by Henry Stewart
AILYN PÉREZ’S creamy soprano elevates all the roles she sings. When she returned to Mimì, a signature part, at the Met this past winter, she entered with an abundance of beautiful tone, perfectly matched to Puccini’s luscious melodies, her lyric soprano gleaming like bullion in sunlight. In “Mi chiamano Mimì,” her voice floated through the upper register like a body in outerspace, freed from mere earthly constraints such as gravity. She was lovably sincere about her little flowers and religious devotion, and her excitement about her sudden, newfound love felt so warm it was as though she were pointing heat lamps at your ears.
But she’s beloved for more than her gorgeous singing—she’s also a sensitive actress. “The phrase ‘an embarrassment of riches’ might have been invented to describe the combination of talents that belong to Ailyn Pérez,” OPERA NEWS reported in 2012. The first-rate acting and singing came together in that Met Bohème in Act III’s “Donde lieta uscì,” in which Pérez’s shading and dynamic modulations went deeper than what’s written on the page; her final “senza rancor”s came to the edge of breaking with hurt, belying her tough front and subtly suggesting the real feeling beneath the face-saving words.
In Act IV, she evinced the appropriate weakness of her dying character, seeming frail while still in full, powerful control of her graceful instrument. It was a consummate performance—a clear indication of why she has been invited to sing the role at top houses, from the Met to La Scala. “Her vulnerability, immediately apparent, is her greatest strength,” OPERA NEWS reported in its 2017 cover story. “We root for her, as we did for Teresa Stratas or Édith Piaf.”
Pérez had studied voice since joining the chorus in high school, in a suburb of Chicago. She got her undergrad degree at Indiana University, where she studied with Martina Arroyo; she joined the Academy of Vocal Arts, in Philadelphia, in 2002, did a summer with San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program in 2005 and received a George London Foundation Award in 2006. In 2012, she received another prestigious award—the Richard Tucker—joining a list of winners that reads like a who’s-who of opera. In 2016, she received the Met’s Beverly Sills Award.
Because her family wasn’t steeped in classical music or vocal training, Pérez might have expected to make a career singing Spanish pop music, she once said, except that she’d fallen in love with opera—specifically La Traviata, and Violetta subsequently became another calling card; she has performed it at San Francisco, Covent Garden, Zurich, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Milan. She hasn’t recorded it, but a piano-accompanied performance of “È strano…. Ah, fors’è lui…. Sempre libera” on YouTube, from the Rosenblatt Recitals series in London in 2015, shows a performer at home with the role, traversing its moment-to-moment emotional shifts with sensitivity and secure vocalism.
Pérez attracts fans not just with her technical and dramatic skills but with her offstage savvy and enthusiasm, which have helped her bring opera into the twenty-first century, whether through her work with the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, which helps kids in the U.S. get an education in the arts, or through her posts to her 17,000-plus Instagram followers, highlighting the glamorous onstage spectacle of the art form as well as glimpses of her life offstage—which often seem effortlessly as glamorous. Through her talent and celebrity appeal, Pérez has quickly become one of the brightest stars of her generation.