Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera
If there is such a thing as a diva mentality, soprano Ailyn Pérez doesn’t have it. There is much more “we” than “I” in her conversational style, and something in the way she discusses her life and art that brings one far from the world of glam shots and worrying about high notes and nearer to more spiritual concepts of connection, perseverance, and empathy.
“My instrument works by connecting emotionally,” she said in a recent Zoom interview with SFCV. “By trusting the breath, the vowel, the intention, the delivery, and the connection with my colleagues. It has to work that way.”
The daughter of parents from a small town outside Guadalajara, Mexico, childhood in a suburb of the multicultural mecca of Chicago was for Pérez a foreshadowing of the international life she would come to lead, singing in places like Malta, Istanbul, Amsterdam, and of course, New York, Milan, Munich, and London.
From playing flute in the junior high band (she still fondly remembers her teacher, Mr. Janusek,) and singing in choir at Elk Grove High School, Pérez went on to fall in love with opera. While studying with soprano Martina Arroyo at Indiana University, Pérez found a role model familiar with breaking boundaries. In that tradition, Pérez went on to her own series of firsts, including being the first Hispanic person to be awarded the prestigious Richard Tucker Award.
But her response to accolades is less about self-celebration and more about taking on responsibility. Speaking recently in an online conversation with Thomas Hampson, Pérez put it this way. “As much as I love the achievement element of those moments, beyond that, and more importantly, it’s never about us. It’s about the foundation, and bringing up the next generation. It’s about taking on the responsibility of continuity. I like connecting. I like to think, ‘now I’m representing this person, this foundation, and this legacy.”
Even now, arriving in San Francisco for five highly anticipated performances of her first Tosca, she says, “It’s hard to talk about the role debut when that’s really not the point. The point is, for all of us, to have the theaters open, to have our audiences back, and to keep going. And even if there are challenges, we find a way forward. The loss of culture is too big a sacrifice to make. People, for our health and sanity, we do need art.”
In a career filled with La bohéme and La traviata, Mimì has been the butter, and Violetta the bread for Pérez. So, Tosca represents a bit of a departure from those and other more lyric roles she has sung in the past, and those coming up soon after this engagement, which include Adina in L’elisir d’amore in Chicago, Alice Ford in Falstaff in Florence, and Manon in Paris. “I never imagined I would debut Tosca before Suor Angelica, and before [Madama] Butterfly. I did so many Violettas, I will hold her as long as I can. I think this is a very special time, and a gift. It’s too soon to say if I’d want to do another run, but I definitely feel at ease putting her story forward.”
Pérez has described Maria Callas as a primary voice from which she took inspiration for her own path, and to be sure Callas casts a long shadow on this role in particular. “She had it all, in a way,” Pérez says, “but nobody has it all. Very quickly you realize you can only sing your instrument, and you can only give it away. She has a bite in her sound that was a little bit scary. Even with me trying to make some scary sounds, it still stays a little bit pretty. That’s how it’s going to sound, so I have to play into that more loving idea. My instrument, while I can get angry, and I do have that burst of drama, I have to be aware, as a color, will it work? She [Tosca] has got to be strong, but she’s got to be so gorgeously lovable. Puccini wrote it perfectly. Everything blooms where it needs to. With Maestro Eun Sun Kim it’s not dragging. She and I have collaborated a couple of times in Europe. She has what I feel is a psychic ability to know what we’re going to do, and to walk us through.”
Perhaps the toughest part of Tosca, both musically and dramatically comes in the second act, and the buildup to one of the yummiest chestnuts in the oeuvre, Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte” (I lived for art). “Act II is all the theater training you’ve had ever,” Pérez says. “How you get to those decisions, of taking the dagger, you can’t arrive there green. It isn’t Juliet. But for drama to work, you have to play the hope and the light as much as possible, so that when it takes a turn for the worse it’s a real surprise. You can hear it in the score, but if you play it too soon, too deeply, too richly, it’s just all violent. Even in a Quentin Tarantino film, you have to be real, and that’s tough. That first duet [in Act I] is just fun. We’re teasing each other, we’re loving each other, and every time I get more comfortable with Michael [Fabiano.] So, at first glance it looks melodramatic, but to allow it to live realistically is to center it in the highest love, the very honest sense of being in that moment.” Her affection for the character is evident. “She’s such a chatterbox. She just takes over. I love how bold she is.”
Pérez can relate the themes besetting her character to contemporary issues of inclusivity and justice. “I’ve never crossed a woman like this, who is so ideal in terms of love, and romance, and faith, and yet is so brave and willing to challenge authority. She’s a cultural icon, and Scarpia reduces her to nothing, and it’s so tough to get to that point. To think in today’s society that we still have to bring police officers to justice for killing black women. We’re still having to walk this path as women, and it’s absolutely insane.”
Regarding ongoing struggles within the opera world, Pérez says, “We’re empowering our stories just by doing our work and representing, with my personal values and the way I value and esteem those I am working with. I know that cannot cover what has happened over ages and ages of time, but I always try to leave a place having brought a piece of my heart. In terms of equity and diversity, this cast at San Francisco is an example of a shift. The conversation will have to continue. We have the narrative executed very well in the schools, but then comes the hiring part. More diverse people need to be invited on the boards.
“With more casting directors seeking out talent from HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities], and organizations like the Sphinx foundation, whose mission is to provide young Black and Latinx talent in classical music the funding necessary to continue their education and projects, we are hoping to see more of that gap closing. There are still pay gaps between male and female artists. Stay the course, keep talking about it. I try, when I have opportunities, to speak the names and recommend colleagues I know who represent a voice from a different community. That’s important. That’s always been on my shoulders and it’s a joy to introduce new artists to people. That’s where I see my place in that story.”
