The following conversation with lyric tenor Stephen Costello took place at the Santa Fe Opera’s cantina, with the much-appreciated facilitation of the Santa Fe Opera.
Wm: You are here for on the Santa Fe Opera’s ranch rehearsing for your Santa Fe Opera debut as Roméo in Gounod’s “Roméo and Juliette”. You will be in the company premiere cast of this opera, which has never before been produced in the 60 year history of Santa Fe Opera.
[Below: Roméo (Stephen Costello, left) sits beside what he believes is the corpse of Juliette (Ailyn Pérez, right, in shroud) in Stephen Lawless’ 2016 production of “Roméo and Juliette”; edited image, based on a a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
What are your reactions to Santa Fe?
SC: This place is completely different from everything I’ve done in opera. I have a hard time getting use to seeing colleagues ready at the end of a rehearsal to jump into their bathing suits to use the pool.
The Santa Fe Opera has given me a nice place to stay with a Camry to drive around. Whatever I ask for, within reason, I get. The company lets you explore the area yourself and leaves you alone. You can find your stride. You’re not forced into doing things.
Wm: You’ve had no problem with Santa Fe’s altitude?
SC: The altitude hasn’t bothered me. I’ve had to rehearse swordfighting for the show, but even that hasn’t been a problem. I was experiencing jet lag, having flown in from Vienna and was eight hours ahead of everyone else.
Santa Fe has been in a dry spell and the humidity is low, so that causes some discomfort. When I drank a beer, that was a disaster. For hydratian, I’m sticking to water.
Wm: What about the musical ambience here?
SC: Last night I attended the dress rehearsal of the Santa Fe Opera production of Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West”. There is a special feeling about attending an opera in the West by an Italian composer who was obsessed with the West. Puccini really captured the spirit of the Gold Rush and of those men who were drawn to it.
Wm: You’ve performed in Gounod’s “Roméo” with several companies. Is Roméo a favorite role?
SC: Roméo is a great role. It has wonderful music for me to sing. One of my favorite productions has been Bart Sher’s production of the opera at the 2010 Salzburg Festival.
[Below: Stephen Costello, front left, who was Roméo, and Anna Netrebko, front center, who was Juliette, take curtain calls with Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin after a 2010 Bartlett Sher production of “Roméo et Juliette” at the 2010 Salzburg Festival; edited image of a photograph by Anne, from anna.netrebko.blogspot. com.]
Roméo is a role with dramatic strength. When I perform Roméo I have the opportunity to show a character’s emotional growth.
Wm: Roméo is a teen-age boy who begins the opera with party-crashing, but who is emotionally transformed when he falls in love with Juliet. Then all these things happen to them.
SC: You see differences in both characters between the beginning of the opera and the end. This is something I find very satisfying, playing a character where I can project change.
Contrast Roméo with a character like Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” who is always the same. So is Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and even Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme”. Their emotions do not vary much from the beginning to the end of the operas.
Wm: You are Roméo in the new Stephen Lawless production that will be set in the time of the United States Civil War. What are your thoughts on the production so far?
SC: So far, my thoughts are about this mustache that Lawless is making me grow. Either I have to look like a jerk while it’s growing or have the mustache glued or painted on. I hate it.
Wm: I first saw you as Roméo at the San Diego Opera.
[Below: Stephen Costello, left, is Roméo and Ailyn Pérez, right, is Juliette in the 2010 San Diego Opera production; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Including that Roméo, I’ve reviewed 12 performances in nine different roles: in the title role of Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” at The Dallas Opera (at Fair Park); as the Greenhorn in Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at The Dallas Opera and (twice) at the San Francisco Opera; as the Italian Tenor in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”, in the title role of “Faust” and as Tonio in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” at the San Diego Opera; as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Los Angeles Opera; as Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Cincinnati Opera and the San Francisco Opera; , and, earlier this year, as the Chevalier des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” at The Dallas Opera.
Are there any of these roles that you are considering leaving behind, as your career progresses?
SC: I don’t plan to perform Roberto Devereux in the future. I haven’t personally found the role to be rewarding. When I learned it, I was sick. The last time I performed it (in a single 2014 concert performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York), I was not in a good place emotionally.
Wm: What would you like to add to your repertory?
SC: My dream role for the future is the title role in Massenet’s “Werther”.
Wm: What attracts you to the idea of playing Werther?
SC: Of course, the music, but also the character’s complexity.
Wm: Besides Sher’s “Roméo”, what other opera productions that you’ve done stand out for you?
