25 August 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Stephen Costello, tenor (winner of the 2009 Richard Tucker Award)

Stephen Costello, American tenor On 7 September, the 2009 – 10 Royal Opera (Covent Garden) season will be launched with the first of two concert performances of Gaetano Donizetti’s rarely-performed opera semiseria Linda di Chamounix, seemingly absent from London stages since a 1963 performance at the St. Pancras Town Hall.  Boasting an exciting cast including Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutiérrez (in her Covent Garden début), Mariana Pizzolato, Ludovic Tézier, Alessandro Corbelli, and Luciano Botelho, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, the concerts will be recorded for commercial release by Opera Rara.  Making his Royal Opera House début in the role of Carlo will be one of the finest young tenors presently before the public, Stephen Costello, 2009 recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award.

A native of Philadelphia, Mr. Costello graduated in 2007 from that city’s renowned Academy of Vocal Arts after having already earned an incredible plethora of distinctions: First Prize in the 2006 George London Foundation for Singers Competition, First and Audience Prizes in the Giargiari Competition, and First Prize in the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation Competition, in addition to the Academy of Vocal Arts’ Opera Club Award.  Surely the most precious prize Mr. Costello earned during his studies at AVA is the hand of his beautiful wife, soprano Ailyn Pérez, with whom he frequently performs.

Prior even to his graduation from AVA, Mr. Costello achieved considerable successes within a six-month period in 2006 with his début in staged opera as Rodolfo in La Bohème at Fort Worth Opera and his European début at Opéra National de Bordeaux as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore.  Since that time, Mr. Costello’s repertory has expanded with critically-acclaimed performances of roles by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Mascagni, and Puccini, and even the Steuermann in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (opposite the towering Holländer of James Morris).

Mr. Costello first captured the collective attention of the American opera-going public on 13 November 2005 at Carnegie Hall with his swaggering account of the Fisherman (who, in the spirit of the score, has his share of top C’s) in an Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance of Rossini’s sprawling Guillaume Tell.  Critic Robert Levine wrote in a review of the performance on ClassicsToday.com that Mr. Costello ‘was graceful as a fisherman who sings a lovely serenade in the first act (with its own pair of high Cs!).’  The journey of one of American’s most beautiful voices was launched.

Among even the finest native-born American singers of previous generations, the road to the Metropolitan Opera almost invariably wound through dozens of smaller European houses and regional companies in North America.  Instances such as that encountered on 6 December 1941, in which at short notice the young Astrid Varnay made her MET début as Sieglinde in a performance of Die Walküre opposite the Brünnhilde of Helen Traubel, are rare, a sort of cosmic alignment of destiny and necessity.  Far more often, the young American singer’s entrance into the MET roster is less heralded, like that of James McCracken as Parpignol in the Company’s 21 November 1953 performance of La Bohème.

The MET’s 2007 – 2008 season began on 24 September 2007 with the premiere of Mary Zimmerman’s much-discussed new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.  Singing the name-part for the first time at the MET was French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, whose flight from sanity was brought on by her slaying of Lucia’s arranged husband Arturo, sung by Mr. Costello in his MET début.  Anthony Tommasini wrote in the 26 September edition of the New York Times that ‘an appealing young tenor, Stephen Costello, had a solid Met debut as the well-meaning Arturo.’  Writing on MusicalCriticism.com, John Woods expanded on Mr. Tommasini’s thoughts, noting that ‘a very strong impression was made by the young Stephen Costello as Arturo, which is no mean feat in such a small role.’  Freelance writers, bloggers, and listeners who heard the performance on the MET’s Sirius radio channel echoed this praise and took note of the MET début of an important artist.

Much as in the case of Astrid Varnay more than six decades earlier, destiny and necessity aligned on 25 October 2007, when neither of the tenors headlining the Zimmerman Lucia (Marcello Giordani and Giuseppe Filianoti) was contracted to sing his role.  Young California-born tenor Todd Wilander made his MET début as Arturo, and Mr. Costello was promoted to the role of Edgardo.  The evening’s performance was likewise broadcast over the MET’s Sirius radio channel, relaying into homes across America and throughout the world the emergence of a remarkable artist.  Singing opposite the ethereally beautiful Lucia of the astonishingly gifted French soprano Annick Massis, an artist whose warmth of voice and personality created a Lucia very different from Natalie Dessay’s embodiment of the role, Mr. Costello rose magnificently to the challenge of singing such an important role at such a young age with America’s most significant opera company, sounding nowhere in the score finer than in Edgardo’s Tomb Scene at the end of the evening.  From that evening, Mr. Costello’s career has spanned the globe in an array of electrifying performances in a myriad assortment of roles.

Stephen Costello as Edgardo and Annick Massis in the title role of Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at the Metropolitan Opera.  Photo by Ken Howard I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Mr. Costello concerning the progress of his career to date, his musical interests and inspirations, and some of his future plans.