Like all of us, SF Opera is meeting unprecedented challenges as best it can. “For a performing artist,” Pérez says, “I know the vaccine has been politicized, but for us it’s the only way we can get back with each other with peace of mind. Testing, I think, is going to remain in effect as we navigate through this challenging time. Having that in place allows us all to work a little more openly with each other. I don’t mean that it all happened right away. We had stages of wearing masks which were provided and designed by the company, very large, very thick face masks which are not ideal for singing but thank God they provided them, and they’re a step forward to have us all safe. But in terms of conditioning and singing, even with a thinner mask, breathing and the acoustical feel we need to do our jobs properly, it’s affected.
“So, it’s very challenging and we all have to have a lot of peace, patience, and understanding. At the times when I’ve felt, how are we going to do this? I’ve been able to have an open line of communication with the production team and administration to say, here’s how this is feeling. To have that feedback go through, and then adjustments were made to help us along that path in the most effective way possible, which takes time. If we’ve learned anything during this time, it’s that we all have to learn how to manage that kind of stress and to navigate that together, to find solutions together, to have a lot of respect and always come from a place of compassion. I think this time has called us all to be more mindful, just to deal with it in a compassionate way, because it is a challenge, and it will remain so.”
Along the way to returning to full productions, Pérez has traversed the strange landscape of singing to empty spaces. Creative solutions have included a live streaming of Falstaff with the Bayerische Staatsoper, and a concert for the Met at Versailles with fellow-soprano Nadine Sierra and mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard. For this latter event, Three Divas in Concert, the constraints were challenging. The dressing rooms were too far away to change gowns, the pressure to keep the concert going to keep a video audience engaged allowed for few breaks, and rehearsing together was a geographic impossibility. But there were upsides as well. “The dream of singing together, that was such a gift. To put the Rosenkavalier trio in there, to put the Norma duet in, to do the Così duet. It’s such a rare occasion to be the deciding artist to make this happen. We’re so grateful for this opportunity. It allowed us to dream together, to share our heritage. With high flying careers it’s hard to get us in the same city. Performing to the empty hall, all the quietness, a person might argue, that’s not opera, or, it’s anti-musical, and I can understand that perspective. But I also understand how much concentration I need to do that. Much more than I might need to go onstage, with costume, lights, and an audience.”
Pérez is in the heart of her career, but her beloved “Tequilla,” a long-haired chihuahua mix was ready to retire from a life on the road, and lives at home with Pérez’s sister. “She needs laps to sit on,” Pérez says, smiling a bit wistfully. But the compensation for that sacrifice comes in collegiality with kindred artistic spirits, and seeing old friends when you come to town, as Pérez did when she enjoyed a recent birthday dinner with her friend, composer Jake Heggie. Pérez has fond memories of San Francisco, where she understudied Anna Netrebko’s Violetta. “She’s very special to me. I keep telling her I want to do more Liùs to her Turandot. And Elizabeth Futral was the other Violetta, so I had these wonderful, vibrant women, who are both so generous, to learn from. They were both so encouraging.”
Despite the tippy-top fireworks of Violetta, Pérez enjoys a lush middle register, whether singing “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix (My heart opens to your voice) in recital, or choosing the original, lower key for “L’heure exquise” (Exquisite hour) on her album of French songs for Opus Arte, Poème d’un jour. (Pérez’s growing discography also includes the Erato DVD of the Dallas Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, and her latest album, Mi Corazón, which is a collection of Spanish language songs with guitar accompaniment.)
Asked if there are any mezzo roles she might like to perform she says, “I’ve always had this middle register, and been influenced by wonderfully warm, rich, mezzo-sopranos. I think about the warmth in their middle, and I’ve carried that in my imagination, but no.” Then she thinks for a moment and lights up. “Ooh! Cendrillon! I’d like to do Cendrillon (Cinderella) by [Jules] Massenet!” She continues, “but in terms of a Carmen or a Dalila, I don’t think the quality of what I have would carry that. For now. What I feel about expressivity is, if I can take you on a journey to the tenderness of the character, and carry that … but I have to have that moment when I think ‘yes, I can do that.’” As Pérez puts it, “what’s possible has to do with the role, the hall, and the team.”
Taking in turn the usual challenges of an opera singer, (life on the road, the artistic hurdles of collaborating in a theater, the vocal challenges of the role itself,) add in a pandemic and some air quality issues, and you’ve got the makings of a triumph in the face of adversity story, as I’m sure everyone attending this season opening production will be rooting for. Oh, and don’t forget to add hurling herself from a parapet into the bargain.
“I’m not afraid of heights, but jumping is a weird feeling for me,” says Pérez, who nevertheless once engaged in the local custom of jumping into the Limmat river in Zurich (with some support from friends.) “I can’t talk about it. I just need to know technically what I need to do, who I check in with, and just do it. But if I stood there to contemplate it, I wouldn’t do it.” She laughs. “SFO is a great company. We had training, not on set, a first training, step by step with David Meier. [SFO’s fight director.] He told me what I needed to do to land safely, then we did it on set, and I knew not to overthink it. They told me it was even higher on set, and I said, ‘Don’t tell me that!’ But it is a defining moment for her. She is certain. She knows what she’s going to do.”
For Pérez, Tosca’s story doesn’t end at the final curtain. Unlike Mimì or Violetta, who more or less transcend into a rising cloud of angel dust, Pérez thinks Tosca is moving on for a second round of vengeance. “I often approach a role from the end,” Pérez says. “I work backwards. Her last line, ‘O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!’ She’s saying, ‘in front of God, I’m going to find you again, and kill you again, for this, for all of this! And if this is the world order, and this church? I’m going to talk to God about that, too!’ It’s very Greek. It’s not about religion as we understand it. It’s about heroism.”