done the title role in Massenet’s “Manon”, a character, that has been called the Sphinx, who is so feminine.

How does Faust decide that he wants to come back to Marguerite? I believe it was an important idea for Faust to have this moment of regret for abandoning Marguerite, when he is surrounded by these alluring women.

Wm: You and your husband, tenor Stephen Costello, were married in 2008, and since both of your careers have engagements set well into the future, there are many times in the year that you are not together. Are you trying to coordinate operatic engagements where you both can sing in the same opera or two operas in repertory with each other in future years? Would you like to see the two of you doing the Santa Fe Festival together?

AP: I would love for the two of us to sing a festival together. Our careers have been developing independently, but sometimes we are able to at least be at the same company at the same time.  Last year, at Dallas Opera, I was Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and he was Percy in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”.

But when we can be romantic leads in the same show, it’s so transformative. You know, when two artists have to perform love scenes, they negotiate such details as where each one can put their hands and touch and hold the artist, and how to act out a kiss. When you are a married couple, like Stephen and I, we can act naturally without any such negotiations.

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

And the married artists can bring ideas to the stage directors. In San Diego Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”, Stephen and I, who were married in the Catholic church, made the suggestion that Romeo and Juliet be married kneeling before the priest at a prie-dieu, which is just what we did at our own marriage.

I think there are unspoken advantages to having Stephen and I performing together. He’s an amazing musician, but I think when we are together, there’s even better singing and an added degree of sympathy for our characters. We will be performing Mimi and Rodolfo in “La Boheme” at the Los Angeles Opera, a company that loves the idea of us singing together.

We will do Adina and Nemorino in Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” toegether in Vienna. It’s so important that we just keep growing. Just to be together, however, takes quite an effort in scheduling. This summer, coordinating Stephen being in Glyndebourne, England and me being in Santa Fe proves to be very hard. But our careers are at the point where we can begin to make plans for ourselves. We are talking about having kids.

[Wm: At that point, her cell phone rang, and Stephen called her from Glyndebourne, asking how her Santa Fe debut performance of “Faust” went. She said she was with me being interviewed, and he said he was with Lucas Meachem. Stephen and Lucas sent their regards to me, and I said to read my review of the Santa Fe “Faust”.]

Wm: Over the past several months, you have appeared with superstar Placido Domingo and Conductor Daniel Barenboim. What was that experience like?

AP: There is nothing that I can easily describe. The Berlin Staatsoper’s director, Ronald Adler, had invited me to sing Pamina in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”.  Adler said, I will have you sing for Conductor Daniel Barenboim. I think you should be Amelia in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”, singing it with Placido Domingo as Boccanegra.

Meeting a master of the craft changes you. Barenboim dispelled any fears I had. I think my chest cavity expanded when I sang for him. The harmonics were beautiful. Placido and Marta Domingo came and heard me and I had sung with Placido in concert.

The simplest way of describing my experience is that each artist – Domingo and Barenboim – has more than 40 years experience performing opera.  When they are doing what they do, they aren’t worrying about who’s thinking what. They are confident in their experience and knowledge of their craft.

When Domingo is in character, he never gets concerned about the small stuff. We were singing the father – daughter duet between Simon Boccanegra and Amelia, and I could feel that Domingo has that nurturing quality with him that made you feel that love that Boccanegra has for his newly found daughter. When Domingo’s Boccanegra falls in my arms, it was personally affecting and transformed my character. Maybe one thinks it all comes to him easily. I think he works very hard. I don’t think he takes anything for granted.

You see these veteran artists that have lived these  life experiences. At their best, is it amazing, yes! What Placido Domingo does and what he’s been doing with his life – such as his founding and dedication to the Operalia prizes, of which I was a beneficiary –  is of profound importance to the future of opera.

Wm: Finally, what is your take on the Santa Fe Opera?

AP: I think it’s a most wonderful experience. It’s an American festival with mostly American singers. It changes the atmosphere of operatic performance. We American singers tend to me more open people who are more flexible in what we will do on stage. I was in Europe and in rehearsals with tenor Charles Castronovo and the stage director asked if we could do something unusual. We said no problem, and the director replied “Oh yes, you‘re American artists and that means you can do anything”

[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite in “Faust”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: Following up on “you can do anything”, my wife made the point that you displayed knowledge of how to push cloth through an antique sewing machine, and, of course, you had to roller skate in the kermesse scene in this production.

AP: Actually, before I came to dress rehearsal, I asked one of the persons in the wardrobe department, if she would show me to work the sewing machine, and it was she who showed me how to push the cloth through. The roller skating, with two professionals at my side or nearby, was no problem.

Wm: Thank you, Ailyn.

For my reviews of Ailyn Perez performances, see: Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011, and also,

Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011, and also,

Costello, Pérez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010.