Beneath Juliette’s girlish vivacity shines the strength of a goddess.
She begs the sweetly joyous flame of youth to endure, but romance turns it to ashes.
Soprano Ailyn (pronounced Eileen) Pérez seeks to capture that strength within Charles Gounod’s sweeping melodies in “Romeo et Juliette.” The Shakespearian tragedy opens at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday, July 16.
First performed in Paris in 1867, “Romeo et Juliette” is the French composer’s second-most popular work behind “Faust.”
“It’s intense, but it’s beautiful,” Pérez said. “It’s because she’s heroic; she sees past the violence. She’s not being the obedient little girl. She realizes he’s the enemy.”
But this Juliette is no pushover.
“She says if you love me, I’ll send for someone and we’ll get married,” Pérez said.
The 2016 recipient of the $50,000 Beverly Sills Award, Pérez was born in Chicago. She made her Salzburg Festival debut as Juliette in 2008.
Pérez heard her first opera at 15 when her high school voice teacher played an aria from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” on the piano. A flute player, she had to take voice to audition for a coveted role in “Bye Bye Birdie.”
“This is how I didn’t make friends in high school,” she said with a laugh. “The voice teacher said I should sing lead.”
Pérez loved the camaraderie, the friendships and the chance to perform.
She won a scholarship to the prestigious Indiana University School of Music, then auditioned for the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts.
Her parents said, “OK, she’s going to college and she’s getting a music degree. What will that do?” Pérez said.
Although college also exposed her to jazz, she gravitated toward the classics.
“I have no idea why I chose opera,” she said. “I think it’s the language, the drama and the potential one day to sing in front of an audience.”
“Romeo and Juliet” has inspired music from symphonic poems to Broadway musicals and film scores.
” ‘Romeo and Juliet’ sticks out,” Pérez said. “We all know the story. It’s accessible. Sometimes you have to explain ‘La Traviata,’ but ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a universal story.”