Dec. 27, 2023

True to Herself

A conversation with soprano Ailyn Pérez
Ailyn Pérez joins HGO after taking center stage at the Met. Photo credit: Dario Acosta

Like her character at HGO this season, Madame Butterfly, the enchanting soprano Ailyn Pérez is undergoing a transformation. 


At the time of our chat, she’s in New York, rehearsing something else: her role debut as the title character in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s a big moment. Expectations are sky-high. Ailyn can be seen on billboards throughout the city. The opera, which made its world premiere at HGO in 1996, is the first Spanish-language work the Met has presented in more than a century, and as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Ailyn feels the weight of that.  


But she feels ready—not only when it comes to preparing for the role, but also for playing the lead in other ways. “At this stage,” she says, “I’ve finally figured out what it really takes to arrive on the first day and be a leader, to be an encourager.” The opportunity, she explains, has come at the right moment in her career. A moment of evolution.  


As we talk, I’m struck by Ailyn’s honesty and vulnerability—the kind that only comes paired with confidence. She tells me about a challenge she encountered making her role debut as Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly this past September, at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. Something kept throwing her off at the top of Act Three, when Butterfly realizes that Pinkerton has finally returned to Japan.  


“Suzuki!” Ailyn would sing. “Dove sei?” At that moment, something would interrupt her rhythm: seeing Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife. “If Kate is anywhere in my visuals, I’m going to lose it,” Ailyn explains. “I kept telling the director, Please move her! Put her in the darkness. Put her in the wings. Put her in the orchestra. Don’t put her in front of me.”  


I understand what she’s saying. To fully inhabit her role, to feel Butterfly’s truth and continue in her steadfast belief that she’ll be reunited with Pinkerton, Ailyn cannot yet have her eyes on the character who embodies his new life—and Butterfly’s destruction.  


Ailyn is that kind of artist. I will never forget seeing her superb Tosca in San Francisco, or her astounding Rusalka this summer in Santa Fe. She leaves it all on the stage, reaching into herself as she seeks the truth in the characters she portrays. And she brings a vision that puts her in the pantheon of great sopranos.  


In the case of Cio-Cio-San, that vision comes down to one word: agency. Ailyn doesn’t play Butterfly as a 15-year-old, or as a victim, or as crazy. “I don’t think that she’s a fool, you know? I don’t think she’s a fool.”  

In Ailyn’s interpretation, Butterfly’s path is her choice. She is so in love that she has made the decision to honor that above all else, and having done that, nothing can convince her that she and Pinkerton won’t be together, “Un bel dì.”  


We reflect on the way others try to convince Cio-Cio-San that her marriage is not, and never was, real. But Butterfly knows the incontrovertible truth. It is right there, embodied in her child with Pinkerton. “Her love, I think, personifies into her son,” says Ailyn. “And she says, When your father comes back, your name will be Joy. Gioia, you know? And I think that she’s waiting for that rebirth.” 


I ask Ailyn about her own rebirth, as she moves toward heavier roles. With candor, she admits the  
rite of passage has, at times, been scary. Taking on the famously difficult role of Madame Butterfly, “I thought, What’s it going to be like? Can I do it? Can I get through it?” And then she did, and she realized:  
“I don’t have to be afraid. It’s perfect. It fits.” 


She thinks of the great Cio-Cio-Sans she’s seen. Now she’s one of them, and she cannot wait to return to Houston to perform the role again with Patrick Summers, whom she calls a “visionary,” at the podium. She knows she can live up to “the way Puccini loves to pile on all the colors at the same time,” that she possesses “the emotional depth” the role requires.  


And—different from before—she knows those things not because someone else said them, but because they are her truth. “Before, I was waiting for a leader, a maestro, a director to inform me, to give me the affirmation instead of it coming from within. And as I’ve grown and matured, I’ve realized, I was waiting for the outer world to affirm something that only I can give myself.” Welcome to your next era, Ailyn. It’s going to be the best yet.  

about the author
Khori Dastoor
General Director and CEO