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A Philadelphia Son Storms the Met

The Wall Street Journal | Pia Catton

This is not his rookie season, nor his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, but Stephen Costello has the kind of voice that sets the audience—even at a dress rehearsal—atwitter:

American tenor Stephen Costello

“Who’s that tenor?”

He’s a Philadelphia kid who sings like he’s from Milan. And he’ll be on stage Monday night in the Met’s season opener, director David McVicar’s production of “Anna Bolena,” by Donizetti. (And if you can’t make it to the gala, you can catch it on radio, Sirius XM and jumbo-trons in Times Square and Lincoln Center.)

Top billing for this 12-date production, of course, goes to Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, the celebrated international star whose voice is gloriously well-suited to the role of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second and doomed wife. If opera worked like Broadway, the name on the marquee closest to Ms. Netrebko’s might be fellow Russian Ildar Abdrazakov, the commanding bass and Met veteran who sings the role of Henry VIII with icy force. Mr. Costello joins these heavyweights in the role of Lord Richard Percy, Boleyn’s first love who, after being banished, sneaks back to town to see her and gets everybody in trouble.

The role is no walk in the tenor park: it’s written to be sung in the upper (tessitura) register. “You have to keep your voice really high,” Mr. Costello said. “And if you give too much all the time, you can be exhausted by the middle of the second act. You have to pick and choose, especially when you’re singing with someone like Anna, who has a big voice. You can’t compete with her.”

American tenor Stephen Costello with soprano Anna Netrebko in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of ‘Anna Bolena.’

But he can hold his own. In 2009, Mr. Costello won the Richard Tucker Award for American singers, following top talents like Renee Fleming, David Daniels and Deborah Voigt. Two years before that, he made his Met debut in the then-new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor.” He was assigned the role of Arturo, but also rehearsed as the cover (opera’s equivalent of an understudy) for the larger role of Edgardo—and for the final performance of the run, conductor James Levine asked him to perform it. “Having him in the pit, when you do anything for the first time, is incredible,” Mr. Costello of the conductor. “He knows the spots that are hard or complicated. He knows the size of your voice, and he knows when to draw the orchestra back.”

Mr. Costello—who arrived for our interview wearing green soccer sneakers, precise facial hair and a slightly rumpled yet European blazer with jeans—began his opera training later than most singers do. He played the trumpet for 15 years, then attended the University of the Arts in his hometown, initially to study musical theater, before going to the prestigious, opera-only Academy of Vocal Arts, also in Philadelphia.

Based now in Tennessee with his opera-singer wife, Ailyn Perez, Mr. Costello comes to New York often for continued study with his voice teacher. He also makes a point of seeing Broadway shows when he’s here.

“I’m trying like crazy to see ‘Book of Mormon.’ I have three connections. I’m hoping one of them will work out,” he said, adding that he had already asked the Met’s head wig and make-up artist, Tom Watson, who has a number of Broadway credits, including “Wicked.” “I said, ‘Please tell me you did ‘Book of Mormon.’ He said no.”

The subject of wigs, however, brightened Mr. Costello a bit, because in this production of “Anna Bolena,” he doesn’t have to wear one. “It’s kind of nice to use your own head,” he said. “Usually, you’ve got this wig on, and there’s someone poking at you.”

That said, the role of Percy calls for other costume constraints. When his character is jailed, he has to sing with his hands bound in front of him. “It’s kind of difficult to breathe, but I’m trying to figure out a way to get comfortable in that scene,” he said.

And in an earlier scene, he has to wear a hooded cape, which he’s supposed to pull off his head when he enters. But the historically accurate costumes are held against the body with a series of hidden ties that constrict the range of movement. “The problem,” he said, “is that it ties under your armpits. So I can only raise my hands so high.”

But it’s all in a day’s work, and at the end of the day Mr. Costello is prone to relax with a burger at the P.J. Clarke’s near Lincoln Center: “They have beer. It’s my spot.”

 


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