The first things that are apparent, both from hearing Mr. Costello sing and from speaking with him even briefly, are his genuine affection and enthusiasm for singing.  The contrasting wit and humility with which he speaks of his approach to singing reveal not only an astute musical mind but also an unwavering commitment to the art of bel canto, whether in Donizetti, Verdi, or French repertory.

Perhaps it is cruel to suggest that many singers do not exhibit the same intelligence that Mr. Costello exudes in performance and in conversation.  [How gladdened was the heart of this literary scholar to learn that Mr. Costello prepared for his performances as Cassio in Verdi’s Otello at Salzburg by re-reading Shakespeare’s play!]  Jibes about cognitive disabilities among opera singers aside, Mr. Costello’s comments disclosed perhaps the most vital knowledge that should be possessed by any singer, that of the management of his own voice.  The lure of Werther is powerful, for instance, but the title role is safely stored away for future consideration.  Verdi’s Otello is regretfully conceded as an impossibility, even for some point on the distant horizon of Mr. Costello’s career.  [This might seem an obvious distinction, but it eluded Luciano Pavarotti, whose voice was similar in size and reach to Mr. Costello’s: Pavarotti at least confined his attempts at Otello to concert performances.]

Fresh from having enjoyed great success in June as Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the Festival dei due Mondi at Spoleto (Italy), Mr. Costello looks forward to reprising the role at Covent Garden in October, again opposite the Schicchi of Sir Thomas Allen, whom he describes as a ‘fantastic’ performer who brings great slyness and vigor to his interpretation of Schicchi.  [An interview from Italian television in which Mr. Costello shares his insightful thoughts on the role of Rinuccio in Woody Allen’s production, seen at Spoleto, is posted at the end of this article.]  Mr. Costello also spoke glowingly of a recent Ancona production of Rigoletto in which he was reunited with the ‘wonderful and kind’ Annick Massis, and of working with legendary (and legendarily divisive) conductor Riccardo Muti in the Salzburg production of Otello.  ‘I wonder how he will be received at the MET,’ Mr. Costello said of Maestro Muti, who will conduct for the first time at the MET in February in a new production of Verdi’s Attila.  ‘He is amazing.’

As he considers the next five years of his international career, bel canto continues to have a large presence in Mr. Costello’s diary, supplemented by later and contemporary repertory.  He will return in March 2010 to Dallas Opera, scene of his triumphs as Leicester in Maria Stuarda and the title role Roberto Devereux, to sing Ishmael in the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s opera Moby Dick.  He will take on the challenging role of Sir Riccardo Percy in another of Donizetti’s ‘British’ operas, Anna Bolena, to open the MET’s 2011 – 12 season (opposite, as it is rumored now, Anna Netrebko), following performances of the role in Dallas.  Débuts are scheduled for San Francisco Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and the Wiener Staatsoper (in another of his fine bel canto portrayals, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore).  Mr. Costello remarked that singing bel canto ‘feels comforting for [his] voice.’  He continued by saying, ‘I wake up in the morning after singing bel canto and feel good.’  The seasons ahead offer many opportunities for good mornings.

Stephen Costello as Leicester in Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA at Dallas Opera

A theme that I have often examined as both a writer and a musician is that of the solitude endured by the artist in the pursuit of his art.  Viewing this as a matter of the proportions presented in Schubert’s Winterreise is perhaps to overinflate the significance of the issue, but every great artist makes sacrifices in order to give of himself.  In many instances, these sacrifices are most poignantly felt in the inherent difficulties of forming, nurturing, and maintaining meaningful relationships when one or all parties are frequently away or mired in work.  I was very touched in speaking with Mr. Costello by his comments regarding his wife.  Their careers separate them for occasionally extensive periods of time: he is here and she is there, but they are nonetheless always with one another emotionally.  Such support and contentment is at the heart of a truly sublime artistic partnership, and the happiness that results cannot fail to find voice in Mr. Costello’s singing.

The tradition of American singing that produced Eugene Conley and James McCracken, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker, George Shirley and Vinson Cole is gloriously continued in Stephen Costello.  Possessing a voice with a bright but plangent timbre, even throughout a considerable range that extends to a refulgent upper register, and laden with darker undertones, Mr. Costello already enjoys a career marked by accolades from both critics and audiences.  With both a voice brimming with potential and genuine insightfulness to his credit, he is poised to be the leading tenor of his generation.

Ailyn Pérez as Mimì and Stephen Costello as Rodolfo in Puccini's LA BOHÈME

Sincerest thanks to Mr. Costello for his time, kindness, and candor.

Thanks also to Neil Funkhouser of Neil Funkhouser Artists Management, by whom Mr. Costello is managed.  Click here to view Mr. Costello’s official profile on the website of Neil Funkhouser Artists Management.