Q & A: Soprano Ailyn Pérez on ‘Florencia en el Amazonas’ & the Importance of Spanish-Language Opera

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Paola Kudacki / Met Opera)

On Nov. 16, the Metropolitan Opera will make history by presenting only the third Spanish-language opera in the company’s trajectory. Additionally, the work in question, “Florencia en el Amazonas,” will be the very first Latin American opera presented by the company.

For the massive milestone, the company brought together a mixed cast that includes four Latin Americans in key roles, most notably soprano Ailyn Pérez in the title role. The Mexican-American soprano, who made her debut with the company in 2015, will headline her first new production with the company, where she has performed the works of Bizet, Poulenc, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, and Verdi.

OperaWire spoke to the soprano about the importance of Daniel Catán finally getting a shot at the Met, her experience with the opera, and why she believes embracing Spanish-language opera is essential to the future of the artform at large.

OperaWire: This past season you have made five role debuts. How do you pace yourself especially when all the composers are so different?

Ailyn Pérez: I think it all started with Tatiana. Then I had Elisabetta, Blanche, Rusalka, Butterfly, and then Florencia. I think now looking back I would have paced it differently. But I would even go as far back as Tosca being the first. I would say that what happened in my life is that after the pandemic many shifts have happened in our business, our timing, and our lives. And it seemed like the perfect moment to learn new repertoire, which I didn’t spend time doing. I was miserable and upset and scared, so I didn’t do that.

But I think that houses were eager to do more “Toscas” and more of the repertoire that brings in the most people. So that was “Onegin,” and “Dialogues des Carmelites,” which is a dramatic work that in its simplicity still draws audiences who are interested in Poulenc and as actors who want to see something as intense. And of course “Rusalka” has fantasy elements. All these were attractive to me.

I don’t know how I did it. I’m grateful for each company such as San Francisco allowing me to do Tosca. That was a a big milestone for me, not only for the whole country having reopened. That was our first contract together with Soloman (Howard) and me and then of course he proposed to me.

So that ended up being more of a triumph, of the soul of coming back, and more than a role debut. Also, it was special to work together and see what that could be like. Shawna Lucey was a female director and I had not worked with a female director before in her production which also animated the story of how I kill Scarpia in a very unique way.

I had her grandfather’s blessing to kill him. She put the family Crest on the dagger. So it was really special. There was a week where, after Tosca, I had “Elixir of Love” rehearsals in Chicago and then the Verdi Requiem.

All three operas were coming back. How meaningful it was for each of those houses to open in the way they opened. Obviously, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was above and beyond monumental as a time marker. I had no idea the production that was going to be that performance. I didn’t know all the details of how they were broadcasting it to the Plaza or taking footage at Ground Zero, or how it was culminating as a production beyond the stage. I’m glad I didn’t know.

We were at a distance, so it was orchestra still with a little bit of a distance, the Met chorus was a supplanted Met chorus. It was a very out-of-body experience in a way because there’s the social distancing still going on and our audience members were still masked and we had to perform this for this occasion at such a high level. I would say even if I’ve ever sung Verdi Requiem before with Yannick, this was different.

In terms of a repeat performance of things that you know, I think that because of the shutdown, as artists, it’s like everything becomes new.

OW: Over the past seasons, the Metropolitan Opera has given you leading roles. One of those was Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin.” Tell me about that experience.

AP: I was debuting Tatiana and the war had started the week we started rehearsal so one of our colleagues was flown back to Moscow. It was crazy. I’m grateful for that cast of “Onegin” and I’m grateful that I got to debut it here at the Met. James Gaffigan was conducting.

Everyone had to have a lot of patience for me because it was the first time I was singing in Russian, and it was also the first time that I was singing a role that I didn’t speak the language.

When I sing, I know what I’m saying and I know how I want to color it. And, interestingly, the Tchaikovsky did lend itself to that. It was already in the way the language works. It’s kind of already done for you and the smoother you make it and the less emphasis and bumps you make, the better. Nonetheless, if I didn’t start with the right word, it would throw me. So, everyone had to be patient with me to get it into my body.

