Letting His Hair Down: Stephen Costello and Gianni Schicchi [The Royal Opera, 17-28 October 2009, with Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the American tenor who, following his Covent Garden debut in Linda di Chamounix, appears in its production of Puccini’s comic masterpiece…

Stephen Costello. Photograph: Neil Funkhouser Artists Management

Stephen Costello has come a long way in a short time – and not only geographically. This Philadelphian has already established himself at the Met in New York, appears at Covent Garden and, with debuts in Berlin and at the Salzburg Festival now behind him, has future plans which will take him to Wiener Staatsoper, San Francisco Opera and Glyndebourne. Inevitably that involves a lot of travel although he still regards himself as based in Philadelphia – “my family lives there so when you fly in and see the skyline it feels like home.” Adding to the problematic aspect of such a busy schedule is the fact that Stephen is now married, but it’s to somebody who understands the life-style because his wife is the soprano Ailyn Pérez whom he met while studying at the Academy of Vocal Arts in his home city. “We travel and work together as much as possible. Last month when I was making my Covent Garden debut in those two concert performances of Linda di Chamounix she was here for the week before flying to Berlin to appear in Traviata. Then, after our last performance, I got to fly out to see her in that, but, since she’s giving a recital in St John’s Smith Square this month (15 October 2009 with Iain Burnside in music by Schubert, Verdi, Vives, Bizet and Mozart), she will be in London during Gianni Schicchi after which we fly home. It will, I’m sure, get harder to find time together, but we are going to make the effort to leave gaps between engagements with that in mind and we shall shortly be appearing together in San Diego. The opera is Roméo et Juliette which, incidentally, is a favourite work of mine – that’s because it not only has great music which suits my voice but also on account of it giving you a good opportunity to exercise your acting skills: it’s a long evening, but at the end it feels so satisfying.

These comments confirm my impression that Stephen is a singer with a good, practical approach to his work and, indeed, when referring to consultative discussions with his teacher Bill Schuman and with other coaches, he stresses that “everything I do is talked over and thoroughly planned”. But things were not always so organised, and, if music has had a part in his life from early days onwards, it was initially a very erratic role that it played. He may have enjoyed listening to Elvis Presley on the radio station favoured by his father but while still very young he turned to the violin, although that action was not motivated by any sense of vocation. “I did that for about four years with friends, but mostly it was just to get out of the other classes. I enjoyed playing music but not so much the violin, so eventually I decided to look for something else. It was on television that I came across people who seemed to me really cool. With those people in mind I approached the school music-teacher to suggest the alto-saxophone instead. He said: ‘I don’t have one of those for you, but here’s a contrabass saxophone’. Well, it was huge: bigger than I was at the time. ‘Do I have to take that back and forth to school every day?’, I asked him incredulously. ‘Yes’, he told me. So I said ‘Forget it. Have you anything smaller?’ And that was how I started to play the trumpet, and this time I found that I just loved it. It was so appealing to be in the brass section of an orchestra, but even more I loved brass quintets where you got featured from time to time and also had to bring all the tight harmonies together. It was such a great experience that as an undergraduate I really thought that playing the trumpet might become my full-time job. But later when I thought about it realistically I recognised how few brass groups make it big and in Philadelphia there was huge competition for positions in the orchestras.”

Stephen Costello. Photograph: Neil Funkhouser Artists Management

Singing came in as an alternative, but it would be some time before the possibility of a career in the classical repertoire emerged. “My last year in High School I decided to audition for South Pacific on learning that it was being staged in Philadelphia. By that time I was singing in school because my instrumental teacher had encouraged me, as he encouraged all of us, to join the chorus, rightly believing that doing that makes you a better musician. I found myself next to a guy with a big, loud voice, so just for fun I made it my goal to be louder than he was! Because of that I got noticed and I was advised that I should consider singing seriously. Furthermore, landing the role of Lieutenant Cable in that production of South Pacific revealed to me what a different kind of musical experience it was. Songs like ‘Younger than Springtime’ were great for me and being involved in a role, putting on a costume, being a soloist and working as part of a team was kind of wonderful. So I kept my options open.”

It was not until Stephen’s second year at college that he studied with a teacher who, recognising something of the potential operatic quality in his voice, offered to help him develop in that direction. In consequence when he graduated what beckoned was the idea of going to a music school and, being local and free (“that helps”), the Academy of Vocal Arts became his school of choice. “I auditioned and got in, but it was kind of scary because the graduate programme there was opera-based and unlike everybody else there I had never done any opera. However, I soon realised that I not only liked being a solo singer but also enjoyed collaborating with an orchestra and a conductor. Furthermore I came to relish the whole idea of bringing the drama of opera onto the stage.” Ahead of arriving at AVA, Stephen had read of the praise bestowed by the tenor Marcello Giordani on his teacher Bill Schuman and in addition had met two of Schuman’s enthusiastic students. Consequently it was wonderful for him to receive encouragement at AVA from this man who would now become crucial to Stephen’s own career. “Whatever I’ve accomplished up to here came from him and from the Academy of Vocal Arts: without them, I would be lost, I really would.”

