Opera soprano Ailyn Perez (pronounced I-lean) remembers the pivotal moment in second grade that music -- and a teacher named Mr. Jacobs -- rocked her world at Salt Creek Elementary School in Elk Grove Village.
"We were sitting in the classroom," Perez told us. "And there was clapping and shaking and students counting out loud. I realized that this was my first music class. From that moment forward, music education was a part of my public school life. I really just loved music."
Musical matchYou can catch the operatic talents of Elk Grove High School graduate Ailyn Perez when PBS presents "Live From Lincoln Center: The Richard Tucker Opera Gala" at 8 p.m. Thursday. For Perez, being onstage at Lincoln Center was surrealistic.
"The first videos I ever saw of opera were the earlier Richard Tucker galas," she said. "Since then, I've met some of those performers I saw on those videos."
Perez and her tenor husband Stephen Costello, above, are the first married couple to win the prestigious $30,000 Richard Tucker Award. Costello won it in 2009.
"He's a great tenor," she said, "and I think he's a ridiculously good-looking guy. He keeps me up on my game, too."
She didn't know it at the time, but that seemingly innocuous moment transformed Perez's life.
"I wasn't the obvious candidate to be an opera singer," she said.
Maybe not. But Perez, whose parents came from Mexico, still became an international opera superstar.
Last spring, Perez, 33, became the first Latina to win the $30,000 Richard Tucker Award, given to a rising talent in the opera world. You can see her receive it when the awards show is broadcast by PBS at 8 p.m. Thursday. It's titled "Live From Lincoln Center: The Richard Tucker Opera Gala."
She and her opera tenor husband, Stephen Costello, will perform three works on the show. Vanity Fair dubbed them "a match made in verismo heaven."
Perez has won enough singing awards and recognitions to decorate a kajillion mantles. (Check out her Web page at ailynperez.com.)
She is an acclaimed interpreter of the role of Violetta in "La Traviata" and has worked with such operatic luminaries as Plácido Domingo and Jose Carreras.
Last month, Perez returned home to perform in the "Notes of Thanks" concert at the Forest View Educational Center in Arlington Heights to honor retired District 214 music teacher Jerry Swanson, one of her many mentors.
Swanson taught Perez at Elk Grove High, where she presciently studied Italian (who knew?) along with performing in musical staples such as "The Pirates of Penzance," "Anything Goes," "Guys and Dolls" and "Bye, Bye, Birdie."
"That's what's interesting about education," Perez said. "I think there's talent in every community. But it takes inspiring instructors and talented teachers to really see, hear and point out things for their students.
"Sometimes, it's just a matter of introducing them to the subject. And suddenly, the light switches on in the student's heart or mind. They connect!"
After high school, Perez headed to the Indiana University School of Music, then to Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts. That's where she ran into a young man named Stephen Costello, a native Philadelphian.
"He came into the school where I was working," she remembered. "He's a really sharp-looking guy, but he looked so familiar. So I asked, 'Are you on TV? Are you a TV star?' He gave me a name, then ran away.
"Two and a half years later he took me out dancing. From point A to a marriage was a long, long road. We were just shy with one another. And he is younger than I am, so I didn't give him the time of day, I think."
Perez and her husband live in Tennessee, not far from where her parents now live in Chattanooga. But the singer still considers herself a Chicagoan at heart. She has the niceness to prove it.
"I think hands-down what people say about me is that I'm very kind," she admitted after we pressed her to name her dominant personality trait. "I think it comes from growing up in Elk Grove and being from the Midwest. You try to make everybody feel welcome. That sort of warmhearted attitude, I think it sticks out in my business."
"Because most of the sopranos and leading ladies can be temperamental and standoffish. People say I'm pretty down-to-earth, and I think that comes from growing up in Elk Grove Village. That Midwestern warmth, that politeness, I think that does set me apart."
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are interested in suburbanites working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great column, email them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.