And then once it was, we had tremendous success in the theater. I think that the audience loved to hear the singing and the music. I wish I had worked on another Tchaikovsky right after just to keep working on the language.

I think that my role models are Mirella Freni and Renee Fleming, of course they they had sung Tatiana to great success. So I knew that vocally it was a great idea.
But as an artist, I don’t know what I’m capable of until I go through it. So I couldn’t feel that out until it was before the audience and once we had a run. And I would say that that experience, as challenging as it was for me, is what helped me grow into the understanding that I could trust myself, that I could trust that anything I would do new would probably never be as hard as that one.

OW: Did Tatiana help you when it was time to learn “Rusalka?”

AP: Yes. I knew not to panic. And it taught me that the next time you don’t have to panic, you just have to untangle it a little bit and spend more time. So when I had the chance to debut “Rusalka” in Santa Fe, I was a week late and I had to catch up, but once I expressed I needed some time to put this together in my brain, it went well. And then we were just in a flow and I was connecting.

“Rusalka” has always been a dream because I knew it would fit, but you don’t know how it will fit.

Lidiya Yankovskaya was our conductor who speaks Russian. Czech is very different. So I worked ahead with a speaker of the Czech language who sings. I worked on how to bring out the text because what is written in the score is not necessarily how you would say it. The accents aren’t musically written in sometimes and sometimes they are. And then you have to decide if you are going to make it smoother or more native sounding. So I decided to make it more native sounding and it was a wonderful experience.

I was faster at it and that is because I learned so much through “Eugene Onegin” and singing Tatiana.

Also Czech is a Slavic language, but it’s written in Latin letters. So once I knew those sounds, I think it was easier. And I think that’s coming from Spanish.
Spanish is the five vowels, and what you see is what you say. Italian, you have some open and some closed. French is a little more complicated because some of the letters you see on a page, you don’t pronounce. German is Sonic. And I love to sing in all these languages and I pushed myself to not get locked into anything.

OW: How do you feel after doing these in Slavic roles? 

AP: I’ve tried as much as I can to sing other repertoire to keep myself open to the colors and the possibilities of doing what’s unexpected. I always choose hard things.

Looking back, I didn’t embrace failure. I panicked. But I think that the joy and singing come from embracing and accepting as an artist you will fail. And then you can correct and then maybe you say correctively I will never do this again. But it’s never been that bad, and it’s been really rewarding and not a failure at all, and in fact, a triumph of learning more. Rusalka for me was child’s play because of how far you’re willing to play with your imagination and your physicality. There’s so much you can play with and I loved it.

OW: Afterwards, you did “Madama Butterfly.” How was that experience?

AP: Nothing can prepare you for “Butterfly.” Nothing. I didn’t know that there was no break in Act two. All that I had was about one minute and 30 seconds of a set piece that had to move, and then hurry up and keep going. And by the way, I’m on stage for it all. I’m waiting. I’m overlooking Suzuki and my boy Dolore sleeping, and I’m reacting to the chorus and then the birds.

The only place I cry is when I hear those birds. I think that’s when she believes that they’re going to be together. My director Ferzan Özpetek took me through it.

It was also great to have Dan Ettinger as my conductor who knows “Butterfly” inside and out. He led it with such Italianita and just so clearly. He carved everything out in the score and he’s living it. Therefore, it imbued my “Butterfly” in a very special way. And the musical team there and the acoustics at San Carlo were so special.

I’m glad that that was my first experience because it is going to be hard to top and to let go of.

Another interesting experience of San Carlo’s “Butterfly” was working with a real boy. What I love about being on stage with younger people is that they have great opinions. One of his comments to his mom was like, “How do I sleep if she’s singing?” And I told him, that’s exactly right. And then I could explain how theater works. And he had such an honest and immediate way of acting. I’m going to miss that. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that again. And that’s something that you build.

Now I know what it takes to be prepared for me to feel joy and not be anxious and scared and panicking and stressed. That is something I learned. That was the last step to achieving an understanding in my whole body of the kind of preparation that I need to have to lead. All of my career I’ve been waiting for someone to lead me or to affirm and say yes, that’s how you do it or to say no and correct me and say no, this is how we’re going to do it – instead of building that from within.

