You might think it would be easy for an opera singer to play another opera singer on stage. But not so for Chicago-born soprano Ailyn Pérez. She had seen the Giacomo Puccini opera Tosca several times early in her career, but the overall effect left her cold. The performances were too melodramatic, too over-the-top.

“I never was moved by it, if you can believe it,” she now says with a laugh. Pérez is currently starring in her first-ever run of the opera, playing the title role for San Francisco Opera. “It didn’t capture my heart in terms of how La Bohème does. I just thought, ‘Why is everyone screaming in Act II?’ I couldn’t understand it. I really didn’t.”

Tosca chronicles the story of the soprano Floria Tosca, a performer whose life is upended when a predatory police chief singles her out as his next victim. Things quickly go from bad to worse. Tosca’s lover is captured, tortured, and then shot before her very eyes, even though she had struck a devil’s bargain to assure his safety. And yet, she believes in the possibility of a happy ending, right until the very end.

She’s a character full of contradictions—“sharp turns,” as Pérez calls them. Tosca zigzags from trust to jealousy, piety to gravest sin. Pérez sees her as courageous one moment and almost childlike in the next.

“I find that it’s un-relatable, but then that’s the very thing that makes her Tosca,” Pérez says. Tosca’s confidence, combined with her tempestuous, unpredictable personality, reminded Pérez of the Greek gods. But as Pérez dug deeper into the role, she also discovered something quintessentially human: optimism.

“Honestly, as a woman, don’t you have to believe it? You have to believe that the world that you love and live in and will birth children in someday or become an auntie in or whatever has to be a better place than what it is—as dark as it is. You can’t not fight for the better. You have to. I think that Tosca is that way,” Pérez says.

But that’s what Pérez loves about art forms like opera: “It can welcome the labels, and then it can strip them all away.” Characters can upend your understanding of them. So too can audiences. No one is a monolith. That notion is something Pérez is especially passionate about.

“There is a place for everyone at the theater. Curiosity is welcome. Different dress codes are welcome. When you feel moved to applaud, you should applaud. And sure, if you want to go dressed to the nines and treat it like a red-carpet date night with your loved one, do it. But also, if you are grieving and just need a place to find hope, some ray of light, definitely come.”

Now, as she completes her inaugural run as Tosca, Pérez opens up about her path into the opera industry—and why she decided it was finally time to tackle Puccini’s pulse-pounding thriller.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask you about your first time in San Francisco? Was that for Merola? [Pérez is a graduate of the Merola Opera Program, a young artist training program in San Francisco.]

PÉREZ: Yeah, it was for Merola in 2005. So one of my aunts, who’s still with us today—she’s my grandmother’s sister—had heard about this wonderful program called Merola. I had graduated from Indiana University in vocal performance. So she thought, “Oh my goodness, what a great opportunity for my grand niece.” So she told me about it. And that’s how I discovered the program and applied.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What were your first impressions of San Francisco?

PÉREZ: It was cold. [Pérez laughs.] Everybody quotes Mark Twain, but it’s really true. I’m from Chicago, so I’m used to the cold, but I never expected it to be so windy here in San Francisco. That was probably one of the biggest shockers. Growing up in Illinois, it’s also very flat. So to walk home and walk up a hill and see steps because of how steep the inclines are, that was a big shock.

But it was so stunning to be close to the Bay and see all of these iconic architectural elements of the city, which of course I appreciate, being from Chicago. I had the time of my life. We were very, very busy as Merolini. We had just enough time to go to rehearsals. I think we skipped every meal, just snacking in between coachings and prepping for performances and getting to hang out with each other.

It was a very special time because it was kind of like a paid internship. As a young artist, that’s such an amazing gift to be able to earn some money and then have performance opportunities.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you talk about diversity in any kind of profession, a lot of times internships are unpaid, and that does preclude people from participating. Can you explain how, as a young artist, you navigated that landscape?

PÉREZ: Basically as a full time artist, you can’t really hold down a nine-to-five job because you have to keep those hours open for coaching, for practicing.

I remember I was very fortunate. A friend of mine’s family had a catering company in Philadelphia, for example, and I would work the High Holy Days with her catering company and make some cash tips at that time. So it was either a church job or entering competitions, but yeah, you take out a loan and figure it out as you go along. It is really tricky.

I knew that part of balancing how to prepare for a career meant having performance opportunities. That’s what I needed. I needed a chance to really get into the musical styles—and not just by working on my own but by really working with a coaching staff who had experience, not just in music but by really working with great singers in international houses.

And so you have to find the people who have that kind of experience. AVA [Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts] provided that for me. So did Merola. The other program I did when I was younger was Wolf Trap Opera.

