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Allan M. Jalon

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Arts Lust: The Youthful Maturity of a Tenor

Posted: 10/11/11 06:45 PM ET

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Stephen Costello performing the role of Lord Percy in Donizetti's opera, Anna Bolena. Photographed by Ken Howard with permission from the Metropolitan Opera.

Stephen Costello, the increasingly respected young tenor who recently helped open the Metropolitan Opera's new season, has a gift for candor that matches the sincerity of his voice. That directness and a well-calibrated technique impressed critics the other night when he opened the Metropolitan Opera's new season as Lord Percy in the Met's incisive new production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena. Wrote the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini: "To hear this young artist stretching himself was part of the excitement."

I went to a party to celebrate Costello's 30th birthday the next evening and met an approachable artist who spoke easily about growing up in Philadelphia and the precariousness of the singing life.

On stage, he plays a courtier whose pure ardor drives him to abandon tact and confront a ruthless king Henry VIII over his abuses of Anna, his second wife and Percy's true love. In person, the gentlemanly oval of Costello's face, embraced by a rich, brown beard, seems to look out of a Renaissance portrait of a young man at court. His blend of social ease and simmering anxiety made me feel he'd brought Lord Percy's worries off-stage to a cozy room in Chelsea.

Still, I didn't think to interview him until I had breakfast the next morning with my actor friend Robert Ian Mackenzie. Robert is a busy theater man who sometimes uses his rich speaking voice as a reader of books on tape -- but he never told me he also sings and has done opera.

Just hearing of Costello's youthful promise prompted Robert's inside view of the pressures singers face: "Every day, from the moment you get up in the morning to when you go to bed at night, you live with the voice. It's a kind of separate companion you have to watch out for and take care of, to an extent that few people who are not singers understand."

My British-born friend, who sang in Britain and elsewhere (and still does recitals) asked me when during the party Costello talked with me. We spoke as people left, I said, when the room was almost empty. "That's right," Robert sang out. "A smart singer never talks at the height of a party. The voice can get strained talking over the hubbub."

I told him Costello declined alcohol. "Of course," said Robert, a baritone. "He has to worry about anything that interferes with the vocal chords. I gave up milk and dairy products. Milk created phlegm for me. It's a hard way to live. In fact, I found it a relief when it was over."

After that breakfast, I wanted to see how Costello, who looks forward to years on the stage, would respond to Robert's seasoned perspective. We met at an Upper West Side restaurant the day after his second-night performance (Anna Netrebko was a dramatically nimble Anna and bass Ildar Abdrazakov's singing was lustrous as the opera's especially bastardy Henry.)

Robert Mackenzie's memories, when I quoted them, unlocked a surge of mirroring details about the day-to-day caution a younger Costello sustains in a career that has already led him to such opera temples as Convent Garden and the Vienna State Opera. He told me he'd just made a careful search for a New York restaurant quiet enough to safely enjoy dinner with ten friends that night. "I knew I just couldn't do this dinner if I had to talk loudly to be heard," he said. "I had to find the right place. I don't drink, like your friend says, because I'm afraid of the acid reflux."

Stomach acid, unleashed by drinking, can burn vocal chords. Some singers take chances. Costello abstains. He's more conscious than ever, these days, of his physical instrument. Earlier this year, he had his tonsils removed. He'd endured inflammation on and off for years. A flare-up forced the surgery. Though there was no threat to the vocal chords, it involved the throat and was "very frightening."

He says he feels "a lot better after doing it," but it fine-tuned his sense of how much singing means to him and re-enforced the value of voice-care overall.

Costello got into music as a trumpet player in the Philadelphia high school, finding singing when he "got cornered by my choral teacher." He still rehearses vocal passages mentally as if fingering the trumpet. He moved his fingers with a horn-players quick fluidity as we spoke about specific passages, as if playing.

The school choir didn't reveal his gifts until he started one-upping a guy who was the star singer over who could belt out parts the loudest. "The louder I sang, the more it brought out the basic quality of the voice," Costello said, between bites of risotto.

"I auditioned for West Side Story and got the part of Tony, but wasn't allowed to do it. They needed me to play trumpet. But I was glad, in the end, because I learned a lot about playing that score. I learned so much about rhythms. I learned so much about what Bernstein was doing conceptually that I'm glad I was in the pit."

But when he soloed on the trumpet, he admitted, "I would just get terribly nervous."

Does he get nervous singing? "Now that I've opened a Met season and done a ridiculously difficult role, it's cancelled out my nerves a lot." He also tested himself as Lord Percy in Dallas, before venturing it at the Met. But he never forgets Percy's vocal hurdles: "By the end of the night, I have to sing about six or seven B flats, and about five or six high Cs. It's a really high role. It's a very exposed role."

The character seethes with a passion encased in a restraint that shatters open before Henry's overwhelming power. "He's challenging the King to his face, which most people wouldn't do," says Costello. "He's always anxious about his situation."

He speaks proudly of growing up in a working-class Irish-Catholic family from what he calls "far North-East Philadelphia." His father is an automotive mechanic who had his own shop at one point. His mother has handled admissions for a nursing home. His younger brother is a fireman. His older sister works for an insurance company.

Along with my diner memories, I also brought Costello my boom box and played a 1929 recording of the great Beniamino Gigli singing the gorgeous "Mi par d'udir ancora" from Bizet's opera, The Pearl Fishers.

I wanted to know what the Met's opening night tenor heard in this singing that I, a non-singer, didn't. Costello told me that Gigli is one of his favorite tenors. But he's avoided performing Nadir, the character to whom Bizet gave this wrenching song. History is full of young singers who too quickly do bigger roles than they can handle are common. Costello speaks like an honest scholar of his own limitations: "The aria scares me a little bit," he said, as we listened. "It's a very beautiful, delicate aria. The technical aspect is having a perfect mix of head voice and chest voice. That intimidates me a little bit. I've been offered it, but I just haven't taken it. I'm not ready."

In May, he'll sing Rodolfo in La Boheme with the Los Angeles Opera. His wife, Ailyn Perez, is set to sing Mimi. There's more coming in Europe. He says he can feel his voice maturing, getting "richer in some places and heavier in others."

And that slow growth gives focus to his hopes.

"I would love to be doing Werther in about four or five years," he said, referring to Jules Massenet's opera (based on a novel by Goethe) about impossible love and suicide. "It will take time, but Werther is something I'd really like to do."