SC: I really enjoyed doing Michael Mayer’s “rat pack” producton of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera. I really enjoyed playing the Duke if Mantua as a kind of Frank Sinatra.
[Below: Stephen Costello (center, in white jacket) as the Duke of Mantua in the Martin Mayer production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the New York Metropolitan Opera; edited image of a photograph for the New York Met.
And I found the Leonard Foglia production of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” to be really extraordinary.
Wm: I reviewed the “Moby Dick” world premiere at The Dallas Opera and I reviewed your San Francisco Opera debut when “Moby Dick” was done there. In my opinion, it is the most successful opera so far of the 21st century.
SC: I continue to enjoy exploring the character of Ishmael, the Greenhorn. I will be performing in its revival in November 2016 at The Dallas Opera. Everyone in the cast still communicates.
I think the use of projections is incredible. I have been a big advocate of the opera.
Wm: Before you do “Moby Dick” in Dallas, you are singing Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” there.
SC: Lensky is a beautiful role. I was part of the Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Friends concert in Moscow earlier this summer and he wanted me to do the Lensky-Onegin duet with him. It was clearly because Lensky would be my first Russian role. However, I just didn’t want my first experience with singing Russian in public to take place in Moscow before a Russian audience.
Wm: Perhaps Dallas is a better place to debut your Russian.
SC: After Lensky and the Greenhorn in Dallas, I’ll be taking a bit of rest. Later I’ll do Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” in Paris. I’ve sung it English. This will be the first time in French.
Wm: For your rest, will you get back home to your roots in Philadelphia?
SC: I’ll be there after these performances of Roméo. I’m going to be the godfather of my cute new nephew. I love playing with my nephew, especially since I can hand him back to his parents.
I do have Philadelphia roots. In fact, members of my family still pronounce “water” as “wortter” and use the expression “youse guys”.
Wm: You’ve been quoted in interviews about popular Philadelphia food products. Have you requested the Santa Fe Opera management to import Philly Cheesesteaks for you?
SC: It wouldn’t work. What makes cheesesteaks so special is the bun, and you have to get the right ones in Philadelphia itself. They just don’t taste the same when they travel.
Wm: You spoke of performing the Duke of Mantua. You also sing Alfredo in “Traviata”. Do you find these youthful Verdi roles to your liking?
SC: I do not see any emotional growth in either the Duke or Alfredo during either opera. The Duke does briefly consider how nice it would be to settle down with Gilda, but he abandons that thought in the very next moment.
I would never expect to sing the title role of Verdi’s “Otello”, but that role has the kind of character development that really interests me.
I might put Alfredo aside in the future (I like what the baritone gets to sing in “Traviata”.) I am looking at the lead tenor roles in “Ballo in Maschera” and “Don Carlo”.
Wm: Lyric tenors sing the roles of Ismaele in Verdi’s “Nabucco” and Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff”.
SC: I don’t find Ismaele to be an interesting character, nor would it be a good role for me. I certainly would consider Fenton, if all the members of the cast were top rate. But “Falstaff” has so many characters that it becomes very expensive for opera companies to mount it these days.
Wm: I still would like to see you perform Gérald in Delibes’ “Lakmé”.
SC: Well, so would I, but good luck on getting it performed anywhere.
Wm: I’ve reviewed four different performances, each with a different Gérald and and a different Lakmé. By the way, your fellow student at Philadelphia’s Academy of the Vocal Arts, Burak Bilgili, was the Nilakantha in three of those performances.
SC: Burak was Dulcamara when I performed Nemorino in a James Robinson production at Michigan Opera Theater where Nemorino is an ice cream vendor. Bilgili would pull pranks onstage, like putting ice cream cones in the pocket of the apron that Nemorino wears. I would unconsciously put my hands in my apron pocket so that I’d end up with this mess on my hands onstage.
[Below: Stephen Costello was Nemorino, left, is Nemorino and Burak Bilgili, right, is Doctor Dulcamara in the 2010 Michigan Opera Theater John Robinson production of Donizetti’ “L’elisir d’Amore”; edited image, based on a John Grigaitis photograph for the Michigan Opera Theater.]
Wm: Did you ever retaliate?
SC: You never can get the better of Burak! He’d just escalate the pranks.
Wm: So you are happy in the lyric repertory for some time to come.
SC: I don’t want to move into heavier roles until I feel I am ready. In the future I could see adding Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”. All in all, I’m happy with what I’m singing now. I’m still working on every one of my roles, and, of course am ready to add Werther. Everything is still challenging.
Wm: Thank you, Stephen.
For my previous interviews with Stephen Costello, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.