By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
DALLAS – Talking with the rising soprano Ailyn Pérez is like reconnecting with a friend from high school. She is friendly, open, interesting, and completely unaffected by her current status as one of opera’s brightest young stars.
Pérez’s engagements in the last few years have included leading roles at La Scala (Mimi in La Bohème), Houston Grand Opera (Desdemona in Otello), and Covent Garden (Violetta in La traviata). In April, the soprano will appear as Marguerite in Faust at the Dresden Staatsoper, and this summer she will portray the ill-fated Juliette in Roméo and Juliette at Santa Fe Opera. In the midst of magnificent performances in the title role of Massenet’s Manon with Dallas Opera, she took time out to chat about her life and career.
“My first musical experience was in the second grade when we learned to play the recorder,” said Pérez. “By the fourth grade, I was playing the cello.”
But that wasn’t her last instrument change. In the fifth grade, she took up the flute and piccolo and played those two wind instruments at Elk Grove High School (outside of Chicago). She joined the choir in the ninth grade and soon thereafter discovered musical comedy.
“When you are in a musical theater production, you are a member of a special group,” said the soprano. “We are all working towards the same goal. Opera is all of that, maybe even more so.”
After high school, she attended Indiana University, known as “Opera U.” It presents a major season of operas, six productions this season, in a world-class opera house located on campus. The faculty is made up of mostly retired or semi-retired opera stars. Pérez was one of only two undergraduates chosen to study voice with soprano Martina Arroyo, who dazzled audiences in many of the world’s major opera houses.
“When I finished my undergraduate work and learned that Ms. Arroyo was retiring, I didn’t know what I should do,” she recalled. “Then I got a postcard inviting me to audition for the American Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. It was an easy choice: tuition-free and dedicated exclusively to the study of voice. I only had to worry about where to live and how to pay for food.”
Soon, she was accepted into the prestigious Merola apprentice program at San Francisco Opera, followed by a similar program at Wolf Trap. She stepped in, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, for soprano Mary Dunleavy, who was having a child, to sing her first Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. Her performance was a tremendous success and Violetta swiftly became a signature role for Pérez. It has been straight up the career ladder ever since.
“I would say that my career has progressed in a really healthy way,” she said. “While there were big steps in big places, it wasn’t like a super catapult overnight. I have been able to grow into my own experiences and wasn’t ever over-hyped. At the time, I admit, I was slightly bummed that I didn’t get at least some of the hype, but now I see that it was for the best – to come into my own as I did.”
There are untold numbers of talented singers being released by universities and conservatories each year into the competitive classical music world, far more than the industry can possibly absorb. But it is little wonder that Pérez stood out from the pack.
She has a voice that is instantly recognizable as well as technically secure. She easily negotiates all of the coloratura passages in the first act of La traviata, popping out an effortless string of high Cs. Dramatically, she is riveting, as she proved in her recent Dallas appearance in the title role in Manon. She showed her comic side as Tatyana Bakst, the voraciously ambitious soprano in Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s opera Great Scott, which had its world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2015.
But Pérez also acknowledges the sacrifices that come with the glamour.
“You spend a lot of time alone in hotels and have an intense rehearsal schedule,” she said. “You are always worried about your health and constantly confronted with difficult choices like, ‘Do you take an attractive job in December or do you spend Christmas with friends and family?'”
Looking ahead, Pérez said she would like to do more recital work such as the concert she will sing in Santa Fe in March. She is equally interested in exploring more work with symphony orchestras, such as the Mahler symphonies, Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Ravel’s Shéhérazade. In September, she returns to the Metropolitan Opera, this time as Mimi in La bohème. She is also looking forward to portraying Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin next season in Dallas.
“It will be my first role in Russian, which is both exciting and challenging,” she said, “and it is progressing nicely. Alexander Rom [the Russian-born chorus master at the Dallas Opera] is terrific and [is] helping me with the language.”
Singers historically learned French, Italian, and German in every university program. But the modern opera stage also embraces many Russian-lanugage works as well as other in Czech, such as Dvořák’s Rusalka (a dream role for Pérez), and even Mandarin Chinese (Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen).
“As singers, we have to prove ourselves every time,” said Pérez, “but the fact that we get to do all of this is amazing.”
Note: Dallas’ Manon continues March 12. For details, click here.
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs is the Senior Music Critic for theaterjones.com, an online performing arts magazine for North Texas. He is also a conductor and Pulitzer Prize nominated composer. He holds a Master’s Degree in music from Indiana University.