Tenor Stephen Costello on his Royal Opera debut in Linda di Chamounix

'Everything I do, I enjoy, because I wouldn't want to go through a month of rehearsals and hate what I was doing – it takes away from the performance, and it shouldn't be that way.'

4 September 2009

Stephen Costello

One of the most appealing innovations of the Antonio Pappano regime at The Royal Opera is the series of concert performances of lesser-performed works that have opened several of the seasons in recent years. This time, it's the turn of Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, whose principal revivals in recent years have been in mainland Europe for the bel canto legend, Edita Gruberova. The piece hasn't been performed at Covent Garden since the nineteenth century, so it's quite an event.

And to celebrate the occasion, the company has brought together a stellar cast of young singers, led by soprano Eglise Gutierrez and tenor Stephen Costello with veteran Alessandro Corbelli, under the baton of Donizetti specialist Sir Mark Elder, who'll be leading the performance from the critical edition.

For Costello, who is still in his twenties and has made waves in the last couple of seasons by singing first Arturo and then Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, his house debut is a dream come true, and I caught up with him for a quick interview whilst he was in the final stages of rehearsals.

'It's exciting to sing on this stage, which so many great singers have sung on, and it's such a prestigious house,' says Costello. 'It's very nerve-wracking too, because not only is it my debut here but they're also making a recording of the concerts for Opera Rara. It's a little intimidating because sometimes things happen in performances that you have no control over, and if that happens when you have a microphone in front of you at one performance, it means that you have to get the other performance exactly right. Whatever you do on those two takes is what will appear in the recording.'

Since the opera is rarely performed, I ask him bluntly: why should people come and hear it? 'The music's great, and you hardly ever get to hear it. For me, it's great to do the role for the first time in a concert performance so that you can hear the music right in front of you without any distracting staging. Admittedly, the story's not so great, so the fact that it's in concert is actually helpful.'

I ask him about using the scholarly critical edition of the score. 'Being a singer, you can just bypass it sometimes,' he says with a cheeky smile. 'I used it for this because it's the Royal Opera House. However, there are a lot of differences – there are some things that Donizetti had intended which were placed into this score, compared to the standard Ricordi one. We found that out during the rehearsal process when some people didn't have this score! There were some note changes and text changes. A critical edition involves a lot of research about the performance history of the opera. I used it for Rigoletto, for instance, but even there you can find some mistakes, and different editors have different opinions.'

The recently-knighted Mark Elder once made a television documentary on Donizetti and is an expert on the composer's music. He recorded Dom Sebastien for Opera Rara, based on live performances from Covent Garden, and later joined forces with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (with whom he'll perform Maria di Rohan in November) for Imelda de' Lambertazzi, so the concerts of Linda on 7 and 14 September are in safe hands. 'He's been fantastic,' says Costello, 'and I actually had the pleasure of going through some of it on the phone with him before we'd even met! I was in Fort Lauderdale on the beach and he was on holiday in Italy, but we went through some things. Getting here and working with him has been great. He's really got a sense of the piece – the style and phrasing. I've done a lot of Donizetti operas before, but it's very special working with him. It's a role debut for me – in fact, for pretty much everybody it's the first time they've done the opera.'

Costello speaks fondly of his main co-stars, Eglise Gutierrez and Alessandro Corbelli.
'Eglise and I were at school together, so we've known each other forever. We did L'elisir d'amore, Lucia and Traviata together, so we've worked together a lot. She's a very dear friend and lives right down the street from me. Everybody's great here – just watching [Alessandro] Corbelli onstage, and hearing him sing, is really wonderful.'

Stephen CostelloThe tenor returns in October to play Rinuccio in a revival of Richard Jones' production of Gianni Schicchi, with Thomas Allen in the title role. 'I've done it before with Tom Allen this summer, in Spoleto. I loved working with him – he's really fantastic. He gives you so much on stage that it's nice to play off him. I found a lot more detail in Gianni Schicchi doing it with him than I did the first time around. I think it's intimidating for anybody doing the opera for the first time, because it's such a rhythmic score and it's non-stop. If one person gets off, it can throw everyone else. And there's only 50 minutes of music, with no intermission. I once had a teacher who told me "When you do long roles, it's great because if you mess up once you can redeem yourself. But if you do a role like Rinuccio and you make a mistake, you have very little time left in which to make up for it." It's a really fun opera though, and I love it.'

Is it less satisfying to do a smaller part after doing something like Rigoletto? 'I'd say that there are three leads in Gianni Schicchi, and after the title character I think I have the most music. But it's just a different experience: it's a fun piece, and it's still very challenging for me because the tenor aria is written in a very odd way. The rest of the opera after that is interaction, so you get to test out your acting ability.  However, in a Donizetti opera, it's bel canto and even though it's dramatic, it's really about the singing. But everything I do, I enjoy, because I wouldn't want to go through a month of rehearsals and hate what I was doing – it takes away from the performance, and it shouldn't be that way.'

Costello's musical roots lie with his family, albeit in a relaxed manner. 'Every Sunday, my Dad would drive us to church with the radio on, and he'd always play this station that plays Elvis continually on Sundays. That's the first time I remember hearing music – the same thing over and over! It sparked my interest, though, because I started to want to hear other things. I got into other kinds of pop music, and later on I listened to Broadway and Classical. I wanted to get into instrumental music because I had some friends who were involved in it, so I learnt the violin briefly. For thirteen years after that I played the trumpet, and thought of majoring in the trumpet at university. But in the end, I decided to do singing.

