The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.

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Episode Transcript

Kristy Geslain: For our special Valentine's Day episode, we got a brief glimpse into the world of soprano Ailyn Pérez—who later this month will be at The Met Opera playing Juliette in an acclaimed production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, conducted by Plácido Domingo. But that glimpse wasn't nearly enough. In this week's episode, we dig deeper into Ailyn's backstory to talk about her earliest influences, her belief in the importance of arts education, and her lifelong love of mariachi music.

This is Lincoln Center with Ailyn Pérez.

KG: We're here with Ailyn Pérez, soprano currently here in New York working at The Met.

Ailyn Pérez: Kristy, I'm really excited to be here with you. I've been listening to your podcast and the insight you have with all these artists. It's really a thrill to sit here and talk.

KG: So Ailyn, in preparing for my interview with you today, I was listening to another interview that you did a few months back on WNYC. And you said something that really stuck with me. You were being asked about your Mexican-American heritage. And you said, "We all carry the stories and the voices of our past." Do you remember that?

AP: I don't remember saying that, but that is so true, and it's a vivid truth. It's one that resonates on different levels. It's getting more comfortable in presenting who I am authentically. And why that has happened is that I think for so much from the beginning of my career I've been wanting to fit in, to be liked, and to wear these roles, and to be of course transformed into these characters that I've forgotten maybe not compare myself to others and to actually gain the strength and come from an interpretation or a stronger sense of self. So it's a little bit of getting out of that darkness, in a way, and really going back to who am I, what am I doing here, and where do I come from? When I call my family and when I visit Chicago, there's a sense of grounding and there's a sense of I can't forget this. So that's what I mean about finding the voice of my past and the history and my heritage. So I'm glad that stuck out to you. And I do hope that as I take a stand in who I am, that other people, much like the people that I look up to, that it will inspire a younger generation and it will give a sense of possibility to others. I'm so grateful that you're bringing it up right now, actually, because it's reminding me to keep those values and not get distracted. It's really easy to get caught up in this exciting business.

KG: I bet.

AP: Yeah. There's a lot of excitement!

KG: Let's talk a little bit about these voices that have influenced you. Maybe let's start with the more personal. You've only been here for a few minutes. We were chatting before we started recording, and you mentioned your mom already and you mentioned your family. Tell us about them. How important was your family and your parents coming up, both as a kid growing up and as you became an artist?

AP: I have a wild streak to my temperament. I'm impulsive. Leaving home to go to college and then not going back to Chicago and just traveling on this journey, it's very unlike anyone else's journey in my family, except for the fact that my parents were immigrants. They created a life and a family life for me. That story is essential. In that way, we relate, and they can see the courage and I can respect the courage it has taken them to create their sense of country, their sense of culture, their sense of community. I still get, like, I'm always on the verge of tears when I think about my family, because I just respect what they've done, especially right now with how our culture is handling welcoming and not welcoming people, and it's something I want to make sure I carry with me. I've been here singing at The Met for two productions in a row, thankfully, Thaïs and then the countess in The Marriage of Figaro, and when my parents arrived, you just saw everyone light up backstage just to see them.

My makeup artist, Marian Torre, said, "I see that you come from a great family. The times that I can count thank you is just, it's so unlike anyone else." To me that was the biggest compliment, because it shows my family's way, and I like that.

KG: What do they think of it all? Can you get a sense of what it must be like through their eyes?

AP: Oh, I can see it. My father is a talker, and he gets very quiet. I can sense his. . . a moment of him taking it all in. I love him. He knows how to savor a moment, and there's nothing like it. He calls it, "Let's relish the moment." I'm like, Dad, that is so sweet. I have to thank him, because he really gave me the freedom to take on what I've done. I guess he gave me the freedom to dream as well, and to not limit that. I think there was concern at first. Like, if you're going to go to college... there was a hope in him. They both worked in factories. His hope was, if you're going to get a college education, why would it be in music? What is a degree in music? Try law. Try business. It just wasn't where my gift was. I understand why he would want that for me, and I would want that for me too. I wish I could do it all. Yet, wow, he's just really been supportive of me. With my mom, when she watches, my mom is more dramatic than I am. So I can hear her gasps. I know that she even gets so nervous, she starts, like, her hands get really sweaty. Her hands get cold. I just remember the moment when they were watching La Traviata and Violetta gets thrown to the ground, and the money gets thrown on her. The whole public is... It's this whole scena, just a horrible scene of shame, really. My mother was like, "You should've seen your father. He was going to get up there and punch out the guy." I just think, aw, that's really sweet. So they're into it, which is great.

