Jossie Pérez is not a party girl or a slut, she just plays one onstage. No, really! Just listen to how colleagues describe her:
"Jossie is a wild girl," says a former MetOpera colleague. "You never knew what gutter you'd wake up in when you went out with her."
After seeing Pérez in rehearsal, Oregon Symphony violist Charles Noble blogged that "for once you can actually imagine the men of the opera killing each other for her."
And Janice Mancini Del Sesto, general director of Boston Lyric Opera, simply says this: "Jossie is a sex goddess."
Portland, say hello to Jossie Pérez, the smoking-hot, 30-year-old Puerto Rican-born star of Portland Opera's season-opening production of Carmen , the tragic story of the original castanet-brandishing cock tease. With a heroine this cutthroat, it's easy to see why Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world: The leading character is half Lindsay Lohan (for her bratty, brazen behavior), and half Britney (for her fondness for drink and gratuitous crotch shots).
Casting frumpy, dumpy singers in the role used to be the norm. But now, audiences want skin and sex appeal onstage: enter Pérez.
Less than a decade into her professional opera career, Pérez is turning opera's original girl-gone-wild into a signature role, raking in hefty paychecks and heady reviews for the part. "I always knew that I was going to do Carmen ," Pérez says during a lunchtime hotel-lobby interview.
But how far has Pérez gone to fully inhabit the role of a sex-crazed commoner? After all, the original Carmen ended up with a stab wound to the heart. The ads for Portland Opera's production—which General Director Chris Mattaliano describes as "a very beautiful but relatively traditional Carmen , with layers of 1940s Havana"—scream, "Jossie Pérez IS Carmen!" Those ads may be more accurate than Portland Opera ever imagined.
Pérez had a quick ascent to stardom. At 23, she won the MetOpera National Council Auditions and quickly joined the Met's young artist program. At Boston Lyric Opera in 2002 she made her Carmen debut in a weekend of outdoor performances on the Boston Common that attracted 165,000 people. Reviews were ecstatic: Richard Dyer wrote in The Boston Globe that Carmen was a role that would "make Pérez rich and famous." According to Pérez, the part came all too easily for her.
"I didn't need very much preparation...to understand the role," the singer said in a 2003 interview with The Boston Globe . She wasn't lying.
As her career began to escalate, so did, by many accounts, her outlandish party lifestyle and behavior. Like Carmen, Pérez moved fluidly from man to man, boasting to colleagues and former schoolmates about her conquests onstage and off. She got a reputation for her mouth, her "independent spirit" and for doing it her way.
The line between Jossie as Carmen and Jossie as Jossie became increasingly blurred.
"In a way, in that first performance of Carmen, I was being Jossie," she told WW with surprising candor. "I was just exaggerating a part of me."
She was soon booked to sing the role in opera houses throughout Europe. She continued her relationship with the MetOpera, and scored a hit as Cherubino in the Met's 2005 The Marriage of Figaro . She signed with Columbia Artists Management Inc., one of New York's hotshot artist agencies.
Then Pérez hit some real bumps in the road. Rumors swirled about an affair with 60-something-year-old opera star Placido Domingo (who gave her an award in his 2001 "Operalia" competition), and her abrupt disappearance—mid-production—from the MetOpera roster in November of 2005 raised some eyebrows. Her calendar cooled off considerably. Retreating from her life as a cocky, runway-strutting New York diva, Pérez returned to Orlando, Fla., to be, she says, near her family. She started to settle down. And she started to grow up.
"I had a few moments where I was like, 'Fuck, do I really want to do this? This is bullshit,'" she remembers thinking about opera life during that period. "I can't believe that this is what it is."
And if Pérez has shed some of her bad-ass image, or is trying to at least, she's still getting calls for Carmen . But how she approaches the role now is different. "My...Carmen now comes from a much calmer place," she says, pointing to a recent engagement to her fiancé, a real estate agent, and her more pedestrian interests—online poker, interior design—as proof. "A lot of artists say your best work is when you're going through tragedy, and I don't know if I agree. I think you can access tragedy and craziness," Pérez says, "but not be in it.
"I...decided I want the best of both worlds," she continues, referencing her engagement and her new home in Orlando. "And if that takes away from fame, that's OK, that's OK..." but her voice trails off as she looks down at her half-eaten salad on the table. "I'm OK with that."
Does she want to get back to the Met? "I want to get back to the Met when I get to do what I want to do," she says firmly: that means leading mezzo roles. "Sadly, opera is a business, and it's not all about being a great artist, and there's so much more that goes into it."
As our lunch ends, I ask about a small Band-Aid Pérez sports on her hand. She's recently had a mole removed, she says, and describes in vivid detail the excruciating process of getting the thing frozen and extracted.
"I was sweating so hard!" she says. She grabs the table and throws her head back dramatically. "It was like he was"—and she mouths the word "fucking," barely sounding it out—"me. It was that intense."
And in her eyes, there it was: Carmen's back.