Stephen Costello as Leicester in “Maria Stuarda” with Dallas Opera. Photograph: Neil Funkhouser Artists Management

It was while he was still at AVA and working there with David Gately on La bohème that he was given time off to appear in that opera for the Fort Worth opera company, this being Gately’s suggestion when he learnt that the company had lost its Rodolfo. After graduating from AVA in 2007, Stephen appeared as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met under James Levine, at the same time covering the role of Edgardo. The smaller role went well and, even more significantly, Levine asked him to go on as Edgardo when without a tenor for the last performance. Levine, Riccardo Muti and now Antonio Pappano are just some of the maestros with whom Stephen has worked and he regards finding the right conductors as no less important than choosing the right roles. “When considering an offer, you have to ponder not only the role but who is singing with you and who is conducting. If you get a conductor who doesn’t pay proper attention to the balance between the orchestra and the voice, you can end up having to push things in a way that can be harmful for you. If I favour the bel canto repertoire it’s because that’s where I feel comfortable and it keeps my voice fresh. But this spring I am looking forward to Jake Heggie’s new opera Moby Dick in which I appear as Ishmael. I’m hoping to get the score before I leave London, but at present I’ve only seen the first Act which is at once operatic and very cinematic. To bring a piece like that onto the stage, it’s got to be done right or it will fail, but Jake Heggie’s a splendid composer and it’s a great honour that he’s given me the chance to do this. It’s written for our voices and we are kind of collaborators in that with Jake you really can talk through with him anything that doesn’t feel right for you and he’ll listen.”

By coming to prominence so early in his career, Stephen has missed out on the opportunity welcomed by many singers to try out roles in relatively obscure houses where they can make their mistakes without attracting too much attention. Stephen recognises too another hazard that comes from being in big houses so quickly. “When you first get into one of those houses you feel that you have to set a precedent and, partly because you are aware of so much expectation, you have a tendency to want to go all out, concentrating on the high notes and singing in a big way. But that can be at the expense of the text and the more you study and the more mature you get the more you realise that. I sometimes wish that I had taken that on board sooner. I remember my first week at AVA singing a duet from L’elisir d’amore: I did it full out and felt great about it. But the next day when we were asked to do it again the man said to me ‘Mr Costello, please bring something more to the table other than just a nice voice’. A remark like that strikes home. Being in these great houses does however give you the chance to learn by observing the distinguished artists around you, not excluding how they subtly correct things if they get into trouble. If it works for them, you try it: and, if it doesn’t work for you, well you try something else. One of my great pleasures here at Covent Garden has been to hear Jonas Kaufmann in Don Carlo. He came on stage so delicately unlike so many tenors and wasn’t afraid to use true pianissimos. It takes a lot of guts to do something like that, and it can only be done by a singer who has really studied the text and who has become totally secure with themselves and with their surroundings.”

The present staging of Puccini’s one-Act opera Gianni Schicchi is the first revival of Richard Jones’s acclaimed production which pairs it with Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole. Stephen’s role in the Puccini is that of the lover Rinuccio so he is both part of the ensemble, characters selfishly and comically out to win an inheritance by fraud, and the straight man whose aim is to win approval for his marriage to Lauretta. She is the daughter of Schicchi who is brought forward by Rinuccio as the person most likely to find a solution for those disinherited.

“In a comic opera like this you just let your hair down. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Lauretta, Schicchi and my character have their own arias that can be rehearsed separately, but it’s such an ensemble piece that you are always playing off one another and how one person delivers a line affects you and how you do it affects someone else. This is the third time I’ve done it and the first occasion was crazy because we were all new to it. I was so worried because if I went wrong it could throw off somebody else and so on all the way down the line: that way the piece could sink because there’s no intermission, no time to put things right. Somebody once said to me that if you make a mistake in a long work like Tristan und Isolde you have hours in which to make up for it, but Schicchi lasts less than sixty minutes and you’re not singing the whole time so the margin of error is such that if you screw up you’ve probably messed up 90 percent of your role. But it’s a great opera because each character is so different and Puccini writes out exactly the way he wants it done extending that even to notes of stage directions in the score. With such detail you really have to pay attention every moment.”

Since Stephen likes to learn from those around him, it is a special pleasure for him to be appearing in this opera with Sir Thomas Allen for the second time having recently been Rinuccio to Sir Thomas’s Schicchi in Spoleto in Woody Allen’s very different production. “Sir Thomas is the nicest person and a great artist and just being with him makes you want to do your very best to keep up. This time I’m picking up even more on the subtleties he brings to his role. And, although the opera is wonderfully comic, Puccini also has a great way of setting up the hope and the youthfulness of the two lovers whenever they are singing together. Amid all the craziness there’s beautiful music that renders them truly sympathetic. When the loss of the inheritance threatens their marriage plans, what’s needed for the role of Rinuccio is to show his disappointment as opposed to the anger of those who expected to inherit: that’s the trick. And then at the end of the opera when Schicchi contrives to inherit everything himself you realise something when we two come in, the fact that he didn’t do it for himself. It has supplied him with the dowry that he needs for his daughter to get married, so it was for us that he did it.”

  • Performances at 8 p.m. on Saturday the 17th, at 7.30 p.m. on 20, 22 & 28 October, and at 12.30 p.m. on Saturday the 24th [Antonio Pappano conducts on 17, 20 & 28; Paul Wynne Griffiths on 22 & 24]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Linda di Chamounix

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