So many Academy of Vocal Arts alumni have made the cover of Opera News in recent years that the lobby walls at the conservatory's Spruce Street headquarters are lined with the magazine's covers. And amid this walk of fame, soprano Ailyn Pérez grabs your eye first.
Philadelphia has generated impressive opera singers, but few are more beloved than Pérez, the young woman from the Chicago suburbs who walked onto the AVA stage in September 2002 and who has continued winning hearts in increasingly visible places. Pérez opened last Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of the Jules Massenet star vehicle Thais — a sign that she has arrived at that next level of recognition.
"Staying power? Definitely," said AVA's notoriously severe music director, Christofer Macatsoris. "She's a great communicator. Audiences identify with her. She has something to say with her roles. Always."
The bigger surprise is how quickly she masters uncharted territory. James Corden's Late Late Show for example: There on a YouTube video from last year, she and baritone Luca Pisaroni literally swoop in on the talk show host, singing in Italian and hitting him with high notes, Pérez's diaphanous cape billowing in the TV studio breeze.
How, you have to ask, does she seem to master situations from which others might shrink?
The uproarious audience reaction didn't hurt. "The high notes happened, and they lost their minds," she said the other day during a Manhattan lunch. "They had a ball. Opera works! You just deliver the music and people get it. You don't need to reinvent the wheel."
Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Perez is adding new roles at a dizzying rate. Yet she's fundamentally the same as she always was.
The full-bodied Perez voice is richer and more dependable now than it was in her AVA years. But she's still the same artist who sang La Boheme arias in the cafeteria of Central Bucks High School East in 2005. You can't even say that her talent has been refined over the years. It's just more of what was there before.
"When Ailyn first appeared on the Opera Philadelphia stage in Fidelio in 2008, she showed an incredible talent that would continue to grow. Her voice has, indeed, continued to develop in beauty and nuance," said Opera Philadelphia general director and president David Devan.
That's why your jaw drops when she confesses to massive insecurities that made her consider dropping out of AVA every year. She was constantly comparing herself to others and falling into despair. She never had that moment when she realized she had exceptional gifts.
"I don't come to it from that perspective," she says. "For me, it's mostly a struggle of 'not good enough' or wanting to get to that next level. And if we are special, we still have to work."
Well, nothing is as easy as it might look, particularly amid the constant travel that keeps her away from her current home outside Chicago. This year, she's an honorary New Yorker, not just with her run of Thais performances but with forthcoming Met appearances in Romeo et Juliette and The Marriage of Figaro. "I still can't pack to save my life," she admits. "I brought 200 pounds of luggage, and I still don't have any winter clothes. Who does that?" There's also her dog, Tequilla, now 11, who travels with her wherever she goes.
On other fronts, however, Midwestern practicality is evident. After graduating from AVA in 2006, she continued living in Philadelphia until 2011, when local self-employment tax codes got the best of her. Because singers need to live only near an airport, she chose Chattanooga to be close to her relocated parents.
That situation wasn't destined to last, especially as her much-publicized marriage to Philadelphia-born tenor Stephen Costello came to an end in 2014 — which she chooses not to discuss as her way of "honoring" that part of her life. Yet — and here's that practicality again — she and Costello costarred in Romeo et Juliette at the Santa Fe Opera in 2016 and, by all reports, got on perfectly well. But both have moved on; he recently remarried.
Challenging, in a different way, is stepping into the shoes of others. Perez is still not at a point where new productions are being created for her, which means she literally has to step into the shoes of others and somehow leave her personal mark. Following Renee Fleming in Thais might not seem so daunting in a handsome, acoustically sympathetic production and in an opera that is not very well known. But the opera itself — in which she plays an Egyptian courtesan undergoing a torturous religious conversion — isn't very sturdy and has huge potential for unintended humor.
Naturally, Perez assumed she had to work harder than usual and lost sleep over the notion of singing the role for the first time in such a visible venue. "But I found out you just had to be — because anything more than that can read too superficial, or like gilding the lily," she said.
Her odyssey with the role of Violetta in La Traviata has been — ahem — an adventure amid high-concept European stagings. In one production, she had to lie collapsed on stage for such long periods that little straws sticking up from the floorboards allowed her to sip water. Problem was, she collapsed a little too far away. In another production, she had to play the character as an alcohol and sex addict. You can imagine how that sits with a Catholic-raised woman who longs to sing the saintly title role of Puccini's Suor Angelica. How did she cope?
"You work it out, or you don't work," she said. "You could say no. But I love that music and I love those opera houses."
One thing she seems to share with other great singers: Underneath the surface anxiety lies a solid core that she doesn't always see herself. "She's always had a sense of wonder and discovery," said Macatsoris, who still gets out-of-the-blue phone calls from Perez when she is changing a role interpretation or just catching up.
Part of that may come from the challenges of growing up Mexican American. With parents who emigrated from Mexico to Chicago, she learned things that can't help but be a template for navigating the world of opera celebrity, where schadenfreude lurks behind every corner. "My parents taught me when somebody is dismissive and judgmental, you don't let that change you. You still offer your dignity, your manners, and intelligence … It's not giving into fear."