'I did my first Broadway show, South Pacific, in a production in Philadelphia, and I loved doing it – being onstage singing and acting. So I started to pursue that, and got into musical theatre before I became a classical singer. It's so fun, and I enjoyed it so much. With classical singing, there's such a serious side to it – there's a lot of work and study involved. It's very intense, and it takes a long time to develop. There are so many different singing techniques out there now, as well, that it takes a while before you can work out what works for your voice. It intimidated me for a long time.

'Half way through my undergraduate work, I decided to get into classical music, vocally. I sang arias and worked on different exercises, and then got accepted into the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where I met both my wife and Eglise. I got my foundation there, and started to really get into it. The more you do it, the more instinctive it becomes. For instance, I've done so much bel canto music that it's usually easy for me to pick up new roles, whereas Gianni Schicchi felt hard the first time I tried it. My instincts are more towards the bel canto – but I love all kinds of music.'

I ask the tenor about his future roles, and he admits that 'You never know – the voice just starts to develop on its own. I've often been offered strange things, for instance I was invited to sing Cavaradossi in Tosca and I thought "Did you ever come and see one of my performances?" I'm really not a Cavaradossi at the moment. Maybe in twelve years I could do it – I'm not against it later on – but things like that lie well ahead. It all depends on the vocal development. Right now, Donizetti is like medicine for me – it keeps me healthy and keeps me going. With bigger rep, like Massenet's Des Grieux which I did at school, you have to watch that you don't give too much all the time. Once you get to a certain point, and sing too big, it's so hard to come back. I look through the score of everything I'm offered and take it to my teacher, but I can't see anything bigger than Boheme coming any time soon. The only Verdi I do is Traviata and Rigoletto, and that's it for the moment. It's mostly Donizetti, and Romeo and Juliet. I'd love to do Werther, but it's such a mental piece that I think I need a bit more maturity before I can approach it. And I would love to do Otello because the music is amazing, but I could never do it! The people that do it have special voices and can sing twelve performances of it without tiring. It's a beast. I realised that for the first time when I sang Cassio. We did piano rehearsals all week and I kept wondering why so much fuss is made about the size of the title role. Then when the orchestra came in, it was the loudest sound I've heard in my life – and I understood! It's huge.'

As for other ambitions, Costello says that 'I have a lot of great things coming up. It was once an ambition to sing here, and now I'm here! I'm going back to the Met and Chicago, and I'm doing Glyndebourne and Salzburg. With all those great opportunities coming up, I'm very happy with my career. I want to have kids – I want to start a family – and that's my big ambition. I've been married for a year, and there's a lot more I want to get going there, like buying our first house together.'

Stephen CostelloAs a young tenor on the international scene, Costello is optimistic about the future of the art form. 'A lot's being done now to bring opera to the younger generation, and I think it's great. I don't think putting things in a movie theatre is a bad thing, and I don't think that using modern productions is a bad thing either, if they make sense. I do think there are strange things, like the Planet of the Apes version of Rigoletto, but on the whole things are better now. At one point the repertoire became stagnant and they kept doing the same things over and over again, and I think people got bored and tired of it. I don't disagree with bringing opera to the younger crowd though, because they're the ones who are going to end up supporting it in the future. And I think singers could do more, too. They could do more public concerts, and go on The Tonight Show and things like that. Bring it to the masses! I do hope it continues, otherwise I'll be out of a job – and that's a big fear with so many houses closing in the States at the moment. I know a lot of people who are out of work. But companies like this, and the Met, which have always run a huge operation, will always be in business, I'm sure.'

Later this season, in a departure from his bel canto repertoire, Costello will take part in the World Premiere of Jack Heggie's Moby Dick at Dallas Opera. 'I haven't seen it yet – I've only heard the first act. It's great music, and it's with Ben Heppner, which is exciting. It's very cinematic, so at certain points it sounds like a movie score, and they're bringing in a Tony Award-winning lighting designer and set designer to do it. It's such an epic piece that it needs that. I feel a bit nervous about doing something new without more time with the score, but I'm looking forward to it. I did a twentieth-century opera at school, and it was fun because I helped to create it in workshops. For the same reason, I'm looking forward to singing Moby Dick because nobody has done my role before. I want to see what I can bring of myself to this role, and I'm curious to see if future interpreters use that as an example. In musical theatre, it's always the original cast that becomes a mould for everyone that comes after. So I wonder if it will be the same with this opera.'

He also returns to the tenor part in The Merry Widow, and it turns out that Costello's a big fan of lighter music. 'I love doing operetta. I did the piece once before in Dallas with Graeme Jenkins, who's a British conductor. The Baron Zeta was Andrew Shore. He's fantastic! He brought so much to that opera, and it infected everyone else. I loved the music – it's gorgeous, and it almost gives you the chance to bridge the gap between musical theatre and opera because you have spoken dialogue and straight acting. And it's in English, so people can understand what you're saying. I love it – I'd love to do it more!'

By Dominic McHugh

Stephen Costello appears in Linda di Chamounix at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 7 and 14 September. For more information, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/. He returns in Gianni Schicchi in October.

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LuciaRelated articles:

Opera Review: Stephen Costello plays Arturo in the Met's Lucia
Opera Review: Gianni Schicchi at the Royal Opera
Interview: Mark Elder chats about Strauss and Donizetti
Interview: An interview with Alessandro Corbelli


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