Stephen Costello’s Most Valuable Friend
Celebrated opera tenor Stephen Costello has been both blessed and betrayed by his voice.
Stephen Costello hails from a solidly working class Philadelphia family. His love of singing began in the chorus at George Washington High School, and flourished at the University of the Arts. He was admitted to Philadelphia’s world-renowned opera finishing school, the Academy of Vocal Arts with little previous opera experience, because Bill Schuman, who would become one of his mentors, heard something in his voice. Costello is now firmly established in opera’s big leagues, both in the US and abroad. But when he comes home, there’s not too much interest in his latest artistic conquests, and he says he likes it like that.
Stephen Costello: I did a World Broadcast in London, and I come back and I walk in the door and I asked my parents “Did you see it?” “Nah, nah, we missed it, but um, could you put the trash out while you’re home.” You know, “The dog has to go out, so just take it for a walk.” And it’s something like that that just really keeps you humble. I think they understand that I’m good at what I do, but I like being normal when I’m at home and that’s really what you are, everyone’s the same. It doesn’t matter what you do or how much success you have when you go home you’re part of the family.
Costello: I like honest people. I like people that do what I do for the same reasons, because they like doing it and I love working on stage with people that aren’t thinking so much about themselves and their performance as they are about the whole.
And indeed, Costello’s attitude is not unusual in this latest generation of star opera singers, who are motivated more by music than by a desire for self-aggrandizement.
Costello: I didn’t even like listening to myself speak. I’m very self-conscious about that kind of thing. I just know that I love singing and that I enjoy the work, enjoy making music, so that’s what keeps me going. I don’t focus on the color of my voice, or the sound of my voice, and it’s… At one point, I did. I was focusing on trying to make a beautiful sound, and a color and… My teacher had to explain to it to me, he said “Well you already have a good color, your color is what people like.” He goes, “You need to stop thinking about that and just sing.”
Key to finding his own identity as a singer was accepting that he could not and should not aspire to be his heroes.
Costello: Whoever you listen to, you wanna do that. You wanna try to do what they’re doing, and you want that sound. You’re not gonna have that sound, those people sound like themselves, and you have to sound like yourself. You’re given the sound at birth, or whatever it is, that’s your sound.
AJC: How long did it take you to realize that? Because that’s a difficult thing—
Costello: That my sound is my sound?
AJC: Well, no, that you are who you are.
AJC: That you can’t be anyone else, ’cause it’s something that we all have to, at some point, take on board.
Costello: Oh, you know you still… It doesn’t matter. I do appreciate other people and what they can do and I do it without being jealous. I think jealousy is like something that’ll just destroy—not just a singer, but anybody in general.
AJC: The most useless human emotion.
Costello: Yeah, so I’d rather go out and listen to someone and be like “Wow, why are they special?” Like if someone comes on the scene and they’re like the new it person, it’s like I wanna go and see their performance ’cause I wanna figure out what it is that people are attracted to.
Costello’s steadfast commitment to self-improvement was instilled early on, principally at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Today, he says, he’s still learning every day.
Costello: When people gain a certain amount of success, they stop studying, they stop taking lessons, and then they start to decline. It’s like an athlete. Michael Phelps said it the best when he said, “If I took a week off it took me three weeks to get back to where I was right before I took that week off.” You are an Olympic athlete, in a way, and you have to keep working in order to keep this easy and fresh, and vibrant.
But Costello would learn the hard way that technique only goes so far. After separating from his wife, the equally successful opera soprano, Ailyn Pérez, in 2014 he was forced to back out of a Metropolitan Opera production of La Traviata when his throat went into spasm.
Costello: You don’t realize that you hold your emotions here, and you also hold emotions in here. When you’re stressed you don’t realize that you’re singing through the stress and you’re trying to overcome it, because you don’t realize that you’re stressed all the time. Recently, I’d say, just in the past few months alone I finally was able to just release all the stress and my reflexes under control, and I feel like I have more agility in my throat than I’ve had in years.
AJC: So now when you open your mouth, what you thought was gonna come out always comes out?
Costello: Always comes out, yeah.
AJC: That must be remarkable.
Costello: Everything just makes it easier. Everything is just easier. It’s like, somebody once said to me, “It’s like you found your friend again.” ‘Cause it’s your friend. You nurture your friend, you take care of it, and then you just found it.
AJC: Did you have ambition 10, 12, 15 years ago when this all started and if so, how has the reality been different from the dream?
Costello: Yeah, 15 years ago I wanted to sing in every major theater in the world. I wanted to work with this person, and work with this person, I wanted to do this… Now I’m thinking more like I wanna do more artistic things. I don’t wanna sing in a place just to sing and make money. I wanna sing and have great artistic experiences, ’cause it’s the only way to grow. I wanna sing with people that are better than me. Sing with people that you’re intimidated by when you sing with them, because they’re gonna make you work harder. They’re the types of people I wanna sing with. They’re my ambitions.
Already starring with some of the world’s biggest opera stars, Stephen Costello is well on his way to exceeding his ambitions.