NEW YORK — For soprano Ailyn Perez, being rejected by the man she loves is all part of the job these days. But accepting a marriage proposal in front of a live audience? That was once in a lifetime.
Perez is currently starring at the Metropolitan Opera as Tatiana, the shy country girl who is smitten at first sight of the haughty title character in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” — only to be promptly rebuffed.
In between performances, she’s engaged in a much happier romantic venture, planning her wedding to bass Soloman Howard. Now that opera houses are back in business, it’s rare for two in-demand singers to be in the same place, but Perez said they hope to make it happen before September.
Howard’s proposal last September during the curtain call after Puccini’s “Tosca” in San Francisco was captured on video and made headlines. The couple had been together since before the pandemic and this was the first return to live performances in the U.S. for both.
Perez insists she was blindsided by the event.
“Now, looking back, he had arranged to have my parents there, and his sister and cousin for the last show,” she said. “But I didn’t put it together.
“As soon as I get up from my bow I see Soloman step out of the line... and the next thing I know his arm is up and out hushing the audience. I was breathless, but I was listening. It was the first time I didn’t interrupt him.”
The audience cheers after he got down one knee drowned out her response, but Perez said, “I just screamed YES! as big as I could.”
That run of Toscas signaled a new phase not just in Perez’s personal life but also in her career. She’s moving outside her comfort zone, exploring roles that call for more vocal heft than the ones with which she’s been identified, like Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” or the title character in Massenet’s Manon.”
“I think I’ve always known that the great lyric repertory would be my center,” she said. “But I really wanted to stretch into other rep.”
At 42, she said, “Now is the time to do it. Otherwise it’ll be a little too late. There’s never enough time in a career.”
That career has already been a remarkable one. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she grew up in Chicago, studied opera at Indiana University and Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and launched her career after graduating in 2006.
“I always found the voice to be a uniquely beautiful instrument,” recalled Bill Schuman, a vocal coach at AVA. who was Perez’s teacher for many years. “She gives her voice out in a loving manner and shares it. It’s very addictive. I think all great singers have that.”
For a time she performed frequently with tenor Stephen Costello, a fellow AVA graduate to whom she was married for six years until they divorced. In 2012 she became the first Hispanic to win the Richard Tucker award for outstanding young American singers. Her Met debut came in 2015 as Liu in Puccini’s “Turandot.”
Tosca, with its demands for dramatic singing over heavy orchestration, was definitely a “stretch” but one the critics agreed she pulled off successfully.
“People did say, ‘Ooh, that might be a little early,’” recalled Gregory Henkel, head of the San Francisco Opera’s artistic division. “But I was confident. I felt it might be on the early side of right.”
Tatiana, which she’s also singing for the first time, is, like Tosca, what critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times called a “heavier sing than the lyric roles… for which she has been best known at the Met.”
But he added, “her urgency and commitment to the text helped compensate for any lack of plushness.”
The next new Puccini role she plans is the title character of “Madama Butterfly,” and she’d also like to sing his “Suor Angelica,” which Schuman said for her “would be like putting on the perfect glove.”
Next season at the Met she’ll reprise her Alicia in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” and debut yet another new role, Blanche, in Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites.” It’s a part that has special meaning to her since it was created by Virginia Zeani, who taught her while she was at Indiana.
Blanche, who joins an order of nuns that is outlawed during the French Revolution, struggles to overcome her fear of death for much of the opera before ultimately joining her sisters in going to the guillotine.
“It’s really tricky because how do you stay scared and anxious for a whole two hours?” Perez said. “I tend to really wear the characters I portray. It does affect me.”
But she’s confident she’s matured enough to be able to separate her roles on stage from her personal feelings.
“I’ve had a good 10 years to figure it out,” Perez said, “OK, take a rest from the psychology of the character. Get a life!”