Talking Sinatra, stress, and separating with Stephen Costello

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Tenor Stephen Costello channels a little Frank Sinatra for his role as the Duke in the Met's production of "Rigoletto," set in 1960s Las Vegas.

T he other day at the Metropolitan Opera, Philadelphia tenor Stephen Costello was about to sing his second-act aria in a Rigoletto rehearsal when Plácido Domingo walked in, just to watch.

"Which wasn't intimidating at all," Costello said with molto irony.

But the elder tenor-turned-baritone later ran into Costello in the Met cafeteria - a little hard to imagine - praised him to the skies, suggested he investigate a certain kind of phrasing favored by Enrico Caruso. "He's like this grandfather . . . he just makes you feel so good," Costello said. Domingo went on to send Costello an Oct. 20 opening-night card (handwritten) with a bottle of champagne.

Nice company. But even though Philadelphia first heard Costello sing Rigoletto at the Academy of Vocal Arts, the current Met production in which he's featured through Nov. 10 is updated to 1960s Las Vegas. That means Costello has to do something no opera school teaches: Act like Frank Sinatra. Though he's back living in Philadelphia, he was interviewed in his temporary Upper West Side apartment, where he sometimes hangs out with Eric Owens, Philadelphia's other contribution to the Metropolitan Opera.

So how do you transpose Rigoletto's Duke of Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas?

 

I've always had a fascination with Frank Sinatra. You have to have this aura about you, that you don't care what people think. He's kind of untouchable. . . . One thing about studying at AVA, I would like to have had more acting classes. I've learned that with on-the-job experience.

And you've taken some grief for your stage deportment.

The first time I did Anna Bolena, I took a lot of flak for being . . . hunched. But that's what [stage director] David McVicar wanted. If somebody asks why I'm doing something on stage, it's probably because that's what I was told to do. Singing as an American, we're sometimes hindered because we didn't grow up bilingual. It's easier to be an actor . . . when you can take another language and mold it.

One funny bit in "Rigoletto" is when the Duke is disguised as a student and waiting for his girlfriend. In that scene, you're preparing to present yourself, self-consciously unzipping your jacket, crossing your legs to look cool.

I stole that from a terrible movie titled Along Came Polly. . . . There's a scene where Ben Stiller is sitting on the bed and Jennifer Aniston is in the bathroom. He's fidgeting with his shirt. He unbuttons it. . . . He has to do it and look sexy, but in an awkward way.

Some of your best theatrical work has been incredibly subtle, like the final scene of Jake Heggie's "Moby-Dick."

There's this idea that singers have to do these big dramatic choices that have nothing to do with what's going on in the scenes . . . to accentuate the high notes. I think it takes away. I did La Bohème in Cincinnati with Jonathan Miller and it was so simple, beautiful and touching . . . just Rodolfo and Mimi in two chairs, afraid to touch each other.

Late last year, you and your wife, soprano Ailyn Perez, announced you were divorcing. You also made a last-minute cancellation of a Met "La traviata" when you momentarily lost your voice due to muscle spasms.

 

You don't realize what stress can do to your body. . . . I wasn't in the best health and . . . I didn't trust anybody, anybody who was part of the situation that I was in prior. I was going to prove that I can do this without anybody. But those moments are life-changing. If I'd had a successful show that night, I would've continued on that path and ended up in a darker place, and more alone than later on. You're told things at the most random times. And you have to listen to them.

With the marriage dissolving, you're also losing an artistic partner, since you two were often cast together.

 

Well, it's not like we were Simon and Garfunkel. You gain more artistic ideas by getting a chance to work with other people and not being stuck. . . . Once when we did Traviata, we had a director . . . who said you guys have done it together before so just do what you do. . . . But I don't want to do what I usually do. I want to do something that's part of the production.

I did Traviata this summer at the Hollywood Bowl and I think it was the most I've ever enjoyed it. Maybe I enjoyed it for the first time. Normally, Alfredo is a thankless role.

dstearns@phillynews.com.