American tenor Stephen Costello rockets to performing arts stardom of operatic proportions. The season has just started and he had soon chocked up 40 performances in five roles on the Metropolitan Opera’s revered stage. Just last week he added a sixth role to his Met Opera repertoire, a favorite he has performed in Houston and Italy: the shameless, nameless cad known only as the Duke of Mantua in Giuseppe Verdi’s ever-popular “Rigoletto,” with a show-stopping tenor aria to boot.
And it’s not just any production of a core repertory staple. It’s the ever-more-popular production directed by Michael Mayer that debuted at the Met in 2013. Updated to a 1960s Las Vegas casino, audiences initially went begrudgingly for its international star power alone: Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała and German soprano Diana Damrau. Soon the new production caught on with first-timers and die-hards alike who had been leery of the Rat Pack subtext, until the grapevine informed that the concept really “worked.”
Stephen Costello appears opposite Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, also making quite a splash everywhere, as his chief lustful pursuit, Gilda, the title character’s only child. Georgian baritone George Gagnidze impersonates the tragic jester himself, with Željko Lučić returning later in the run.
In an exclusive interview, Stephen Costello told atombash.com why bringing this role to the Met is such a big deal for him. He also bravely opened his soul regarding a painful chapter of his life that is drawing to a close. Further, he hinted at what’s coming up in the near future, onstage and off.
“The size. All those people.” These were Stephen Costello’s spontaneous words when asked what’s so special about a Met debut of a role he has interpreted elsewhere. “It was so special during ‘The Merry Widow’ to hear that many people laugh. You hardly ever hear laughter during an opera performance. Plus the Met is so close to my family, who live in Philadelphia, and it’s easier for them to attend here rather than my other performances in Europe or on the West Coast.” Also, the Met audience is “very enthusiastic and really into it.”
After this run Olga Peretyatko will also perform Gilda opposite Stephen Costello, in December, at Madrid’s Teatro Real. This is his first time working with her, and he spontaneously enthused: “She’s great! She’s so lovely to work with. She’s a great colleague and a wonderful singer.” Unlike tenor Lawrence Brownlee—with whom she starred in her 2013 Met debut role as Elvira in Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” and between whom arose a private challenge to see who could sustain notes longer—so far she has not thrown the gauntlet before Stephen Costello.
“We don’t really sing that much together in this opera,” he says, stating fact. The two pair up for a brilliant seduction duet and then go their respective ways: he as the debauched, heartless, dishonorable nobleman, she, the wide-eyed, innocent, infatuated jester’s daughter inexorably headed for tragedy. Oh well. Don’t worry, Stephen Costello. Your costar still has time to scheme something for the Madrid run.
Feb. 10, 2015, the tenor announced to social media that he and soprano Ailyn Pérez were divorcing. So why, in such a public forum, did his post include the plea that everyone respect their privacy? “I wanted everyone to know at once,” says he, “and I could not fathom informing each and every one individually by phone; I just wouldn’t be able to endure it. When divorcing, you reach the point where you just don’t want to answer questions about the spouse—how she’s doing, for example—when you honestly don’t know.”
“Everything we do in daily life,” he continues, “affects our work. I had a throat spasm just minutes before I was to step onstage for my Met role debut as Alfredo [Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’]. No sound came from my mouth. I just could not sing. They had to replace me at the last minute. Soon I developed acid reflux, because of the stress,” and it also threatened to encroach on the voice.
Back on Sept. 10, 2014, the couple appeared in a duets program at Washington National Opera in Washington, DC. “Acid reflux had practically fried my voice.” When their first duet barely got underway, Stephen Costello threw in the figurative towel. “I remember thinking ‘Physically I just can’t do this.’ Plus it’s hard, in front of an audience, to pretend romance with the very person you’re divorcing. So I walked off stage and ended up sitting outside on the opera house steps, just thinking ‘What a letdown to all those people who paid and went to the trouble to see you.’”
So what’s changed since Stephen Costello early this month began commenting on this stressful life’s chapter? “Now I think I’ve reached that place in this process where I may be able to help others who find themselves burdened with a similar situation, going through great sadness and a range of other feelings and enduring its effects while trying to do the best job possible and otherwise get along in life. People don’t like to mention they are divorcing, so if I can help just one couple get through it, it will be gratifying.”
Stephen Costello, before finishing as the Duke at the Met, appears Sunday, Nov. 1, at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall as a guest performer in the prestigious annual Richard Tucker Foundation Gala. He garnered the Richard Tucker Award in 2009 and performed in the 2012 program when the award went to Ailyn Pérez. Among other numbers, the two performed together, charmingly enacting Adina’s flirtation while Nemorino feigns indifference, from Gaetano Donizetti’s romantic comedy “L’elisir d’amore” (Love Potion). He portrays the swooning lad lacking in sophistication in June at Vienna Staatsoper. “I try to sing Nemorino at least once a year,” he offered.
Stephen Costello reverts from Verdi’s Duke back to Donizetti’s Percy in “Anna Bolena” (Anne Boleyn) in early January, reversing his season opening when he transitioned the opposite direction. “Percy’s music sits higher on the voice than the Duke’s,” he explains. “But after Madrid I return home for the holidays. So being with family and friends will help me feel ready for the challenge.”
Thereafter, you can find him appearing in concerts and staged performances in Prague, Dallas, Boston, London and Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you do—and you should—you will hear a beautiful lyric tenor voice and see a youthful budding actor fully committed to portrayals intended to convince you that you’re actually in the presence of a real duke, a would-be prince, a pleasant peasant …
“Rigoletto,” through Dec. 17 (Stephen Costello’s final performance Nov. 10)
The Metropolitan Opera
Broadway and 64th Street
New York, NY 10023
Tickets and Customer Care: 212.362.6000
Note: An earlier edition of this article gave in error the site for the Nov. 1 Richard Tucker Foundata Gala. It is Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, not Carnegie Hall.