Operavore Exclusive: Meet 2012 Richard Tucker Award Winner Ailyn Pérez

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For most New York opera-goers, Ailyn Pérez may not be a name that's instantly recognized, but it should be.

The 32-year-old soprano has been cleaning up on the awards front—as of this morning, she's the 2012 recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, named after the late American tenor and given annually to a singer “at the threshold of a major international career.”

And with a resume that has paired her with the likes of Plácido Domingo (La Scala’s Simon Boccanegra), Rolando Villazón (Salzburg’s Romèo et Juliette) and her husband, tenor and 2009 Richard Tucker Award-winner Stephen Costello (the two recently sang La traviata together at Covent Garden, with Pérez performing on two days’ notice), it’s safe to bank on the fact that Gotham will be seeing more of Pérez soon, even with a Met debut planned for an upcoming season.

Fresh from her own notification about the award, Pérez, the daughter of factory workers, took some time to give Operavore an exclusive interview on being the first Hispanic singer to win the award in its 34-year history. She also discussed her road to musical joy and moonlighting as a judge on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. No rest for the weary, however: on Thursday, she sings Poulenc’s Gloria with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

What does it mean to you to be the first Latina singer to win the Richard Tucker Award?
I am proud to be the first, and I know I won’t be the last. I came to opera because of music programs in public schools. Hearing the effect of what can happen to a child’s life when you bring music into their life at a young age, I hope that reflects well on all the programs that are out there right now. It rewards them for their hard work and continuously inspires them to reach new donors and new patrons to say, “Look, this is what your investment back then gave you, and look at these people around today doing great things at an artistic level.”

Do you remember your first opera?
The first opera I saw live was Faust when I was in school [at Indiana University], performed by masters students. And I remember it was Larry Brownlee, actually, who sang Faust—probably his first, maybe his only, Faust. Growing up, we never would go to the theater.

So I take it you came to music first.
I grew up in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, outside of Chicago. And because I grew up there, that’s the reason I had music classes. I loved music. My voice teacher gave me an aria called “O Mio Babbino Caro.” I loved the melody, the melancholy of the music. And the words, because my first language was Spanish, I understood the Italian. I could feel what the music was telling me; the emotion behind it, and reading the notes came easy. Then I went to the music library to listen to opera recordings. I picked up Maria Callas. I heard that voice and I heard her sing the duet from Traviata and remember playing the recording in my living room and saying, “This is just, this is it. This is the music. I want to see this music.” And that’s why I turned to opera.

For you, what was the tipping point between having that Callas moment to realizing that this was something you wanted to build as a career?

Becoming an opera singer wasn’t something I knew how to go about. The thing about my path was, I didn’t know how I was going to do life. I knew when I graduated high school that I needed to go study. My parents worked countless hours in factory jobs. I did not know poverty, but you kind of have to contemplate poverty when you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life to have income. Education got me in a career, and I think that it’s critical to everybody’s life. My father would always say, "Look, find something that you really love to do and do that, using all of your gifts. That’s what I want for you." So when I discovered I had this musical talent, I wanted to find a way to do that in life. I didn’t know how that was going to pan out; I just kept following the craft I wanted to work on.

And education led you not only to your career, but also your husband. How has it been forging careers in tandem with one another?

Starting out you sort of think, at least in the back of my mind, "okay, one day we’re going to be able pick and choose certain things and align our schedule ahead of time." Yeah, it does not happen like that. The more successful you get, it doesn’t happen and that’s where a lot of extra effort and communication and taking time for yourself means everything. With Stephen and I, it’s been so fortunate. Yes, we understand one another. We trained together so working together is a lot of fun.

And it’s the hard work that I still love. People say, “What’s your favorite part of a production?” And I enjoy the performances of course, but by performance time it’s for the audience, it’s not for us anymore. Rehearsing is where we get to develop and create. I love rehearsing. I love the dynamics of meeting new people—conductors, directors. I love sitzprobe when you’re with the orchestra, sitting down, totally concentrating on the music. That’s my bit of heaven that I get to go to. 

For something completely different, you were also recently a judge on Cupcake Wars…
They said: “You’re gonna have about 27 cupcakes, you don’t have to eat them all.” And I’m thinking, Why not?! [Laughs] I flew all this way! I’m an opera singer, I love food. An opera singer comes to town, and we’re the booster for any restaurant, let me tell you.

There are a number of dishes named for opera singers like Tetrazzini and Melba. What would an Ailyn Pérez cupcake comprise?
Triple chocolate with caramel. And that’s without going into ice cream. If you can have a scoop, Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche. It’s so right on so many levels.

You’re also a bikram yoga fiend. How does that help you as a singer?
Sometimes I think my mind is detached from my body, and bikram reminds me it’s all connected and to take care of it and love where it is today. I’ve tried to do it alone before, I’ve downloaded [classes] on iTunes, but nothing beats going to a class. I can’t finish half of it when I’m on my own. You just need the class energy and the heat. It gives me such a huge awareness. Being a human being singing with all that’s happening in the orchestra and the timing of the lighting, it’s a very humble place to be. You just want to be your best, and that’s what helps me be my best.

Here on Operavore, we have an ongoing series dedicated to the routines and rituals of singers on the day of a show. Is there anything that you have to do on a performance day?
I clean! I have to. I try to put everything in order. I don’t know why; it must relax me. It has that immediate gratification of something I can check off as done. I drink a lot of SmartWater. I've sung three Marguerites in Faust thus far, and I’ve realized that I’m a bit of a Debbie downer when I do that role and I don’t notice it until I’m done. Certain roles, they’re just emotional beasts. And I love singing emotional beasts like Violetta and Marguerite, but every now and it’s good to have something light like Adina where you’re alive at the end.

Interview has been edited and condensed.