Interview: Stephen Costello

The young tenor discusses his Glyndebourne debut in L'elisir d'amore

3 June 2011

Stephen Costello

The young American tenor Stephen Costello has had somewhat of a dream start to his operatic career, having appeared already on the stages of the Met, the Vienna Staatsoper and the Royal Opera House, among a string of other elite venues. Now it is the turn of Glyndebourne to welcome him as Nemorino in a revival of their 2007 production of L'Elisir d'Amore, first seen on the Glyndebourne tour that year. We last interviewed Costello in the wings of Covent Garden in 2009, when he was singing Carlo in Donizetti's rarely performed Linda di Chamounix, so it was a pleasure to catch up with him on the Sussex Downs for a few minutes conversation a week before the 9 June opening. We started by asking for his first impressions of the place.

"Well, to be honest I was unsure of what to expect, having never been to Glyndebourne before, nor seen the opera house in its setting, but I have to say I am hugely and pleasantly surprised. Everyone has been incredibly friendly and supportive and there is a real team spirit here, helped by the fact that we have a long rehearsal period and enough time to get to know each other really well. I shall be spending twelve weeks here (there are 16 performances in total) and it is great to have singer friends like Lucas Meachem around for much of the time (Meachem is singing the title role in the revival of Don Giovanni). So I guess you can say I am liking it here".

What is your approach to the role of Nemorino in this production of L'Elisir? "First of all, it is a role I know reasonably well - in fact, it's the first opera role I ever learned! But every production of L'Elisir d'Amore is different, and I am learning new aspects of it all the time. It is wonderful having Annabel here (Annabel Arden has returned to direct her own production) and she and I have conversations about the character. I absolutely do not see Nemorino as an idiot - he is a country boy, honest, intelligent, and he 'gets' much of what is going on all around him, but he plays along to see where it gets him. When I think Nemorino, I think of the film actor Jimmy Stewart - he would have made a perfect Nemorino!"

Stephen CostelloHow do you approach an iconic moment in opera, an aria that everyone has heard or knows - Nemorino's Una furtiva lagrima? "As an aria, it is not actually that difficult by itself. What is more difficult is to deliver it successfully at that moment in the opera. And you mustn't think too hard about it, or conjure up all the great tenor names who have sung it before you: in the end, you just have to do it! I think there is another point too, about an aria that everyone knows - don't stick slavishly to tradition. Make it your own, in keeping with the character you are singing. That's what I shall try to do".

Since we last spoke, how do you think your voice has developed? "I think it is developing all the time, in line with the new roles I am tackling and the different houses in which I have sung. I definitely think the voice has grown a bit more". This leads on to a discussion of Costello's exploration of his first verismo roles, and the very different descriptions that have been made of his vocal qualities, with admiration of his "baritonal qualities" ranging alongside references to his "light, lyrical tenor". Costello is surprised: "I don't think my voice is at all baritonal. What I do, if I find my voice is getting too open, is to go straight back to bel canto. Some people say you should train and exercise the voice by singing Mozart, but for me that is not true at all!" But what about the art of bel canto, and the training that goes with it - has it been lost? "I think rumours of the demise or loss of beautiful singing, which is what bel canto is after all, have been overdone. The way the parts are written, the way they lie for the voice, makes you respect the traditions associated with them". In keeping with this approach, Costello will sing the traditional cadenzas for the role of Nemorino, the ones he has now sung many times in the role in different houses. "It would have been fun to learn new ones, but I feel comfortable with what I already know and have sung, and everything else about Glyndebourne is new for me - the size of house, the acoustic, this production itself, so I didn't want to take on too much all at once". Talking of taking on a lot all at once brings me to his Adina, the role being sung by Danielle de Niese, who took Glyndebourne by storm and who became a major star when she sang the role of Cleopatra in David McVicar's now iconic production of Giulio Cesare in 2005. What is it like, playing opposite the boss of Glyndebourne's new wife? "It is immense fun. She is of course a complete professional but she is also friendly and has made me very welcome and totally at ease. Gus (Christie) comes and sits in on rehearsals sometimes and watches me trying to court his wife, but it's all done with great good humour and we have plenty of jokes!" And indeed, the impression I get from everything that Costello has to say about the production and his involvement in it is that L'Elisir d'Amore will fizz with grace and good humour on the 9 June opening night.

Costello makes clear - without in any way over-selling himself, indeed he is delightfully understated and modest throughout our talk - that Nemorino is a role he can 'nail'. What about other tenor challenges, roles he has found really tough. He thinks for a minute. "Roberto Devereux, for one. It simply lies badly in my voice. And Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi - to be honest, I won't be sad if I never sing that part again. I've already turned it down once since I sang it at Covent Garden". But otherwise he has some major appearances lined up, including Alfredo at the ROH and Rodolfo in Los Angeles,and he is planning a Werther in a couple of seasons from now. "It sits low, but it is comfortable for my voice". One sadness of the Glyndebourne season is that Costello will spend the summer apart from his wife, the soprano Ailyn Perez, who has a twelve week engagement in Santa Fe at precisely the same time, but he is philosophical about the demands of two blossoming careers. "We have talked about it obviously, and we have both decided to take the roles that we can get, and not to put any pressure on each other at this stage in our lives. Besides, we do get the chance to sing together, and that is great: we have performed Romeo and Juliet, and we have a Faust coming up".

The tannoy booms and Costello has to return onstage, to reassume the personality of the shy Nemorino. He exudes quiet confidence. The combination of him, the irresistible Danielle de Niese and the immensely experienced Paolo Gavanelli in his Glyndebourne debut role of Dulcamara promises to be a winning one.

By Mike Reynolds

Photo credits: Ken Howard



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