Covent Garden’s latest Violetta talks about her career and her passionate belief in the importance of music and theatre in today’s world...
This season the Royal Opera celebrates one of its most popular productions – that of Verdi’s La traviata directed by Richard Eyre – by offering twenty-two performances of it. Three distinct casts are involved. For the eight presentations between 25 November and 20 December the role of the tragic heroine Violetta is being taken by Ailyn Pérez, long scheduled but by chance her debut with the company took place last year when she went with Royal Opera to Japan as a cover for both La traviata and Manon. When a singer appearing as Violetta suffered a severe allergy Ailyn had to take over for the second and third Acts of the Verdi. “I’ll never forget it because of the audience and on account of the enormously warm reception from my colleagues after the curtain came down. Stepping in like that was not easy, but Maestro Pappano was there to make it all as seamless as possible and it was very rewarding.”
Ailyn was born and raised in Chicago of Mexican-American parents who just happened to meet in that city. “Both of them came from farming families and worked their whole lives. As with so many parents, their dream for me and for all of us was that their children would find happiness and have more possibilities in life than they themselves had. That’s very much an immigrant mentality: you are always striving to better yourself. When she was in Mexico my mother was a great dancer in the folklore idiom so music to her was a cultural language and in my family everybody sings. But classical music was something else and I guess that the first time I understood it a little better was in Junior High. There you were told that you could be in the band or in the orchestra. Well, I chose both. We rented a cello and I wanted to take up the flute as well so I asked my mom if we could afford that. She said: ‘Yes. You see how hard we work, but if you enjoy it I want you to study and to go with the best people’.”
The best people – artists such as Plácido Domingo and Daniel Barenboim – would indeed play a significant role in Ailyn’s life. But to start with she studied at Indiana University and at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. “The university in Bloomington provided me with the groundwork. Encouraged by a teacher in High School I chose singing when auditioning for a scholarship to enable me to go there. Its musical library has a great archive featuring outstanding singers of the past so I could go and listen. As for AVA it is a tuition-free institution which makes its auditions very competitive, but they don’t go so much by your age or by your diplomas: they look for people with the potential to become artists and thanks to what I had learnt at Indiana University they saw that potential in me. It was at AVA that I learnt the craft of what it takes to be an opera singer. That involves learning a score directly with the maestro and with colleagues, making mistakes, bad notes, good notes, tired, not tired: the lot.”
At AVA Ailyn would sometimes be part of the chorus but, like others there, would also be encouraged to take on major roles. In her case these included Gilda, Lucia di Lammermoor and Mozart’s Susanna as well as appearing in French works. This foreshadowed a pattern which, now that she is sufficiently established to be more selective, has become central to her work. “My soul is first and foremost in Italian opera. That’s where I sing my best and connect most with the story. Within the next ten to fifteen years there are many great heroines that I hope to portray. But right now my voice also enjoys French works. There’s also Russian music which I haven’t touched. People say that I should look at Tatyana and I would indeed love to do Eugene Onegin, but it’s very important to me that I understand the language fully and know what I’m singing. Nevertheless, even before the words are out the music speaks to me. Through it I feel the mood in bel canto and in Verdi; I feel the blissfulness and the irony in Mozart. Actually I feel all music and want to avoid doing just one sort of repertoire because then you kind of lose a little bit of growth. But I always have lyric roles in my repertoire while also aiming to move the voice: it’s very important to keep it agile and young as long as possible.”
In 2006 Ailyn was placed second in the Plácido Domingo Operalia competition and since then she has appeared in concerts with him as well as on the operatic stage (she was Gilda to his Rigoletto in the recent Covent Garden celebration of Domingo which included Act Three of that opera). “The link between us happened then because both Plácido and his wife Marta who was on the jury heard me there. Subsequently I did one performance of Traviata directed by Marta at the San Francisco Opera which went well. Maestro Domingo didn’t attend that performance but I learnt a great deal from Marta who is so detailed and really elegant. So that kept up the connection. That was in 2009 and later on I had a run of Traviatas in Berlin when Plácido was there singing in Simon Boccanegra. I went to his premiere and said hello, and he came to the last Act of one of my performances. That was when he said ‘I think that with your voice you could be a really good Amelia in Boccanegra’. Well, if he thought so I wasn’t going to argue, so I studied the role before doing an audition for Daniel Barenboim at the Staatsoper. Plácido was in the theatre at the time so he insisted on coming to my audition along with Marta and their presence helped me very much. At the end they said ‘Okay, we will see you’. And all I could say was ‘thank you so much’.” Ailyn was heard in this role both in Berlin and at La Scala and while her partner was usually Andrzéj Dobber she was also heard with Domingo.
