Theater Jones: Q&A with Stephen Costello
Stephen answers questions about his role debut as Don José.
Dallas — There won’t be any yellow police tape around the Winspear Opera House on Friday but the stage will become the gritty crime scene of a murder driven by jealous rage. It all takes place in The Dallas Opera’s production of Bizet’s ever-popular opera Carmen, which is filled with sex and smuggling, violence and victimization, theft and terrorism, desertion and destruction—and that’s just in the first act! It also is filled with some of the most beautiful music ever written.
TDO is presenting this opera with a world-class cast. The French mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac will sing the title role of Carmen, the bad girl gone worse. The American tenor Stephen Costello will sing the role of Don José, the hapless soldier that Carmen uses, loves and discards. Baritone Alexander Vinogradov sings the role of Escamillo, the self-assured matador. Soprano Sara Gartland sings the role of Micaëla, the nice girl José left behind. Others in the cast are Ben Wager as Zuniga, Gideon Dabi as Moralès, Sarah Tucker as Frasquita, Lindsay Metzger as Mercédès, and Rafael Moras as Remendado.
Costello is a well-known name in North Texas. In fact, although he was born in Philadelphia, his road to stardom began in Texas. In 2006, he made his professional debut as Rudolfo in Puccini’s La bohème with the Fort Worth Opera and then sang the role of Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda with The Dallas Opera. From there, it was on to the Met in 2007 and all of the world’s leading operatic stages thereafter.
In a recent phone conversation, Costello talked about singing this famous tenor role.
TheaterJones: This will be your first time singing what is one of the great tenor roles. It is also a French opera and you are mostly known for the Italian repertoire.
Stephen Costello: But this not my first French opera to perform. I sing Faust [Gounod] and The Daughter of the Regiment [Donizetti]. I also sing Romeo in Gounod’s version.
In 2016, you gave a dynamite performance of Romeo in Gounod’s opera in Santa Fe. (You can read the review here.) But Bizet’s music for Carmen is quite different from Gounod’s musical style.
That is true. Some parts of the role [Don José], mostly in acts three and four, lean towards the verismo style, even Wagnerian, yet it is still lyrical music. Parts of the role show Gounod’s influence but other parts require some heroic singing. The prime example is in the last act, when he is pleading with Carmen, one last time, to return to him.
The operas of Wagner certainly permeated the musical atmosphere at the time Carmen was written and most composers had to chose sides. But Bizet created his own musical style out of everything going on at the time. Tangentially related to this question, and one of the big questions about singing the role, is the way to sing the high note in the big “flower aria” (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”). It is marked to be sung softly, which is very French, but it is frequently sung loudly, which is very Italian. Every tenor throughout the history of the role sings it differently. How are you going to approach it?
Currently, I am singing that note a little fuller, at least for now, but I am still considering what is best way for me.
You certainly have the ability to float a high note beautifully. I have heard you capture the audience with it.
Well, I am still experimenting a little. Maybe the most effective way to sing it is to use messa di voce [starting the note softly, letting it build and then returning to the soft sound.]
Is there anything that surprised you about singing this role?
Actually yes. Carmen alternates spoken dialogue with the sung passages and this is very different from a role that is through-sung. When we rehearse, most of the spoken dialogue is very dramatic and it is wearing on the voice. This is especially true in rehearsal, when we go over a scene a number of times to get it right. In fact, for me, some of the most difficult parts of the opera to perform are making those transitions from spoken passages to singing phrases.
There is lot of intensity written into the role, both spoken and sung. How do you see him?
Well, José certainly is tightly wound with an inner rage that he struggles to keep under control. This catches up with him a couple of times in the opera right from the start. It is what causes him to make one bad decision after another that eventfully leads to his destruction.
How is it to work with conductor and TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume?
He is excellent. He knows what he wants but is not a conductor to come in and say, “This is how I do it”; he wants to find a way to reach consensus. In rehearsals, whenever we came to a spot where there were questions of what to do, he would say, “Lets find a way to do it together.”
What is next for you?
After this, I will sing Alfredo [in Verdi’s La traviata] at the Met. Then, in April I will sing Pinkerton, for the first time, in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in Japan.
Well, that has a touch of irony: an American tenor singing the role of an American in Italian for the first time in Japan.
Such is the life of an opera singer [laughs].