Pure Magic
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Pure Magic

Soprano Ailyn Pérez casts her spell at the Met this autumn as Thaïs.
By Scott Barnes
Photographs by Dario Acosta

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Rene Ruiz gold gown; earrings Black Diamonds with Yellow Diamond Pavé by Tamsen Z; ring Black Diamond with Autumn Mix Diamond Pavé by Tamsen Z
Photographs by Dario Acosta
Hair & makeup by Affan Graber Malik
Fashion styling by Rita Liefhebber
Jewelry courtesy of Ann Ziff for Tamsen Z
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Juliette at Santa Fe Opera, 2016, with Stephen Costello (Roméo)
© Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
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Nero by Jatin Varma white dress with ruffle; earrings and bracelet White Diamonds with Multicolored Sapphires by Tamsen Z
© Dario Acosta

AILYN PÉREZ IS AN IDEAL CONTEMPORARY OPERA STAR—beloved by both the “old guard,” who demand respect for operatic tradition and history, and the younger devotees, who require a high level of acting skill, camera-ready looks and technological savvy. Review after review refers to Pérez as the “total package”—and for good reason. Onstage, her huge, expressive brown eyes, impossibly wide cheekbones and generous mouth contribute to a great beauty. Best of all, there’s the morbidezza of her full lyric singing. Zeani, Tebaldi and de los Angeles are legendary names that are bandied about to evoke the fine-textured, delicate but dramatically incisive sound of Pérez’s voice. And her face mirrors all of the music’s vivid emotion. 

While she is clearly a star, she is shrewd enough to know that a performance is the sum of its parts, a result of moment-to-moment collaboration with everyone with whom she engages onstage. “Ailyn brings joy and positive energy to everything she does,” says her colleague, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. “When we did the Dulcamara–Adina duet from L’Elisir d’Amore last year on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Ailyn made the studio audience and the people watching at home fall in love with her.”

Pérez’s training at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts (following her undergraduate studies at Indiana University) was extremely traditional in the Serafin-–Callas mold of the hands-on maestro, coaching each recitative down to minutiae and guiding the singer’s choice of repertoire. “Even before AVA, my high-school voice teacher approached all of singing through the word,” Pérez recalls. “In a way, I learned the mechanics of how to do that at AVA, but it was that territory that I already thrived on—super detail-oriented, conscientious of how I want to say a phrase. At AVA, I’d come into a daily working session with Maestro Macatsoris [Christofer Macatsoris, Jeannine B. Cowles Music Director Chair at AVA] having listened to all of the great sopranos in my roles. I listened to Mafalda Favero when I was preparing L’Amico Fritz. How Claudia Muzio’s ‘Addio del passato’ differs from Ponselle’s, and yet they’re interestingly alike, in the way they speak expression into the singing.”

Right out of the starting gate, Pérez triumphed with her core repertoire (Violetta, Mimì, Marguerite, Juliette, Manon, Mozart’s Countess) at major venues, including Covent Garden, La Scala, Munich, Hamburg and Vienna. Now she returns regularly to those theaters, adding a new role here or there and “settling in” to what seems certain to be a sustained international career.

“For my first few years working, I spent a lot of time panicking—‘Is it gonna be okay?’ I felt so on the edge—it’s all or nothing. I remember singing with Charles Castronovo, and he’d say, ‘You’re fine. You sound wonderful. Just breathe. Stay calm.’ I haven’t worked with Charlie for a long, long, time, but I’ll always remember his gesture of kindness. And Maestro Domingo—he presented me so elegantly. Can you imagine? To sing Desdemona to his Otello at the Kremlin! Opera doesn’t rest on any one person’s shoulders. I’m really grateful for that understanding, because otherwise—it’s too much!”

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Mimì at the Met, 2016, with Dmytro Popov (Rodolfo)
© Beth Bergman

COMPOSER JAKE HEGGIE, whose opera Great Scott at Dallas Opera represented one of Pérez’s few forays into contemporary opera, admires the soprano’s ability to rise to every challenge. “Ailyn is pure magic—as an artist and as a profoundly good human being,” he says. “I had an absolute ball composing the role of Tatyana Bakst for her. She and I had many discussions about the overt, ruthlessly ambitious side of the character and how that might manifest itself vocally and physically onstage. 

“I’ll never forget the first rehearsal of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in front of the chorus. Tatyana sweeps onto the stage to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the Super Bowl. Determined to impress, she turns the anthem into a dazzling showpiece filled with runs, trills, coloratura and bravado, with a male chorus—‘her boys’—to back her up. I’d heard Ailyn sing the scene with only a couple of people in the room, and it was always jaw-dropping. But the first time she sang it in front of the chorus, she pulled out all the stops, and the entire room went wild, screaming ‘Brava!,’ clapping wildly, stomping and shouting approval. It was glorious! 

“I ran over to hug Ailyn, and she was absolutely soaked with perspiration from wide-eyed terror! I had no idea how scary that scene was to sing—fun, yes, but also unbelievably demanding from a technical standpoint. It was one of those moments where we, the audience, are having so much fun, because it seems so easy and joyful from the artist. We forget just how incredibly difficult it really is—how extraordinary it is what we expect of an opera singer—because the level of artistry we’re observing is so high.”