OW: Do you think Bel Canto helped in any way in your development?

AP: In Bel Canto, you have to decide your tempi and your color.

You have to keep an ethereal quality to sing piano and be able to crescendo. And in Verdi, you have to be able to do that. With Elisabetta, if you can’t float the last duet and hold high B’s forever, then you can’t do it. And she taught me a lot because she is written lower.

I sang a lot of “Traviata,” Alice Ford, Amelia, Desdemona, and Gilda, which was key. My maestro always said to start with Gilda. Every Verdi soprano should start with Gilda because he builds the Soprano around how that one was built and so far it’s been true.

And that’s “Butterfly” too. If you don’t sing it in Bel Canto style, I can imagine it will ruin voices because you just get caught up in the emotion. You have to be smart because Puccini put everything in it.

OW: After all these role debuts, you come to “Florencia en el Amazonas.” How does Daniel Catán’s music relate to these other works?

AP: He is a gift of a composer whose music has been described to me as influenced by Puccini, Debussy, and Ravel.

And so I was thinking, let’s see what’s going on. At first, I heard a little bit of a love theme from “Turandot” and now I don’t hear anything but Catán. There are what could be called themes or leitmotifs of certain characters. The Amazon has a musical character. The beauty of Manaus has a character. Florencia’s music in her search for Cristobal has musical themes and love has a theme. And I think there’s also rebirth. And these are all so beautifully scored.

Catán wrote fantastic woodwind parts to evoke the tropical birds and the sounds of what you might hear in the Amazon. So I think symbolically, I’m sitting in rehearsal thinking to myself, did Marcela write the text under this music or did the music happen first? It’s so incredible.

In one of the scenes in Act one, there’s a moment between Paula and Alvaro. They’re the older couple and they’re bickering and they’re throwing fits at each other. And she corks a bottle of rosé and then a magical something happens where the rosé bottle ends up in the Amazonas.

And then Riolobo comes back and they’re like, no, we want that one, the one that they just lost. And Riolobo says the line, if it’s gone, if the bottle has gone into the river, there’s no coming back. I would highlight that line as foreshadowing because in the storm scene, we’re going to lose someone and we don’t know if they’re going to come back. But moments like that, where you get hints are amazing.

OW: How would you describe this work?

AP: First of all, we have a Mexican composer. The heroine is a Brazilian diva. So what does that mean? I can tell people it’s a Mexican opera. But, then there is some Puccini. Some “Boheme” and “Turandot.”

But, then there is a bolero, which is so important.

In the score, there is this rebirth idea. That theme music appears in a minor way at the top of Paula’s aria in Act two. That theme will also be heard as Rosalba and Arcadio are wrestling with each other. You can hear the Amazon, the uncertainty, the renewal, and death. You can hear all these unresolved things because if they say no to each other, I think those things will remain unresolved because I think there’s an attraction there. It’s the beauty of the language that embraces people.

OW: You’ve sung Spanish songs, but this is now your first Spanish opera. How does it feel to sing in your native tongue?

AP: It feels like returning to your roots and those roots never change. This is the dilemma that Florencia is talking about when she leaves her roots and comes back. She forgot herself. So I think that when we’re singing in my native tongue, whatever first language was anybody’s first language, it feels like a fragrance.

You have memories and you even act differently. I sound different, and when I’m speaking in Spanish, I feel empowered. I don’t feel like I’m trying and I don’t feel like I’m out of my center. And that happens with the language.

I was born and raised in the United States speaking English. I do feel good speaking English, but when I speak Spanish, it’s like there’s something in my spirit and in my being where I think I’m fully here. When I’m speaking in English, I’m always trying to get people to understand me.

OW: What does singing “Florencia en el Amazonas” at the Metropolitan Opera mean to you and the Latino population?

AP: It’s a milestone for Marcela Fuentes-Berain and her libretto. “Florencia” has been produced everywhere and now to reach this stage under these circumstances with this cast, I think it’s gonna be special.

Andrea Puente Catán has been a champion of Catán’s works as well as other Latino works. She has also advocated for works like the Frida Kahlo opera and any Spanish-speaking operas that have been performed in San Diego, LA, or San Francisco. She’s had a hand in making sure it happens and that they’re being heard.

