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By Alejandra Serna, Florida Grand Opera

It’s opera time again! Florida Grand Opera is opening its 72nd season with one of opera’s biggest crowd pleasers, Puccini’s La bohème. To top off what is sure to be a fast selling production, the lead role of Mimì is being sung by Mexican-American soprano Ailyn Pérez, who recently received of one the industry’s highest honors – the Richard Tucker Award. Known as “the Heismann Trophy of opera,” this coveted prize is given annually to one highly accomplished artist on the brink of an international career. Pérez comes to Miami, where she last performed in 2008, to sing in her only U.S. production this season before jetting off to Europe. La bohème opens this Saturday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Soprano Ailyn Pérez as Mimì in La bohème; photo by Robert Millard for LA Opera.

FGO: How did you become involved with music?
AP: It was in high school. I loved to participate in high school musicals and I had already been part of the band/orchestra playing the flute and the tenor sax. My voice teacher happened to be a Heldentenor, which is that Wagnerian heroic type of tenor. I learned the fundamentals of breathing and signing classical music. I never knew, though, that I would end up being a professional opera singer. So, it’s been a pretty extraordinary journey.

FGO: What was your first role?
AP: In high school, I auditioned for the musical The Pirates of Penzance, and, of course, I auditioned for Mabel, the lead role. But I was also a sophomore and, thankfully, I did get the role of Edith. Then, I played Sarah in Guys and Dolls and Reno Sweeny in Anything Goes. Later, I auditioned for university with the hopes of a musical scholarship. I went to Indiana University and then went on to study opera at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

FGO: Why opera?
AP: Sometimes you may think “how does one become an opera singer?” Why not pop music, maybe a salsa band or mariachi singer, or a singer-songwriter. Everybody comes across music in their own unique way. I came across music with a love of symphonic work, band, and concert band music. Also, I knew my voice. Karaoke is my nightmare, so I knew that pop music, as much as I wish it could be me, it’s just really not. I found that classical music just came kind of natural to me. There is also so much depth to the music. You can live with a piece for over 20 years and still discover something new. So that’s why I chose to become an opera singer and also because I love traveling. Opera is a wonderful way to get to see the world. .
You have portrayed the character of Mimì a number of times. How has the role evolved since you first performed it and how do you see her today?
The role of Mimì has evolved a bit, she is quite a simple character and, actually, playing someone who is very simple and fine is probably the most difficult things for me to do. It’s not comedy, it’s not comic timing, it’s very dramatic, but it can’t be melodramatic. It can’t be overdone. Actually, here at FGO, David Gately is the director. He directed my first Mimì when I was attending the Academy of Vocal Arts in 2005 – seven years ago. I’ve played Mimi four times recently and I realized that sometimes it’s all about the props. I’m really klutzy naturally so, sometimes, I won’t get the candle and drop it where it’s supposed to be dropped. In one performance, I dropped the key where the tenor had no possibility of finding it, so we kind of mimed the key. It’s still kind of a wonderful growing experience.

FGO: How has winning the Richard Tucker Award and recent media exposure affected your life?
AP: I am so grateful for the recent major events in my humble career – to be receiving the Richard Tucker Award, to be featured in Vanity Fair alongside my husband, and for the upcoming projects we have together. I just feel so blessed, incredibly fortunate, and inspired. To carry on the Richard Tucker legacy is a wonderful way to go out into the world and I am just so grateful to the foundation. I just love singing and performing and it’s such an honor. It’s hard to put into words.
What has been the greatest influence on your career?
The strongest influence in my life and career is the love of my parents and the values that they instilled in me; and my husband. My very, very close family influences my career. When I speak, I can hear my sister’s voice, my mom’s voice. I am carrying the stories of my family and that’s what I try to infuse in the characters I portray. That’s who I am, that’s where I come from. The kind of people that my parents are, that’s what inspire me.

FGO: If you could be anything other than an opera singer what would you be?
AP: A psychic … just kidding! If I weren’t an opera singer and I had a wish of some other thing I could do or be, I would definitely wish I could be an extraordinary chef; sample all these fantastic creations and travel the world. But that’s probably still influenced by the fact that I am an opera singer and all I can think about is food and music.

FGO: How was the Cupcake Wars experience?
AP: One of my favorite moments over this last year has been guest judging on Cupcake Wars. I hoped you tuned in to it. It was a wonderful experience. One of the funny things that happened, I’ll tell you, is they said “Ms. Perez you’ll be sampling 27 different cupcakes and you don’t have to eat it all. You don’t have to taste them ….” And I said, “No, no, no … you don’t understand. I travelled all the way to California to do this taping. I’ll taste all the cupcakes, no problem.” It was a lot of fun.

FGO: We hear you bake?
AP: Okay, confession! I’m a food fan. I’m still getting comfortable in the kitchen. My husband is real social, so he’ll invite people over for grilling. So he’s a Bobby Flay man and I like to download Gordon Ramsay videos and follow everything he says. He gives you the basic instruction, which is very doable for me. It’s fun when we come across recipes and try to out cook and out bake each other. It’s not often when we are in our own kitchen with our own tools, so I eat out a lot.

Tickets for La bohème start at just $11 and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 1800.741.1010 or online at www.FGO.org.

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