Before Stephen Costello finished graduate school, he was charming North Texas audiences. Enrolled in Academy of Vocal Arts in his hometown of Philadelphia, the operatic tenor was tapped to fill in for a night as Rodolfo in a Fort Worth opera production of La bohème.
"I'd worked with director David Gateley, who now runs the opera [studio] program at TCU. He had directed a production of it at AVA, and he was directing it for Fort Worth and he suggested me for the role," says Costello. When Costello performed a preview of the show at the Amon Carter Museum, the Fort Worth Weekly reported that hearts were fluttering.
That was exactly 10 years ago, March 2006. The night was kismet. That one performance happened to be the night Jonathan Pell, then artistic director of the Dallas Opera, attended. Afterward, Pell hired him to sing Merry Widow in Dallas the following year, but he would debut just a few weeks later when a tenor dropped out of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Costello learned the part in just seven days.
Afterward, local companies and audiences alike couldn't resist his pitch-perfect pipes — and you can't even see his smoky blue eyes or crooked grin from most seats. This year alone, he'll perform three separate times on North Texas stages. First, with Dallas Opera in Manon, then in Fort Worth in April headlining the one-night-only Caruso in Cowtown, and finally this fall he'll reprise his role as the Ishmael character, Greenhorn, in Moby Dick, composer Jake Heggie's smash-hit opera, which the Dallas Opera premiered in 2010. Again, he auditioned for the role serendipitously. When he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007 in the season opener, Lucia di Lammermoor, Heggie was in the audience.
"I knew Dead Man Walking [Heggie's debut opera], but I was unsure about doing Moby Dick. It's long, they didn't know what the music was going to sound like, so I agreed under the condition that I could withdraw after hearing the music," says Costello. A few months later, he was in San Francisco and looked up Heggie to listen to early compositions of the music. "I knew then it was either going to be the most artistically fulfilling flop or one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life."
Costello says he played it cool and invited Heggie to dinner at the Tonga Room. Heggie initially declined; it's a cheesy tiki-bar with loud bands and umbrellas in the cocktails. Later, Heggie showed up anyway and they drank hurricanes and danced in the conga line. After that, Costello was all in.
Costello lives and breathes opera. Originally he was drawn to it for its discipline. With a familial background riddled with addiction, Costello found in opera a beautiful fixation. Not a day goes by without a vocal warm up and most years slip by without vacations. He describes missing important family events, like weddings and the births of nephews or nieces. If he dates, he does so after performances in places as varied as Vienna and Fort Worth. It was opera that brought him together with his ex-wife, Ailyn Perez — another Dallas Opera favorite — who will perform the title role opposite Costello in Manon. It was opera that thrust them into the public eye as “The Jay-Z and Beyoncé of Opera,”and opera that revealed their split, when Costello was unable to sing at opening night of Verdi’s La Traviata last spring due to stress-induced acid reflux. This production? Business as usual. He describes the rehearsals as like working with an old friend. Like it is for all its stars, opera is Costello's everything.
In Jules Massenet's Manon, he plays Chevalier des Grieux, a man sheltered by his father who falls head over heels in love with the free spirit title character, headed to the convent. The star-crossed tale sees Des Grieux sweep Manon away to Paris, only to have a broken heart send him to seminary; then, love renewed sends him on a gambling bender in hopes of winning enough money to satisfy Manon's lifestyle. Then, tragedy strikes. "Manon is like heroin to him, and though he knows right from wrong, he doesn't care. He's addicted to her," says Costello.
This production at the Dallas Opera gives audiences a rare chance to see this late 19th century opéra comique by Massenet. A libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, filled with ear-tingling French dialogue, blends stunningly with Massenet's score and will be directed by longtime Dallas Opera conductor Graeme Jenkins, who returns to the podium after giving up the post three years ago.
As for Costello? He's happy to be back in Dallas, a city he speaks of with affection.
Manon opens at the Winspear Opera House at 7:30 p.m. Friday, with additional performances at 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 9; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12. More at dallasopera.org.