One might suppose that Ailyn’s successes would have made her feel sure of herself from the Operalia onwards, but it took longer. “When you start out it takes a lot for an opera company to entrust a main role to you. Even when you get one you are still kind of the young ’un; you want people to take you seriously and hope that they will realise that you are capable. I got engagements but it took me about five years before I started to feel more confident and to be able to think of myself as more or less established and with something to say. I had a certain confidence before 2010 but always felt the need to prove myself. As an opera singer you are so aware of the traditions: you know who you admire and you study and you hope. There are ideals that you are striving for as an artist. There’s also the question of your growth as a human being: to be happy in your personal life too is so important.”
To be a successful artist you need determination as well as sensitivity. I ask Ailyn if a role as weighty as Violetta is desirable when making a debut, which it did in Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna as well as with Royal Opera. “What I can say is that in life I have these make it or break it moments. To leave home to study opera meant that for years I did not see my family in close proximity, so when you choose this career it’s really that severe. Your art takes you everywhere and life is full of questions: you want to have a family, for example, and that’s very important. I haven’t had a child yet, but I am married to the tenor Stephen Costello and we often sing together. In the opera house too you come to those moments. You have a big debut and if it’s Traviata then it’s very dramatic and it could be great or it could be very bad. But you’re there and in that moment I say a prayer: ‘God, thank you for this talent’. If it goes well, it’s another step taken but, if not, there are other steps to take. You never know how it will be and, while other artists may feel differently, for me it takes a lot of courage because I always feel very vulnerable. But you can’t worry too much about that or you’re not going to be able to perform at your best. You just have to go and do it. I’m learning to enjoy it more. When I first worked with Maestro Barenboim I was scared to be with such a genius, but he put me more at ease than almost anybody I’ve met. It’s the same with Domingo. You meet people like that and you realise what a beautiful world it is, what a beautiful community.”
I ask Ailyn about keeping a balance between an emotional role and controlling her performance in response to colleagues: a complex question. Ailyn is clear that in contrast to the rehearsal period she needs to avoid thinking about technique when performing because that would involve disengaging emotionally. “I have to put my heart into it. In opera what’s essential is finding the character in the music. It plays with time and space and sometimes the biggest moment can come in a silence. In preparation there can be major questions about phrasing, about whether or not to spin out a gorgeous phrase at a slower tempo. Sometimes that can be totally right, but not always. When making such a choice I have to ask if it’s about me or whether it is true to what Violetta would do. It may be good to show her ego because then you see her fragility and vulnerability, but that is perhaps something for the public to judge. However, if there’s room to play I bring everything to my table while also disciplining myself to adhere to what’s in the score. So once the curtain is up it is me, but from the start I am also inhabiting her. Your physical side, your own particular physique says a lot as to how you move and what the character could be – so it is very personal. Yet as soon as I put on the costume it tells me something else. My shoes, my fan: all the accessories contribute in that way and, most importantly, my colleagues to whom I must respond. Once the lights are on you in costume, you’re Violetta, so it’s also okay to be you. That’s all rather complicated, but what is least confusing is the need to be present, not thinking ahead, not playing the tragedy before its time. You are in the moment and that’s difficult to do, to be still and present.”
Ailyn talks about Violetta’s character with specific reference to Act One. She feels certain that when acting as hostess Violetta is putting on a facade, that this woman who has become a very special courtesan is fully aware that she is not only ill but that she has not long to live. “What makes her different is that we all know that we are going to die eventually but that she knows that it’s very close. In the aria ‘Sempre libera’ she embraces freedom in the time she has left: that is her driving force. She could choose to go on as before but she’s now met Alfredo who talks of what is a higher love, something that she has hoped for but which has become a long-lost hope. ‘Perhaps he is the one’, she sings, but at the end of Act One her words tell us that she is staying with her established life-style. But in Act Two we discover that she has chosen life with Alfredo after all, and I think that’s not only because it’s such a special love but because she‘s going to die. She’s taking a chance on it: why not?”
Finally, because one’s own experience of life changes, Ailyn states her belief that she finds something new every time playing a role like Violetta and quickly broadens her comments to extend to other roles too and to the importance of what opera offers. “You come upon a role at different levels and I wish this to continue for the rest of my life. Very rarely do you have all of your arsenal ready. The more productions you do, the more great people with whom you work, the more your perspective changes. That’s what is wonderful about our art form. You can even hear it in a run of performances: opening night may be fabulous, but the second is interesting and the third even more so: people jell better, the orchestra hears you and everything changes. That is what keeps theatrical performances alive, and I hope it’s for that that an audience comes to the theatre. Life is not easy today for many people. We are facing many challenges and I think that theatre is very important, not only for humanity but as a place of camaraderie, a place for peace and dreaming. I don't think it will go away. I hope that it doesn't. I think it’s essential and I hope that I get to be a part of it for many years to come.”
La traviata – At midday on 25 November and seven performances at 7.p.m. from Monday 28 November to Tuesday 20 December 2011