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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Interview: Tenor Stephen Costello blames his trumpet teacher for a blossoming opera career

By John Terauds on April 17, 2013

Stephen Costello is Edgardo in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Gaetano Donizetti's Luci di Lammermoor, which opens tonight at the Four Seasons Centre (Christ Hutcheson photo).
Stephen Costello is Edgardo in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which opens tonight at the Four Seasons Centre (Christ Hutcheson photo).

The Canadian Opera Company has been introducing Torontonians to many fine young singers over last few seasons. One of the vocal treats in Lucia di Lammermoor, which opens tonight, is American tenor Stephen Costello. Still only in his early 30s, he’s already making a mark on the world’s opera stages.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Costello sings the role of Edgardo in Gaetano Donizetti’s musically florid take on a Gothic horror story by Sir Walter Scott. This production, which comes to us from English National Opera in London, is directed by David Alden and stars equally young-and-talented American soprano Anna Christy as Lucia.

The Toronto production is promising because it is a showcase of the current fine state of bel canto singing.

I had a chance to sit down with Costello during a day off from rehearsals last week, and we dove right in to the subject of of bel canto opera and its unique vocal demands — of having to sing runs and trills that embellish the basic melody in pretty much every single aria.

Costello has in the half-dozen years of his mainstage career made a specialty of singing operas from early 19th century Italy.

“Some people say Mozart teaches you a lot about the voice. I think bel canto teaches you a lot about the voice,” the tenor explains. “That’s because you have to learn how to pace it, how to sing it with a beautiful line and good tone.”

You also have to know how to navigate through the full range of the voice from middle register all the way up – especially through the passaggio, the natural break between what are known as the chest voice and the head voice.

Costello says a role like Edgardo in Lucia gives the voice “a good stretch, that will help you find the placement for higher notes which you’ll need in bigger music later on.”

It’s clear that this singer is very conscious about his instrument and how it is developing. Although the human voice never really stays the same, it changes especially quickly — often dramatically so — during a person’s 20s and 30s.

I ask Costello if he has a specific plan for his career.

Says he would like to have a plan, but, “with a voice, you just never have any idea which way it’s going to go, and, theoretically, if you sing correctly and you don’t push your voice and it gets stronger and stronger, your voice should start to open up more and get a little fuller.” That leads to bigger music. “But you don’t know until your voice starts to do it.”

Great tenors are not easy to find, so there is a lot of pressure on promising young singers to take on a lot of different roles very quickly. But, for Costello, careful pacing is key. He says a singer needs a manager instead of an agent: “An agent will book you, but a manager will help plan which jobs you take.”

The singer also has to remember that the voice is like muscle, and needs to be treated accordingly.

“Using your voice is like going to the gym,” Costello says. “If you’re constantly working out, you can’t go to the gym the next day and work out all the same muscles you worked out the day before. It would be exhausting. You would pull something, and it’s the same thing with singing. If you’re going to use your voice so much the same day, you’re not going to want to use it the next day. You need to let it rest and heal.”

The busy singer has also learned that he has to tend to his spouse. The native Philadelphian’s wife is soprano Ailyn Pérez — they met in school in the City of Brotherly Love — and she is just as busy as he is. So they take August off every year to spend some quality time together.

They are apart for much of the rest of the year.

“You just have to suck it up and get over it,” says Costello, matter-of-factly. “You can fixate on not being together, or you can say, okay, this is the time we’re going to be together, let’s make the best of it.”

They try to visit each others’ gigs. Costello will fly off to England after his Toronto run to see Pérez in a production of Falstaff in Glyndebourne. But opening-night-visits rarely happen. “We’ll call each other on opening night and wish each other good luck,” says the tenor.

Given how quickly Costello has made it onto the world’s most prestigious opera stages — he had his Met début in 2007, when he was 26 — it’s surprising to find out he started his musical life as a trumpeter.

He was 17 when he began to have an inkling of becoming a singer. That’s when he joined the chorus at his high school.

“My trumpet teacher said you need to join the chorus to train your ears and to help improve your sight reading,” Costello recalls. “He said if you can sight sing you can easily play it on your instrument. So I did it and I liked it – I don’t know why.”

He continues: “I had this guy next to me. He got all the leads in the musicals and he was just so loud, so I thought I’d turn it into a game and be louder than he is. I figured someone would eventually stop me and say you’re too loud, or something. But nobody ever did, so I just enjoyed it.”

In his final year in high school, the big musical production was going to be South Pacific, which had a small, dull trumpet part. “It’s 10 notes here and 10 notes there. That’s exhausting. So I auditioned for Emile and they gave me Cable. I just really, really liked it,” Costello smiles.

Besides enjoyment, the budding singer also discovered the relief of being freed from performance anxiety. “I felt I had more control over my nerves, because it’s hard on your body,” he says of musical theatre and opera. “When you play the trumpet and your hands start to shake, you’re screwed.”

Although he had still intended on studying trumpet for his undergraduate music degree, he ended up auditioning for voice, and never looked back.

Costello might be conscious of taking care of his instrument, of learning the right roles at the right time in his physical and artistic development, and of making sure he spends enough time with Pérez. But, ultimately, he is doing exactly what he loves.

“If you enjoy singing, just be thankful you can do it,” he concludes.

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For all the details and background information on the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, click here. Performances run to May 24.

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For a little sample of Costello singing art song instead of opera, here he is at New York radio station WQXR last summer:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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