Soprano Ailyn Pérez doesn't feel like a beginner anymore

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Soprano Ailyn Pérez doesn't feel like a beginner anymore
The opera singer Ailyn Perez, in Santa Fe, N.M., Aug. 5, 2023. Perez will sing the lead in “Florencia en el Amazones,” the Metropolitan Opera’s first Spanish-language opera, in November. (Krysta Jabczenski/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- Ailyn Pérez didn’t get a chance to see the billboards in New York: the Metropolitan Opera’s advertisements for its coming season, featuring a portrait of her in spectral whites, her eyes closed as she comes face to face with a butterfly.

She had been too busy appearing at San Francisco Opera’s centennial concert, rushing to Munich to sing Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” and flying to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to star in Dvorak’s “Rusalka.” On the outdoor stage there, she didn’t encounter any butterflies, but she did swallow an insect.

“I started coughing,” Pérez, 44, said with a laugh during an interview last month on the grounds of Santa Fe Opera. “But this is my third opera here, and I’ve learned that you deal with the elements.”

Friends have sent her photos of the New York billboards, which are a first for her. She has been performing at the Met since 2015 — blossoming into a soprano of lush vocal beauty, dramatic acuity and commanding presence — but there hasn’t been a new production built around her until this season, when Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” receives its company premiere.

“I haven’t posted any of the photos, because I don’t want to post something and then it’s gone,” Pérez said. “But I see it, and I just think, Wow, I’ve always wanted this, and I didn’t know it would be this role. It blows my mind.”

She is excited not only by the career milestone, but also by what “Florencia” means for the Met. Catán’s 1996 opera — a Gabriel García Márquez-inspired story of a diva’s homecoming, opening Nov. 16 — is part of a wave of contemporary works joining the repertory there. More remarkably, it is the house’s first Spanish-language show in nearly a century. And at its heart is Pérez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

Ushering in this era of the Met’s history is, she said, “such an honor.” To her colleagues, though, especially Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s music director, who is conducting “Florencia,” this moment is well-deserved for one of the house’s leading sopranos.

“We go back to the Salzburg Festival over a decade ago,” Nézet-Séguin said of his relationship with Pérez. “And we’ve been regularly making music together. The generosity of the person comes through in every vocal performance that she gives. The refinement, the quality of the voice, the generosity of the heart — it’s what makes her exceptional.”

Pérez grew up in Chicago, where her parents, both from towns near Guadalajara, Mexico, met. She started school on the South Side, but at 6 moved to the suburb of Elk Grove Village. There, she made a point of speaking English in the classroom despite Spanish being the default language at home.

“It was a time where, if you spoke Spanish, you had ESL classes, which I’m sure was the system’s way of caring,” Pérez said, “but it also hindered a group of students from learning with everyone else.”

Making friends was difficult. Her homemade ham sandwiches came with avocado and jalapeño, which she said wasn’t good for trading at lunch. There was also the fact that she looked different from other children.

Her Elk Grove elementary school was where she first took music classes. The instructor was playful, teaching rhythm and tempo with a wink and farting noises. “This is meant to be fun,” Pérez remembered thinking. She rented a recorder, then took up the cello to join the orchestra and flute to be in the band.

In high school, she started voice lessons because they were required for her to take part in the musical. At her first session, the teacher handed her some sheet music and asked her to sing. She felt confident about breathing because of her experience on flute, and was able to sight-read the score. “He looked at me like, ‘Who are you?’” Pérez recalled. She knew virtually nothing about opera but was breezing through the famous Puccini aria “O mio babbino caro.”

In the end, she got to perform in musicals — as Sarah in “Guys and Dolls,” and as Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes” — but her interest was quickly overtaken by opera. Pérez checked out CDs from the library and made her way through the classic recordings of Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni and Montserrat Caballé. She brought a recording of “La Traviata” to her teacher and asked why the music made her cry.

She adored Renée Fleming, whom she got to meet after a recital in Chicago. The great soprano told her that she had “nice cheekbones,” to which she replied, “Oh my God, thank you.” But, more important, that concert was the moment, Pérez said, that she “saw someone do the thing” of singing.