KG: What kind of musical influences were around your home when you were growing up?

AP: Definitely mariachi. I mean, on Sundays it was cleaning day and sort of regrouping. We'd go from church to home. It was a slower day and a cleaning day. I just remember a lot of Rocío Durcal, Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernandez—if my father was out, because he couldn't stand his singing. This is the king of mariachi, by the way. He's referred to in the culture by El Rey, okay? And my father is like, "Why is he crying all the time? I can't stand that sound."

KG: But mom liked him?

AP: Mom liked him, yeah. And Los Bukis. We had El Puma. I just saw that they're releasing a series about José José on Netflix. He's a big superstar. Juan Gabriel just passed. So I would say Lola Beltrán was the iconic mother of it all in terms of mariachi and boleros, and Mexican heritage and kind of the sound that my grandmother knew really well. I would hear her sing "Cucurrucucu." That's actually how I learned the song.

I haven't been to a rock concert ever. My first tape was—and she just passed away. Cranberries' "Dream" was my favorite song. I loved it.

KG: It was everybody's favorite song for a while there.

AP: I also had a Tiffany tape and Debbie Gibson.

KG: Of course, of course.

AP: I went around singing Madonna songs and only now realize how inappropriate it would have been as a four-year-old. But, yeah, Prince and Michael Jackson, that was the kind of music. I grew up listening to B96 in Chicago, which is a lot of, at the time, pop, hip-hop, rap, probably things that were still too far from my mind at the time. It was pretty... what do you call it? It was just kind of rough, I would say, really rough material. So I think that's the music I was around, so it was a big surprise to be an opera singer. Still, I think, even for me. I still wish I could go sing with mariachi. I do.

KG: Let's talk about the operatic voices and the more classical voices in the tradition that have played a big role in your own artistry.

AP: I'd love to tell you about that. I think that in a way it was losing my voice in terms of trying to fit into school, into high school, and into different cliques of people. And finding my voice was in music. I picked up the flute. I took flute lessons, because my parents were like, "Okay, let's do flute lessons." And I said, "Well, how about a cello?" So I did band and orchestra. By the time I got to high school, I could sight-read. To get a role in the musical, you had to take voice lessons.

This is looking back, like, why I feel so incredibly aware of a sense of destiny, maybe, which is a scary thing to think of, in a way, because then you really have to make it. But my voice teacher Carl Lorenz happened to be a heldentenor. He sang with the Chicago Symphony Chorus for many years, and his friendship with the great choral conductor in the high school, Jerry Swanson. . . they created a great program.

Where I grew up in Elk Grove Village had a phenomenal, all access to instruments, orchestra, band, lessons kind of program—the things that we're being stripped of now. It was a lesson I took where Carl gave me "O mio babbino caro" to learn in my first lesson. I could read the Italian because it was so close to Spanish. As soon as I heard music, I would have an emotional feeling about it.

It's very surprising to me that many people—when they hear symphonic work or any music... there are people who don't feel anything. You have to kind of spell it out. They're maybe more moved by the words or by the visual. For me, when I hear something sonically, if you change a chord, I feel the change. I cannot tell you exactly and label it, like in music theory, but I can tell you the emotion it brings out. So as soon as that first lesson happened, he assigned this aria, he could see that I could sight-read it. And he says, "Okay, here's a list of singers I want you to go look up." And at that time, no YouTube, and you have to have money to buy CDs. So he says, "Go to the public library. Look for Maria Callas. Look for Linda Ronstadt. Look for Monserrat Caballé, look for Plácido Domingo, look for Jussi Björling, Pavarotti. Just go listen and see what you like."

Well, I found a CD of Maria Callas, and I found the name of that song, "O mio babbino caro" on this CD. I played it, and then I played the rest of the CD, and I just got hooked. It was the sound of her voice, and probably also that beautiful... It was an artistic picture in the front. It was a drawing of her face. It was a very pale face with big cat eyes. Her hair was parted off to the side. It was very beautiful and simple. So when I heard this voice and saw that visual, and felt all that emotion from all of the different pieces of music on that album, I said, okay, that's it. I need to know more and that's where I fell in love with this voice and wanted to know what she was talking about. But because of the language, I kind of knew she was talking about this universal love, this love that will conquer all, in that duet between the tenor, the way the tenor sings—Alfredo sings to Violetta in La Traviata. I just thought that's it, I want to know more. I want to do this.