As a Mexican-American,it iss an honor. For my parents, they’re not ready for it. I’ve said it to them, but I don’t think they will get it until they are in the theater. They have to experience it.

What’s interesting about this opera is that Florencia’s journey starts at Leticia, Colombia, and ends up at the Teatro de Manaus in Brazil. This is a love letter and a reflection of not only the language but of the cultural heritage and idealism and spiritual understanding of nature. And the value in seeing that an opera can be empowering to anyone who identifies as Latin, Latino Latinx, or even indigenous people.

There’s a mentality and there’s a cultural way of how you behave or how you think, that is not always featured in museums, is not always featured in paintings, and is not always featured in operatic repertoire. And we’re finally here.

It’s an honor and a big responsibility to highlight that for the public who’s coming and to be a part of it.

OW: Why was this the right moment for you to sing “Florencia en el Amazonas?”

AP: For me, it’s coming at a really good time in my life. I think that Florencia is kind of Marschallin-like in that she’s a person that is not living her personal story from the top. She’s kind of over the world and human-to-human relationships. She’s seeking her Cristobal, but it becomes this voyage and pilgrimage of the soul and maybe more within herself. She is also wrestling with a personal crisis.

I think that she becomes this diva and this character that everyone assumes to know like a celebrity. When you see a celebrity, you say hi to them as if you know them and they obviously don’t know you. And then they’re telling you about your life when that’s not what happened in your life. So I think that that’s what she’s finding in her life and that’s why she is so reclusive.

And it isn’t until Rosalba, the journalist who’s obsessed with writing Florencia’s Story, that something in the music shifts in Florencia to reveal herself to Rosalba. When Rosalba first meets Florencia, Rosalba is angry because Florencia almost held up the boat because she was late to get on.

So I think, I think that that element in our lives, whether you’re a young person like Rosalba trying to decide to say no to love and anything else but your career and to idolize people who you think are doing that and then to find out later, actually no, they were in love too. And that love will find you no matter what even if you’re trying to renounce love.

So now in my personal life, I’m happily married, I feel rooted, and I now know what it takes to be prepared artistically in a way that I can lead. I know I don’t feel like I’m debuting and I want to tell everybody about it. Before I just needed some place to try it first to know if it would work and then I would invite people.

OW: Tell me about your collaboration with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. 

AP: I’m happy to be alongside Yannick, after we collaborated in different circumstances. When he debuted in Salzburg, we did “Romeo et Juliette.” I remember that he taught me about the freedom you can have when you know something so well from within.

Now after so many years, I can tell Yannick, “Let’s go here more and he’s like, oh yeah.”

He’s very intuitive and now we can fly. In the first rehearsals we had with him and we had the orchestra, it just flowed. And I know we’re going to be intensely together. It’s only going to grow.

OW: Nancy Fabiola Herrera told me that during rehearsals, there is an energy and emotion that hasn’t been felt in other productions before at the Met due to all the Latinos involved in this production. You previously performed with Nadine Sierra and Isabel Leonard in a production of “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Tell me how this experience is similar to now performing “Florencia en el Amazonas.”

AP: It’s similar because there’s a joy and there’s an ease of being with people from the same culture. With Nadine and Isabel, it’s their energy that changes my mind about so many possibilities. They’re very empowered artists and I think when we met I was still trying to find myself. So when we were together, it was like boom, we’re here. We lined up and the energy was there. But that’s where I was in my maturity at the time.

Now, I think it’s that I’ve shifted for sure and that everyone’s energy is ready. Everyone’s feeling mature, everyone’s prepared, everyone’s joyous and they can’t wait to tell the story. And I think that’s the difference.

This story is about five love stories. Each character is written beautifully. Like they will have lines that sore. So I think there’s a personal satisfaction in just singing it. Sometimes a lot of operas depend on one love story and the enemy or a villain.

Here we have seven characters that are all important, all lyrically written, all have a profile of something to say and there’s richness in each one that’s unheard of. So that changes a room and I think artistically it puts everyone in a better space.

Artists love to feel empowered to shine and I think that there’s a truth that no role is a small role. But when all roles are built to shine, our hearts open up. So I think that’s also what helped the room.