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In Great Scott at Dallas Opera, 2015
© Karen Almond/Dallas Opera

HOW DOES PÉREZ SUSTAIN the kind of energy and commitment required for the job? “Recently, a veil fell from my eyes when I had conversations with Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade and Joyce [DiDonato],” says Pérez. “They shared that the key to, and biggest element of, their joy in this work was the music. Yes, their names and faces are out there, but I think it’s more the way they deliver to the people. Another big thing is when you stop comparing yourself, and just start being yourself!”

Pérez covers a lot of territory this season. Next month, Hamburg hears her Violetta—a role she reprises in Zurich in spring. “What I love about working in Europe is that opera is everywhere. It makes it more like ‘Okay, it’s your job. Go do it!’ I have a certain reverence for what I do, but there has to be a practicality about it.” At the Met she revisits the Countess in Figaro and Gounod’s Juliette. She also adds two new roles this season—Fiordiligi in Munich this month, as well as her first Thaïs, in November, at the Met opposite Gerald Finley’s Athanaël. 

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Jovani white and gold gown
© Dario Acosta

“I’ve been eyeing the role of Thaïs for a very long time,” she says. “After I sang my first round of Manons in 2010, I grew voracious for more Massenet! I just love the way he writes for the voice. Thaïs has been a role we’ve asked for in different companies, and then—wouldn’t you know it?—it worked out at the Metropolitan Opera. Not so long ago, a singer could try out a new role at some out-of-the-way venue, check out the fit, work out some of the trouble spots, and then have a triumph with it at the Met. Not anymore. That’s why I have to follow my instincts. I’ve sung through the score. I started from the final duet and worked backwards. The score and the drama touch me—I have something to express, and it fits my voice. I look for the transformative experience in opera, and Thaïs certainly has one!”

Fiordiligi fills in a different part of the picture. “I’m eagerly adding Mozart back into my core repertoire,” she says. “What I love about Mozart is that he addresses emotion and passion in a lighter, classical way. I played Despina in school and loved it. I’ve done the Contessa and love her, and I’ve been working on Donna Anna. If I could sing Zerlina forever, I’d do it—but I feel I have to ‘grow up.’ As for Donna Elvira, I really like her, but she’s a little too witchy in the middle of the voice. Anna seems to suit me better. So that’s a little ways off. Mozart is such a balm for my instrument. And I’ve never sung in harmony with another female, with the exception of ‘Sull’aria,’ which is over so soon. I’m really looking forward to singing with my Dorabella.”

It’s easy to see why Pérez is so popular: her vulnerability, immediately apparent, is her greatest strength. We root for her, as we did for Teresa Stratas or Édith Piaf. Pérez’s work displays intelligence and strength, delicacy and precision and a fascinating chiaroscuro. Both text and subtext are of utmost importance, but never at the expense of vocal beauty. Her voice is warm and lovely throughout its range, never more so than when she sings softly, and it “spins” on a seemingly endless supply of air. Like Renata Scotto, she is a master of the subito piano, yet the top of the voice has some metal in it, which gives her Violetta desperation, her Juliette backbone and her Mimì resilience. 

For me right now, I’m falling in love with being an opera singer again,” says Pérez. “This connects me to the world in a meaningful way. I want to try on all these wonderful, fascinating women in this repertoire. And I think I’m going to be a great Butterfly one day. A great Tosca. If anyone did L’Amico Fritz, a great Suzel. Nedda. Suor Angelica. But before I do all that, I want to use these years to explore the French repertoire. I still have some dancing to do!” 

For all her enthusiasm and commitment, Pérez is aware of the pitfalls of losing herself in her work. “A career is just not everything,” she says. “Who are we, if we’re not doing this job? Is your whole existence based on what you do? If that were to stop, who are you? It’s challenged quite regularly. Even in a place you’ve sung, the public is different, administrations change. We try to give so much, and to remain current. It seems like we’re always reintroducing ourselves.”

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As Mozart’s Countess at HGO, 2016, with Heidi Stober (Susanna) and Adam Plachetka (Figaro)
© Lynn Lane

WHEN SHE'S NOT TRANSPORTING audiences with her singing, the soprano serves on the advisory board of the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative. The program posits that every child in the U.S. deserves an art-enriched education, giving children the tools to flourish, thrive and hope. It’s a program the soprano is passionate about: when she discussed “Time In” during a live interview for opera news in 2016, Pérez was visibly moved. “This is such a special program,” says Pérez. “I’m trying to help them raise more money and get more funding. These kids are so interested! It brings ten times more joy and light to my life. I’ve become aware that I internalize the roles that I sing, so much that I had no idea that’s what was happening, until I had help to figure that out. I’m excited to sing Fiordiligi, because she doesn’t die! I haven’t yet found a way to perform the Verdi roles without suffering. Especially if it’s a weird production. I gotta make it make sense, but then at the end of a run, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I did it again!’ It’s like going through hell. So I need to have an offstage life that is balanced. And working with Time In is one of the ways I’m doing that.

“There is so much expectation. Somewhere between ‘Hey, it’s just a job’ and ‘It’s the most divine moment on earth,’ somewhere in the middle is where I’d like to be. There is a balance, and I’m still learning it. There’s a business side to our business, and there’s the artistic. Sometimes those worlds are very far apart. There’s so much self-criticism and ‘noise’ that can stop us. We have to shut all that out. Serve the music, serve the text. Tell the story. And collaborate!” spacer 

Scott Barnes is an audition and performance coach for professional singers. 

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