Stephen Costello's Most Valuable Friend

Celebrated opera tenor Stephen Costello has been both blessed and betrayed by his voice.


About Stephen Costello

“A prodigiously gifted singer whose voice makes an immediate impact” (Associated Press), Stephen Costello stands “among the world’s best tenors” (Daily Express, UK). The Philadelphia-born artist came to national attention in 2007, when, aged 26, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut on the company’s season-opening night. Two years later he won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, and in 2010 he drew especial praise for his creation of the role of Greenhorn (Ishmael) in Dallas Opera’s celebrated world-premiere production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick. He has since appeared at many of the world’s most important opera houses and music festivals, including London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; the Deutsche Oper Berlin; the Vienna State Opera; the Lyric Opera of Chicago; San Francisco Opera; Washington National Opera; and the Salzburg Festival. As Opera News noted in a recent “Spotlight” double-page spread, “the all-American tenor” is now “at the top of his game.”

Costello enjoys a heightened European presence in 2017-18, highlighted by a number of notable firsts. Bookending the season are his Paris Opera debut as Camille in Léhar’s The Merry Widow, and his house and role debuts as Fernand in a new production of Donizetti’s La favorite at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. He revisits a pair of signature roles, singing Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème for his Dresden Opera debut and his return to the Teatro Real Madrid, and the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’sRigoletto at the Dresden Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and – marking his sole American appearance of 2017-18 – at the Canadian Opera Company. To complete the season, the tenor makes his Munich Philharmonic debut in Dvořák’s Stabat Mater under Manfred Honeck, and looks forward to the release of his first solo album, Bel Canto Arias, which he recorded with Constantine Orbelian for the Delos label.

Last season saw Costello headline back-to-back productions at both the Met, where he made his house title role debut in Bartlett Sher’s hit staging of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and revisited his star turn as the Duke of Mantua in Michael Mayer’s Vegas setting of Rigoletto; and the Dallas Opera, where he made his role debut as Lensky in the company’s season-opening production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and reprised his portrayal of Greenhorn in Moby-Dick. He also made his house role debut as Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and sang the Duke of Mantua for a special televised, outdoor performance of Rigoletto in Hannover. In concert, he made his first appearances with the Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons alongside Renée Fleming in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, besides headlining the opening night of Armenia’s Yerevan International Music Festival, and joining the Orchestre National de Lille for Verdi’s Requiem at Villeneuve’s Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Costello made his professional debut in 2005 with the Opera Orchestra of New York at Carnegie Hall. The following year brought his European debut, as Nemorino with Opéra National de Bordeaux, and his first appearances at the Dallas Opera and Fort Worth Opera, as Puccini’s Rodolfo. Noteworthy subsequent debuts have included the Salzburg Festival, as Cassio in Otello; Covent Garden, as Carlo in Linda di Chamounix; Lyric Opera of Chicago, as Camille in The Merry Widow; San Diego Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, all in the title role of Roméo et Juliette; the Glyndebourne Festival, as Nemorino; and the Vienna State Opera and Berlin State Opera, both as Rodolfo in La bohème. At San Diego Opera, Costello made role debuts as the Italian Singer in Der Rosenkavalier and in the title role of Faust, besides opening the company’s 2012-13 season with his first appearances as Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. He gave his first performances as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon at Dallas Opera in 2016.

It was also at the Dallas Opera that Costello played the tenor lead in each of Donizetti’s three Tudor operas, before reprising Lord Percy opposite Anna Netrebko for his second opening-night performance at the Met, in the company’s premiere presentation of Anna Bolena. He and Netrebko appeared on PBS’s Charlie Rose to discuss the new production, which was transmitted worldwide in the Met’s Live in HD series. For his Los Angeles Opera debut, Costello portrayed Rodolfo in La bohème; for his first appearances at Washington National Opera, he resumed the role of Greenhorn in Heggie/Scheer’s Moby-Dick; and for his Houston Grand Opera debut, he scored glowing reviews as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto. Other career highlights saw him headline “BrAVA Philadelphia!” – the Academy of Vocal Arts’ 80th Anniversary Gala Concert – at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, and undertake the male lead in La traviata, both for the historic first live webcast of a complete opera from London’s Royal Opera House, and in a San Francisco Opera production that was simulcast to thousands in AT&T Park, home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants.

Costello’s performance as Cassio in Verdi’s Otello, under Riccardo Muti’s leadership at the Salzburg Festival, was released on DVD in 2010 (Major/Naxos), and his Covent Garden debut in Linda di Chamounix was issued on CD a year later (Opera Rara). His star turn in San Francisco Opera’s Moby-Dick, televised nationwide on PBS’s Great Performances, was released on DVD in 2013 (SFO) and named an “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone. Similarly, his appearance alongside Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and other operatic luminaries in 2013’s Richard Tucker Gala, which celebrated the legendary tenor’s centennial, was broadcast on PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center and subsequently issued on DVD. The same year saw the release of here/after: songs of lost voices (PentaTone), featuring the tenor’s world premiere recording of Jake Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc.

