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INTERVIEW: Metropolitan Opera Debutante Ailyn Perez Talks Her Debut, Music and Her Future

First Posted: Feb 09, 2015 12:16 PM EST
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Ailyn Perez made history in 2012 when she won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, a prize that is given to rising American operatic stars. Perez, a first generation American to Mexican parents, became the first Latin American to win the accolade.

Since then she has become a renowned face in international opera singing at the Royal Opera House, the Bayerische Opera, Deutsche Opera Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, San Francisco Opera and the Washington Opera. And despite this tremendous success, she had yet to grace one stage -- the Metropolitan Opera.

That is about to change, as three years after winning the prestigious award, Perez will finally make her Metropolitan Opera debut, a career highlight that she calls a dream come true.   

"I'm so excited," she said about her debut during a recent interview with Latin Post. "In life you have these goals and aspirations, you prepare and you work and you carve out things and doors open. And this door particularly, I am so glad that it opened now. I think that everyone says timing is everything but there is so much joy that I have with this role and this group of people and at this time in my life. It feels special."

For her debut she will be singing the role of Michaela in Bizet's "Carmen." The role is not a long one but it has been sung by many of the great sopranos and it is one that Perez loves.

"I think it's a little easier to be drawn into a complicated character because you think about why she is this way or that way. But you meet Michaela and she is the most sincere and honestly just a really uncomplicated person on stage. Everyone else around her is way more complex. What is appealing about her is finding the sincerity, the love, the nuance and the honesty but you don't see her very often throughout the performance."

Perez added she thinks Michaela is a strong character and different from the other heroines she sings.

"I think she is brave and what I love about her is that she is different from all the characters I play like Liu or any of the heroines I've sung before," she said. "They all die for their love or they're attached to getting the love from a man or desiring that love in return.

"Michaela is not that way. She would love to be with Don Jose. But she sees his state. She sees that that he is no longer possible because he loves another. And he's so lost and she sees him for who he is, not for who she wants him to be. And I think that that is a huge difference in her character that makes her a very sober and different kind of woman in an opera. She's not going to go home to commit suicide. Her last words express her desire for Don Jose to go home and see his mother. They're not, 'Jose, I love you. Please come home.' That's a really different woman and I really admire her."

"Carmen" is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and Perez said she is "blessed" to be working with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna. Both stars premiered the current Richard Eyre production back in 2009 and have become two of leading interpreters of the Opera.

"I've been excited to start working with Elina and Roberto on this production because they're performers that have been in this business for a while," she said. "They are really strong artists and they created this production together but I have seen them live. So I was really excited to see how they work together."

She added watching them rehearse is an inspiration and that she has learned a lot from their process.

"Anytime I go to a rehearsal, I love watching how people work and learning. That's how I get the tips or advice," she said. "With Roberto, he's such a nice man. I met him in 2008 and he just beams with generosity and he has that openness that is very easy to work with him. He is so respectful and full of joy. He loves this art form. It's so nice to work with people who are enthusiastic and to me that's an example of a great artist."

As for Garanca, who plays the title role, Perez said, "Working with her is so great. Just watching her, you learn. These people are wonderful human beings and just seeing the way they go into the workplace and being in it. It's been a pleasure to work with them."

For Perez her time at the Met has also been filled with many surprises. While her first rehearsals were canceled because of a snowstorm, the rehearsal process has given her time to explore her character but also to become comfortable with the stage.

"We've had a really good rehearsal period. Since I am one of the few people who is new to the show, I've had a chance to practice it, meet my colleagues, and work with the maestro. So it's not as daunting stepping on stage for the first time and meeting everybody which can happen. Here it's very well rehearsed, it's a great team and there is a lot of detailed effort to make sure that were all on the same page."

After the final performance of "Carmen," Perez will continue her increasingly busy schedule in Europe. She will return to Munich to sing the role of Adina in Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore," and she will go to Barcelona where she will sing her first Norina in the composer's "Don Pasquale." These roles are a change of pace for the soprano as they are comedies, and they are part of the bel-canto style.