Then I did musicals in high school. So it wasn't really... thinking of becoming an opera singer was like, oh yeah, I'd love to, but what does that mean? Where do you go? It's not like there's a formula. So my teacher encouraged me. Carl encouraged me to apply for different schools. He researched the top five schools and said, "Go audition and see what kind of scholarship money you can get." And I did. And I.U. was coming up, and he said, "Listen, I really would love for you to go I.U. because the voice teachers there are phenomenal. If you can get into the studio of Martina Arroyo, I think that would be really good as you learn all about... Take your music theory, but you would be with a solid person whose career reflects great singing and great attention to character." That's kind of how that happened.

Also two other things that happened at that time in my junior year, when you're thinking about schools or thinking about where to apply... I had a sociology class, and my teacher, Mr. Miller, asked me, "What do you want to be?" I was like, "You know, I'd love to apply to see if I could be a specialized surgeon." He turned and said, "Oh, so you want to help heal people?" I just kind of nodded and quietly went away and realized no, I was thinking about the money and how much you could make a year. I was just thinking I have to have money. I have to have some form of income.

I think we had a concert. She just came up to me, my Aunt "Pita." Tia Pita came up to me after the concert and said, "I've been watching you every year. This is a gift. You need to do this. Trust me, you need to do this." Then I thought, well, maybe she's got something to this. I had so many fine arts credit, so that's why I thought there would be a possibility to go to college. So I think the dream of being an opera singer happened because it was another step to getting an education. It was one more shot at something. Then all of the little somethings just are building blocks. And you still don't know after four years, but after the four years at I.U. I found the Academy of Vocal Arts through a friend. It's a tuition-free school. And four years after that I was working. It's just step by step. I graduated A.V.A. in 2006, so it's taken... it's a nice, long journey of a lot of singing, a lot of work, and a lot of trial and error.

KG: My big takeaway in listening to you telling that story of your early years and how you found music was that public arts education and the public library were two huge factors. From what I've heard, you're now a very active advocate for arts education. Tell me a little bit about that work that you're doing.

AP: Well, I like to name things in threes. I would add the teachers. I think that is critical. And I think the more we can prepare our future educators to be ready, to be imaginative, to build and give them support. That's why I want to not only lend supportive feedback or to be present and visit schools, visit with kids, and to perform for kids—or not even kids, but youth, young adults—we're not talking about creating the next big opera stars or the next big symphonic leaders. That could be great, and we definitely need that, but we also need young people who are thoughtful, who are creative, and know how to express themselves in a structured way so that the first step is not thoughtlessness or violence, or that their first access isn't violence, that they have another way of coping or having confidence in who they are and their worth and not allowing themselves to be lesser than, but equal. That is what music does.

As much as I also talk about my Mexican-American heritage, I've never felt fully Mexican or fully American, because of that kind of society struggle in the community of who is American enough or who is Mexican enough. It's really a tough and real challenge to label yourself, and I'm glad it is because I think ultimately I don't want to be labeled. That's what music does. It gives us a universal language to all come together, everyone from a different point of view or perspective or cultural perspective that is equalized through music, through collaboration, through learning a symphonic work together or singing in the chorus together.

I do like the label in terms of just celebrating the diversity and making sure that someone who feels a thread of that color or of that story line will see the door open. That's what it's about, I think. That's giving voice to others, and I think that's huge. And I think that's the point of humanity. We have to have a way of having thoughtful conversations, even if we are going to disagree. I think that when you allow and encourage a community to think in that creative way, it informs every element of the community. There's a dignity. There's a respect.

Time and time again when I think about building our audiences, building access, and having those bridges and trying to build those bridges up, I still think it all comes back to education.

KG: You are, in a lot of ways, a role model not just for the next generation of singers coming up, but how important is representation and for little girls to be able to look to you—Mexican-American little girls to be able to look to you and see themselves in you and the possibilities that are there for them?

AP: I think it's very important. I certainly have looked up to Ana María Martínez, Monserrat Caballé, even Plácido Domingo, Rolando Villazón, Ainhoa Arteta. I've looked up to these artists with a Hispanic background and thought, "Oh, maybe it's possible." I was very happy to pull together with Nadine Sierra and Isabel Leonard—which was a perchance casting of "The Marriage of Figaro" at The Met. I asked, could we... We're making history, ladies. Three Latinas in lead roles? This is kind of a big deal here. The Met loved it. They're advocating for more diversity. Everyone is. And I think that is—I hope it's proof positive when you hear an audience respond really well, and I hope it's proof positive when you see a cast get along with just a set of different players. Most of all, I think it's exciting to hear the facets of the vocal colors that we come with. Again, the heritage we come from, the stories. It's so empowering. I love diversity. More, please.

KG: I think that's the perfect ending.

This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, Valerie Martinez, and Ian Goldstein.

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