UPDATE: Since I posted this story on Tuesday, word has come that the 'Toujours L'Amour' concert scheduled for Friday has been postponed because Stephen Costello has a 'bad flu.' Lyric Opera Baltimore artistic director James Harp says the event may be rescheduled for next season. Ticket-holders may exchange seats for a future performance or obtain refunds at point of purchase.
Costello released a statement saying he was 'hugely looking forward to singing' and 'would like to extend my sincere apologies to everyone involved -- from the organisers and other performers, to those of you who have bought tickets in good faith.'
When Stephen Costello made his Baltimore debut in 2008, he was an up-and-coming tenor. He returns this week a bona fide opera star.
Costello will be featured with another widely-admired singer, soprano Nicole Cabell, in "Toujours L'Amour," a concert of richly romantic French music presented Friday night by Lyric Opera Baltimore. It's a program nicely chosen to underline the gifts of both artists.
In the case of the Philadelphia-born Costello, those gifts include a warm, flexible tone, along with a keen sensitivity to the nuances of text and the expressive contour of a phrase.
The tenor's vocal resources recently boosted Washington National Opera's back-to-back productions of Jake Heggie’s "Moby-Dick," which showcased Costello’s affecting portrayal of Greenhorn; and Donizett'’s "The Elixir of Love." In the latter, Costello brought down the house with his distinctive interpretation of the popular aria "Una furtiva lagrima."
The performance of that aria included some startling pauses during the unaccompanied phrases of the cadenza.
"I've been working with different aspects of silence," Costello, 32, says. "It kind of makes people uncomfortable, forces them to pay attention. It can also make it uncomfortable for the performer, because it’s very risky."
The Baltimore concert might offer Costello a chance to take some risks as well. It includes excerpts from Gounod's "Faust" and "Romeo et Juliette," the work that served as Costello's impressive local debut when it was staged by the former Baltimore Opera Company.
The tenor will also be heard in samplings of two operas by Massenet: "Werther" and, with Cabell (winner of the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition), "Manon."
"I'm looking forward to it," Costello says. "I like concert work, but you have to keep on your toes. You have to build a different character in three seconds. I haven't worked with Nicole before, but I admire her as a singer."
One soprano Costello has sung with often is his wife, Ailyn Perez. The opera world never tires of "love couples." But since two stellar matches — soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Roberto Alagna; soprano Anna Netrebko and bass-baritone Erwin Schrott — split up last year, Costello and Perez seem to own this little niche right now.
The two, who produced many a spark during that "Elixir" production in Washington, have also shared stages in productions at the Opera Philadelphia ("Romeo et Juliette") and Los Angeles Opera (Puccini's "La Boheme"), among others. Next month, they sing the leads in Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Royal Opera House in London.
And the couple's first recording, "Love Duets," is due out soon from Warner Classics.
But two opera singers in a marriage can be "extremely hard," Costello says. "Every place we go people want to know our business. You have to walk a fine line between a private life and a professional life."
Although that professional life can be fun when the couple appears in the same opera, things can get tricky when each sings with a different onstage partner.
"I'm uncomfortable if Ailyn is in the [theater] and I'm doing a love scene with someone else," the tenor says.
And if his wife is doing a love scene with another singer?
"I can't stand it," he says. "She did 'Manon' in Valencia with Vittorio Grigolo a few years ago. They were in bed in a scene where he had no shirt on, and he's a handsome guy. I just couldn'’t watch that."
Giving or receiving criticism can be difficult for operatic spouses, too.
"You wouldn't want to tell a friend that they made a mistake, so I certainly don't want to do that to my wife," Costello says, adding with a laugh: "I can't sleep very well on the couch."
The tenor met the Chicago-born Perez when the two were studying at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Costello, who played trumpet when he was growing up, was something of a late-comer to singing. He started late in high school.
"I had a teacher who said if you could read and sing whatever you see on a piece of music, you could translate that to your instrument," the tenor says. "So I joined the choir. I really got into it. My goal was to sing louder than the guy next to me."
After landing a role in his high school's production of "South Pacific," Costello began thinking about a career in musicals.
"I was interested in Broadway music because it was in English," he says. "Opera at that point frightened me and just seemed so hard."
But Costello quickly discovered a knack for the genre, revealing a particular flair for the great 19th-century Italian and French repertoire. That grounding made him a natural for the lyrical role of Greenhorn in "Moby-Dick," which he created at the opera's 2010 premiere in Dallas (a subsequent production by San Francisco Opera aired on PBS and is now out on DVD).
Since his Metropolitan opera debut in 2007, Costello has earned the Richard Tucker Award, one of the most prominent prizes in opera, and has been sought after by major theaters around the globe. One thing he would like to see more of is younger listeners.
"How can you find a way to relate to young audiences if you're not paying attention to what's going on with young people, what they're listening to," says Costello, whose tastes in pop music include Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake. "Maybe if Jay-Z would endorse opera, the young would pick it up."
"Toujours L'Amour" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Modell-Lyric.