"It's very different and they live," something she is excited for. "I have sung so many [tuberculosis] ladies. Violetta dies in 'La Traviata,' Margueritte [in 'Faust'] dies in a strange way. These are all dramatic so I am looking forward to a comedy again."

The bel-canto repertoire is something Perez hopes to continue to explore. "My beginning roles were a lot of 'Traviata' and a lot of 'Boheme.' I wanted to explore a lot of the bel-canto roles so I have 'I Capuleti e Montecchi' way off and we'll see."

Soon after, Perez will also return to two of her favorite roles in "La Traviata" in Zurich and Barcelona and "La Boheme" in La Scala di Milano. These are roles she has become associated with and for which she has scored raves. Perez said these are roles that really speak to her.

"I ran to the fire singing Violetta. You're supposed to sing Susanna, Fiordilgi but no I ran. I'm okay with that. I like that. If I cannot connect to something, if I cannot be so determined to pump out that kind of sound that demands great singing, it's not going to be very good. It will be too cerebral and people will be like 'boring.'

"Traviata and La Boheme. It's the music and I know I can relate to these characters. There was an instinct and when I go through these scenes, I feel. I have a huge amount of emotion that I feel from the combination of the music, the words and the story. I want to be a part of telling it and that's what I want to be a part of."

In addition to taking on all of these roles, Perez will also go back to her Latin American roots in a joint concert with Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas.

"I'm singing a concert in Puerto Rico with Ramon Vargas and that is all Mexican boleros. I am excited about that. I love Maria Grever and that is the music that I grew up with. The tricky part is that the parts need a jazz interpretation and someone who knows that style. It's hard finding that style near me and I look forward to that concert."

Looking into the future Perez has a number of roles she wants to add. "More than naming my future roles, I would like be invited back to do a series of different roles [at the Met]. However, I don't want to leave the business without singing Leonora in [Verdi's] Il Trovatore."

She continued, "The way Verdi writes that score fits better than even Traviata. The music is stunning and it is a dream."

She also noted a desire to get into the world of musicals.

"Of course, 'West Side Story' but also 'My Fair Lady.' It would be great. Just seeing 'The Merry Widow' [which featured Broadway stars Kelli O'Hara and director Susan Stroman] this year and seeing the two communities connect is so important. I hope to be a part of it."

Outside her work on stage Perez is trying to advocate for music education and trying to engage younger audiences with opera and classical music.

"I want to advocate that classical music matters. Everywhere I sing, I want to work with young artists and open up a forum to allow students to ask questions such as 'How did you get to this point?' Hearing the testimony from all artists and how they got to be where they are, that's important. For some reason you think it's an automatic answer and there is a formula. The more you realize, there is no formula. If you have the talent and certain people around you that can nurture your talent or being exposed, there are many ways to it."

Part of her work will be exposed on Feb. 20 when she holds a program at the opera learning center with young students with the Met Guild. 

"What I think is essential to a young musician is that they have a great teacher that believes in them and that can show them a process of seeing the talent and recognizing the talent, developing the talent and giving guidelines. But there is a discipline. That is what is so important about having music in schools. Nurture your gift."

Part of her work in making classical music more popular was seen last year when she recorded a CD, "Love Duets," with her husband tenor Stephen Costello. The album combined musical theatre with opera duets, and the idea was to expose musical theatre fans to some of the popular operatic hits.

"The album was created in a way to try to tell the story of some of the best love duets in opera but also in musical theatre. I think the hope was to build a bridge to both worlds but without tampering with quality. The way we were talking about the album was maybe people remembered 'Carousel' but they never heard Manon, Traviata or Boheme. What a perfect way to bring people into an album that would offer that and would expose them to all these great operas and great duets. So projects like that, I would love to continue doing."

As Perez's career takes off, she wants to make some adjustments that include seeing her family more often and being around her friends.

"I'm about to start a new page. A different life but I don't know what it looks like. This one has been intense, I don't know how I am going to lighten it up but maybe I'll hang out with friends more, meeting new people, getting a hobby. I like dancing a lot. But I am going to figure it out. People just tell me to have fun and do the things that mean something to you."

Ailyn Perez will perform Carmen from Feb. 6 to March 7. 

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