Basically every performance opportunity just informs your next one. You get a little more confident, a little bit more experienced, and you just keep going because no one really has all the experience. We all have to learn how to keep growing and nurturing and building upon each step. It does feel like a climb, a never-ending climb. It just keeps inspiring you to do the next one and the next one.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Before I arrived at San Francisco Opera, I never thought of opera much. It was just not a world that I was tuned into.

PÉREZ: Yeah. Neither was I. Neither was I. It was a dream, but it was someone else’s dream for me because I didn’t even understand: What does it even mean to be an opera singer? I had no connection to anyone who ever was. I had never gone to the theater. So I can totally understand how it wasn’t even on your radar. It wasn’t even on mine.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: May I ask when you first found yourself connecting with this art form? Can you tell me the story of when you found yourself hearing opera and having that connection?

PÉREZ: I love musical theater. I grew up in Elk Grove Village [in Illinois] and we had a musical program in the school that was very, very strong. And so friendships and a sense of belonging happened for me within the structure of music. Band programs, orchestra programs, theater programs, and musical theater became part of what I looked forward to when I went to school. It was a basis for the friendships that I made and my sense of belonging.

I had my voice teacher at the time, who inspired me to really take on this path. So in my voice lessons, my teacher said, “Here are list of singers. Go see if they have some recordings at the public library.” So he gave me a list with Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Jussi Björling. And I even found recordings of Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Anyway, I found a lot of wonderful singers at the public library on CD.

And I listened to Maria Callas—one of her albums—and on it was a track of La Traviata. It was a duet. It was in that music and in her sound and in the story of what they were singing as characters that I thought, “Wow. Okay.” I just started crying. I thought, “This is so beautiful. This is it. This is everything I want. I want to know more.”

I just feel incredibly fortunate. I keep dreaming for more. I understand you can’t do it all, but I keep trying. I definitely keep trying.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What does “more” look like for you?

PÉREZ: For me, it would be actually taking on some Strauss roles or having a chance to be able to sing the season that I wish for. Ever since I sang Thaïs at the Met, I’ve been wanting to sing it again.

But that’s one of my wishes. Or to sing in places I haven’t sung yet and having a chance to sing a beautiful, meaningful role in those places. That would mean the world. But it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of travel. And it’s also not always up to me. Actually, it’s rarely up to me. To me, so often we’re really servants of this art form, even the biggest stars.

So while it’s exciting to do the Tosca debut, it’s not even about that. All of the personal things, they’re not as important as the fuel behind everything that I do. It’s more about: How is this affecting the whole community? What does this mean? And how can this be meaningful going forward? Just showing up for our loved ones every day is meaningful. There’s art in how you live your life.

It’s the first time in my life to have a female director and a female conductor. See, it’s interesting. Sometimes people think, “Okay, don’t use labels.” But when something is so rare, it’s hard not to realize that and to take it in and enjoy it. So that’s why I say it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How has that representation impacted you, especially in this circumstance, having a female conductor and a female director and working with other artists of color on this production? Does that have an effect on you?

PÉREZ: Hugely. Yeah. It does. In a way, I can’t tell if it’s because of where I am now in my career. It’s not the beginning, right?

With Tosca, you have to believe in what you’re doing. In other words, I can only play what I viscerally agree with, because otherwise it just doesn’t work. I can feel it immediately when I’m conforming to somebody else’s idea. So having that feeling and then being able to express that to my maestro and to my director makes a world of difference.

Usually if a production is being remodeled or revived, you just have to do the choreography that’s already set because there are lighting cues and a dress has already been created—for someone else. I’m used to that. But I cried the first time I had a sitting and the wig was made for my head. Again, another female leader in that department, Jeanna [Parham, San Francisco Opera’s head of wigs and makeup]. So it’s just really empowering in a very different way. Is it because they’re female? Is it because I’m in this role, in this time? I think it’s all of it.

I can tell you that it does feel empowering to know that, when I say something, I’m being heard. I’m being seen and I’m being supported. And that is an amazing gift.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Why did you choose to take on the role of Tosca now at this point in your career?

PÉREZ: Well, this was a very special opportunity. Obviously Eun Sun Kim and I have had collaborations before in Europe in La Traviata. I knew she was brilliant.

And Michael Fabiano was going to sing Cavaradossi. Michael and I had collaborated on The Tales of Hoffmann once before and then on La Bohème. But we really have, I feel, a very kindred spirit, in terms of communication and how we think of music and how we feel about the language and character. In our conversations as friends and as artists, we have always been totally at ease with one another. He’s super honest, super supportive, just wonderful. We had a chance to sing La Rondine in Naples, and I just knew how great that felt.

So this came up and I thought, “Well, that’s crazy, but it’s San Francisco. I know that I love this theater. I know that I have a community of people I love here. What a great idea.”

I was a little afraid of it. I haven’t even touched Madama Butterfly yet, because I think Puccini has a way of writing every instrument on your vocal line in crescendo. But then after having sung La Rondine, it felt like I could trust Puccini—because my voice was always meant to sing it.

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