Dallas — I met up with Anthony Roth Costanzo, who is singing the role of Roane (the stage manager), and Ailyn Pèrez, who is singing the role of Tatyana (the brash young middle European soprano) for coffee last week. Both are live wires, to say the least, and our conversation was filled with equal parts of laughter, serious thought about Great Scott and opera in general.
What follows is a condensed version of what was said in that discussion, but it can’t possibly recreate the energy and tone. Or the connection we all made. For this reason, nothing here is written in quotes because, in the interest of time and space, many of the statements are combinations of things said at different times. Perez frequently spoke in the thick accent written into her part for humorous effect.
TheaterJones: One of the reasons to get the two of you together is that you both have these parts that are basically, well, a satire of yourselves.
Ailyn Pérez: [laughing] I was a little afraid of playing her because of all the typical soprano stuff she does, at least what people think is typical. It is even somewhat embarrassing in a way: She doesn’t read librettos ahead of time or knows that she is a mother until well into rehearsals.
We have all run into her, in both male and female incarnations, but you are playing her to the hilt.
Pérez: But I am not playing it to the joke, doing it up so to speak. [Director] Jack O’Brien said to play her like a woman who is trying to bring her very best efforts and artistry to everything she does. That sent me back to the drawing board.
Anthony Roth Costanzo: He is always asking us to show the layers under the action so we are not just parodies. He asks us to find the grain of truth under the characters. That is when they are funny.
The character of Roane is different in that almost everyone else is a performer except for him.
Costanzo: That is true, but as the stage manager he has to be the most grounded, as crazy as he is.
That is the stage manager’s role in any company. They rule when the production moves into the theater.
Costanzo: Absolutely. At his core, he is there to keep everyone, and everything, together until the show closes. His outbursts are over-the-top, but he is in control of them. Like with Tatyana. The other people look down on her, and think she is ridiculous, but he protects her and won’t let anyone give her any [lip … he really used a more colorful word]. Stage managers are totally selfless, though. No one seeing the show even knows who they are.
Pérez: Whenever I walk in the room everyone rolls their eyes, but Roane looks at me directly without editorializing. I love meeting Roane. I even gravitate to him in rehearsals.
Costanzo: I love her most at the end, when she begins to feel bad about some of her actions. Roane brings people down to earth. Even in Act One when he goes crazy at the conductor because opera, as he sees it, ignores the music that is popular with his generation.
He even twerks.
Costanzo: That is right. I twerk [big laugh]. It lets everyone see who he is and how much of himself he puts aside.
Is he a gay stereotype like Tatyana is a soprano one?
Costanzo: Some, but not so much. Admittedly, he likes Lady Gaga…
… and twerks.
Costanzo: … and twerks, but he is much more than gay, it doesn’t define him, and I don’t think of him that way. He represents an interesting force outside of the “opera” about why it is so focused on the old instead of the new—what’s happenin’. Really, this is what the whole opera itself is about, because in it, we have the old [the recently discovered lost bel canto opera being produced] embedded in Heggie’s new one. This is why Roane encourages Tatyana to branch out and do the new opera [mentioned in the score as Arden’s next role, which she is reluctant to do and Tatyana is eager to take on].
Pérez: I think she is heroic; maybe I made the choice to make her that way. She is sincere when she says, “I’ll do it.” She wants everyone to just see that she is there. It is so funny because it is “so wrong” and she doesn’t even get it. On the other hand, she is audacious in that. She even volunteers to sing the national anthem at the big Super Bowl game.
That is my favorite line in the opera. They ask me, “Do you know our national anthem? And she responds with a huge [in accent] “NO, but I can sing anything!”
It is her guiding principal.
Pérez: She thinks [back to accent] “Butterfly, sure; Isolde, why not?”
Not tied to a specific repertoire.
Pérez: In a way, that attitude is what made Callas so extraordinary, but she knew what she was doing, could do, and not jumping in with [back in accent] “I can sing anything!”
Costanzo: But Tatyana, she is really good; you see that she is incredibly skilled.
It wouldn’t work if she were anything else.
Costanzo: Nothing we do is put on, but we find that we slip into ourselves in the opera; into what we actually are in our lives, but the challenge is to perform that as a subtle shift rather than forgetting that we are someone else. It is easier to go broad.
But that wouldn’t be as funny.
Pérez: [laughing] These characters are so close to our own skins that I sometimes think they are us, or what we might be in another universe. The composer and librettist knew who we were before it was written, so I agree that there are parts of ourselves in these characters.
Costanzo: It is another layer backwards. I am sure that there will be lots of performances after this and you have to wonder how our characters will be played.
You are a countertenor. How does that affect your performance?
Costanzo: This is a complete change from the usual countertenor roles. We sing in the middle of what is usually staged in opera. We sing the before [Baroque] and the after [modern]. I usually play a spirit or baroque royalty but here I am playing a modern-day young person, like myself.
You do a lot of new operas?
Costanzo: [laughing] Well, I can’t sing Traviata so it is either brand new or very old. I will be creating six world premieres this season alone and I am working with 12 different composers right now.
Pérez: How lucky is that! [General laughter]
Roane has one of the two romances in the opera. In this case, a romance with the conductor.
Costanzo: True, and it is the only fresh one in the opera. Arden and Sid already knew each other.
The conductor notices Roane right away and asks if he is single.
Costanzo: It is the beginning of something, a flirtation, but at first not knowing if it is mutual or real or imagined. The gay aspect adds another level of “I wonder if he is gay?” and “did I just see what I thought I saw?” Roane’s attraction is totally sincere. He doesn’t really care that this is the conductor and think “I better suck up,” like a singer might do. He is just who he is, so people gravitate to him.
Pérez: That is one of the best parts about being in this opera: the different voices, even a countertenor, and a combination of young singers and legends. We would not usually be in the same show, or even cross paths in more standard repertoire. It is the best part of Great Scott.
Costanzo: I completely agree.
» Gregory Sullivan Isaacs will give the pre-opera lecture before each of the five performances of Great Scott.
» Read his primer about the opera here
» Read our interview with soprano Joyce DiDonato here
» Look for more features and interviews related to Great Scott coming on TheaterJones