Pérez had still not been to an opera. That wouldn’t happen until she saw Gounod’s “Faust” — starring a student Lawrence Brownlee — at Indiana University Bloomington. She studied there because, she was told, Met singers were on the faculty. Her teachers included sopranos Martina Arroyo and Virginia Zeani, who originated the role of Blanche in Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites,” which Pérez would go on to perform at the Met.

She continued her studies at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, finishing there in 2006. Two years later, she was onstage in Salzburg, performing alongside tenor Rolando Villazón, under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.” After that prestigious debut, her arrival at the Met didn’t come until 2015, when she sang Micaëla in a revival of “Carmen.”

“A confident, forthright presence in a role that can fade into merely demure, Ms. Pérez has a penetrating, settled voice,” Zachary Woolfe wrote of that night in The New York Times. “Her tone may not be sumptuous, but it’s clear and articulate, and she uses it with intelligence and a sense of purpose.”

Pérez could hardly be accused of not having a sumptuous voice today. Her sound has become richer, while remaining nimble enough for a spinto repertoire encompassing both lyric and dramatic roles; she can inspire awe as the Contessa in “Le Nozze di Figaro” one night and as the doomed nymph of “Rusalka” the next.

Her career at the Met has been representative of that range, in part because she is a favorite of Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “Each season, she has grown and developed, and quite frankly gotten better and better,” he said. “She very convincingly becomes the characters whom she’s portraying, but above all her voice is absolutely beautiful.”

In spring 2020, Pérez was set to sing in “Simon Boccanegra” at the Met, but the season was cut short by the pandemic. “The closure really knocked me out,” she said. It helped — a lot — that by then she had met Soloman Howard.

They had been introduced in Santa Fe. In 2016, Pérez starred as Juliette in “Roméo,” and her colleagues included Howard, a bass-baritone, as the duke. “He took my breath away,” she said. “He’s such a brilliant artist and connector. Whether speaking or singing, the presence brings something that draws people in but also delivers this power. I knew that his calling in life would be big.”

It wasn’t until 2019, though, that they began dating. They attended the Vienna Opera Ball together, and traveled to see each other perform. Once the pandemic hit, they sheltered together in Chicago. Where she was despondent, he was resourceful. He rounded up equipment for them to start recording music at home.

At one point, Santa Fe Opera asked Pérez to tape herself singing “Song to the Moon” from “Rusalka,” and Howard said, “‘We are going to make a video,’” she recalled. “He cut stars out of foil and pinned them on the drapes. He got a boulder from a local Home Goods store. I was like the Little Mermaid on the rock, and that was all him.”

When live opera resumed, Pérez reopened the Met’s auditorium as the soprano soloist in Verdi’s Requiem, to observe the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. She doesn’t really remember that night — “I was out of my body” — but others do. Gelb, who said, “You can’t fake Verdi,” remembered her sounding “absolutely magnificent.” Nézet-Séguin called it “a performance for the ages.”

Howard, Pérez said, gave her something to hope for in the months leading up to that Requiem. She referred to him as “mi vida” — “my life.” Out and about in the opera world, they are something of a power couple, beloved and difficult to miss in their red-carpet-ready style. (“That’s all Soloman.”) Days after the opening night of “Rusalka” in Santa Fe, they got married.

The ceremony was small and private. A larger celebration will come, to be planned in the spaces between two peripatetic careers — which will soon bring Pérez back to the Met for “Florencia” rehearsals.

It’s an opera that Gelb has long wanted to bring to the house; he was just waiting, he said, for the right star. And he knew his hope for Pérez had paid off last season when, during the run of “Carmélites,” he asked her to sing Florencia’s final aria for the Met board on only a day’s notice. She delivered it, he added, “with so much beauty and conviction, she had the board sort of swooning along with her.”

In Santa Fe, Pérez spoke about the role with the depth of a literary thinker, but acknowledged that she will have to see what the director, Mary Zimmerman, comes up with for the production. She is certain, at least, of the confidence she is bringing to “Florencia,” a product of the years leading up to this moment.

“I don’t feel like a beginner anymore,” Pérez said. “I’m not wondering what happens next. Now, I can really look back and see it all.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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