Besides winning the 2009 Richard Tucker Award, Stephen Costello has previously received other grants from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, as well as taking First Prize in the 2006 George London Foundation Awards Competition, First Prize and Audience Prize in the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition, and First Prize in the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation Competition. A native of Philadelphia, he is a graduate of the city’s famed Academy of Vocal Arts.

Connect with Stephen Costello


Transcript

Stephen Costello hails from a solidly working class Philadelphia family. His love of singing began in the chorus at George Washington High School, and flourished at the University of the Arts. He was admitted to Philadelphia's world-renowned opera finishing school, the Academy of Vocal Arts with little previous opera experience, because Bill Schuman, who would become one of his mentors, heard something in his voice. Costello is now firmly established in opera's big leagues, both in the US and abroad. But when he comes home, there's not too much interest in his latest artistic conquests, and he says he likes it like that.

Stephen Costello: I did a World Broadcast in London, and I come back and I walk in the door and I asked my parents “Did you see it?” “Nah, nah, we missed it, but um, could you put the trash out while you're home.” You know, “The dog has to go out, so just take it for a walk.” And it's something like that that just really keeps you humble. I think they understand that I'm good at what I do, but I like being normal when I'm at home and that's really what you are, everyone's the same. It doesn't matter what you do or how much success you have when you go home you're part of the family.

Costello: I like honest people. I like people that do what I do for the same reasons, because they like doing it and I love working on stage with people that aren't thinking so much about themselves and their performance as they are about the whole.

And indeed, Costello's attitude is not unusual in this latest generation of star opera singers, who are motivated more by music than by a desire for self-aggrandizement.

Costello: I didn't even like listening to myself speak. I'm very self-conscious about that kind of thing. I just know that I love singing and that I enjoy the work, enjoy making music, so that's what keeps me going. I don't focus on the color of my voice, or the sound of my voice, and it's… At one point, I did. I was focusing on trying to make a beautiful sound, and a color and… My teacher had to explain to it to me, he said “Well you already have a good color, your color is what people like.” He goes, “You need to stop thinking about that and just sing.”

Key to finding his own identity as a singer was accepting that he could not and should not aspire to be his heroes.

Costello: Whoever you listen to, you wanna do that. You wanna try to do what they're doing, and you want that sound. You're not gonna have that sound, those people sound like themselves, and you have to sound like yourself. You're given the sound at birth, or whatever it is, that's your sound.

AJC: How long did it take you to realize that? Because that's a difficult thing—

Costello: That my sound is my sound?

AJC: Well, no, that you are who you are.

Costello: Yeah.

AJC: That you can't be anyone else, 'cause it's something that we all have to, at some point, take on board.

Costello: Oh, you know you still… It doesn't matter. I do appreciate other people and what they can do and I do it without being jealous. I think jealousy is like something that'll just destroy—not just a singer, but anybody in general.

AJC: The most useless human emotion.

Costello: Yeah, so I'd rather go out and listen to someone and be like “Wow, why are they special?” Like if someone comes on the scene and they're like the new it person, it's like I wanna go and see their performance 'cause I wanna figure out what it is that people are attracted to.

Costello's steadfast commitment to self-improvement was instilled early on, principally at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Today, he says, he's still learning every day.

Costello: When people gain a certain amount of success, they stop studying, they stop taking lessons, and then they start to decline. It's like an athlete. Michael Phelps said it the best when he said, “If I took a week off it took me three weeks to get back to where I was right before I took that week off.” You are an Olympic athlete, in a way, and you have to keep working in order to keep this easy and fresh, and vibrant.

But Costello would learn the hard way that technique only goes so far. After separating from his wife, the equally successful opera soprano, Ailyn Pérez, in 2014 he was forced to back out of a Metropolitan Opera production of La Traviata when his throat went into spasm.

Costello: You don't realize that you hold your emotions here, and you also hold emotions in here. When you're stressed you don't realize that you're singing through the stress and you're trying to overcome it, because you don't realize that you're stressed all the time. Recently, I'd say, just in the past few months alone I finally was able to just release all the stress and my reflexes under control, and I feel like I have more agility in my throat than I've had in years.

AJC: So now when you open your mouth, what you thought was gonna come out always comes out?

Costello: Always comes out, yeah.

AJC: That must be remarkable.

Costello: Everything just makes it easier. Everything is just easier. It's like, somebody once said to me, “It's like you found your friend again.” 'Cause it's your friend. You nurture your friend, you take care of it, and then you just found it.

AJC: Did you have ambition 10, 12, 15 years ago when this all started and if so, how has the reality been different from the dream?

Costello: Yeah, 15 years ago I wanted to sing in every major theater in the world. I wanted to work with this person, and work with this person, I wanted to do this… Now I'm thinking more like I wanna do more artistic things. I don't wanna sing in a place just to sing and make money. I wanna sing and have great artistic experiences, 'cause it's the only way to grow. I wanna sing with people that are better than me. Sing with people that you're intimidated by when you sing with them, because they're gonna make you work harder. They're the types of people I wanna sing with. They're my ambitions.

Already starring with some of the world's biggest opera stars, Stephen Costello is well on his way to exceeding his ambitions.

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