OW: Tell me about working with this incredible cast and why you think it’s important that the Met has cast an international cast including non-Latinos.

AP: First of all Gabriela Reyes, she’s up and coming. Mario Chang, I sang with him in a rehearsal of “Elixir of Love.” He’s up and coming too, and just to hear these two voices together sing a love duet is just incredible. It’s really special and I’ve never heard a love duet like this. There’s an unapologetic sensuality that’s not overdone and it’s just perfect. Catán is Catán and it’s in the rhythm of the Manaus. So they have a beautiful central line in there.

And yes this is an international cast. In the past, Daniel Catán has voiced in his interviews that he wants his music to be international. I mean, we have Greer Grimsley, Mattia Olivieri and Michael Chioldi.

I think that sometimes we can get caught up with who’s singing. And I remember this because when the Selena movie came out, JLO was cast. I remember getting caught up in the reasons why someone would feel like that’s not representing me. I know that the reason we have those thoughts is because there’s such disparity that we’re fighting instead of uniting behind and supporting one another.

So I say listen, keep uniting, and keep forging forward to create not only the educational opportunities but also the financial opportunities that will empower more artists from all of our backgrounds to be in prominent roles at the Met so that it doesn’t just have to be a Latino cast.

Music is a unifying language.

OW: Tell me about working with Mary Zimmerman.

AP: Mary Zimmerman has created a production and a rehearsal room of focus. We become each other’s audience. If you’re in the room, you’re the audience. So we get to practice and it’s a different vibe.

She listens to what we’re saying, how we’re saying it. She knows the words, she knows the music. She’s inspired. She’s detailed. She’s theatrical. And it’s my first new production at the Met. But it’s also one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

The team has also made sure to reflect Latin American culture. The artistic team went to the museums to see collections of embroidery work to reflect Wahacan traditions.

OW: This is the first time that you’re headlining in a production that you have billboards, you have an HD coming up, and you have all of this around you. What are you feeling?

AP: It feels like I want to speak to the Spanish public. I want Telemundo, Univision. I want more and I want everybody. I would love for this to create even more. I want a revival but not next season. Give it time to bring it back. But I can’t wait for this to be brought back or toured.

But again, I want to see Mario (Chang) and Gabby (Reyes) do “La Traviata.” That’s what I wish for in this cast, as we’re all embodying these roles. I want everyone to keep reimagining that this sound does translate to the core repertoire that you want to hear.

What it means to see my image is that I always dreamed and I never knew it would be the gift of Florencia. So it feels so good to my soul and it feels like God’s love letter to me. He’s like, here you go. And then speak for your people, speak about your family, and enjoy this.

And what will it mean for me in the future? Our country is not designed to support artists. There’s nothing helping artists. I wish there were a minister of culture.

We’re grateful we have young people who love this art form and would go travel and see people and get into the theater. Opera is an experience and everyone comes to it differently. But for the most part, it’s always personal.

I wouldn’t have become an opera singer because I didn’t even know what that meant. So for me, I’m personally always inviting people to come to the opera because when you interact personally, when you see someone on stage, you think, that could be me.

I remember going to my first opera in Verona. I was thinking, these people are gods, they’re Titans. And then you meet an opera star and they’re little. And you think, how is this sound coming out of these little people? But then you meet them. And they are so personable.

Opera has to be personal because it is luxurious and it’s not going to get cheaper. You have to be personally invested in it. I don’t know how else it can be.

OW: You talk about Telemundo and Univision. You also did the James Corden show years ago. Is that something you would want to see?

AP: You know, the late shows are right here. I would love (Stephen) Colbert to invite us over. He loves opera.

When we did The James Corden Show many years ago, the audience didn’t have a cue to applaud. They just felt it. You didn’t have to explain anything. There were no supertitles. And I would love to see opera back in this way.

OW: What do you say about the Met’s new approach to repertoire?

AP: I’m glad and grateful that we’re seeing “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” this year, that we’re seeing “El Niño,” and we’re seeing “Florencia” debut because other companies have been championing new work. So it’s great to see the big leader embracing and going with the times.