But there was a plot twist in store for soprano Ailyn Pérez, the night’s heroine. As she stood on the lip of the stage, accepting rounds of applause, one of her co-stars gestured for silence. He moved forward. Placing a hand on Pérez’s shoulder, he started to speak, his deep voice filling the theater.
“In front of God, in front of my sisters and cousins, and most importantly in front of your mom and dad,” he said, gesturing to the crowd, “I ask you: Will you marry me?”
Opera star and bass Soloman Howard had known for a long time he wanted to marry Pérez. They had been dating for years. But up until the very moment he proposed, he wasn’t sure how to pop the question. It took a little spontaneity—and a little faith—to find the perfect moment.
The couple first met at Santa Fe Opera, where they were co-stars in one of the most famous romances of all time: Charles Gounod’s opera adaptation of the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet.
Pérez was starring as Juliet, and on stage as in life, she was in another relationship at the time. Still, from his role as the Duke of Verona, the Washington, D.C., born Howard remembers being struck by her talent and compassion.
“I did not pursue anything. But I was very much still interested in her,” Howard recalls. “I kind of jokingly said to my friends, ‘We're going to be together, her and I.’ And I had no idea that it would actually come true.”
More than two years passed before they were in contact again. By 2019, Howard was set to take the stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where he was cast in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, part of a benefit concert for Rohingya refugees.
Pérez was in the audience. “Afterwards she asked me, ‘So you want to get a drink? Or want to get something to eat?’ And me, I’m shaking,” Howard remembers with a laugh. His answer? “Yes, of course!”
Their first “proper date,” as Howard calls it, was to see a one-man show on Broadway. They’ve been together ever since. But wedding bells were something that gave Howard pause. He had never been married before. He found himself wondering: “Is it for me?”
“I don’t have the best examples of marriage in my family, so I was a little hesitant,” he explains. “But at the same time, I felt like if it were to happen, then she would be the one.”
Still, Howard and Pérez still had to contend with the fact that they were both opera singers—and that meant their jobs could pull them to opposite corners of the globe at a moment’s notice, depending on where they were asked to perform.
“For that reason, a lot of people—colleagues, friends—they just choose to be by themselves,” Howard explains.
But one day, Howard remembers blurting to a good college friend: “Yeah, she’s going to be my wife someday.” The sentiment came out of nowhere. And yet, despite his fears about marriage, saying it out loud felt surprisingly okay.
The idea for proposing started to take shape this past June, when Howard joined Pérez on a trip home to celebrate her mother’s 70th birthday. The day before they left town, Howard found a private moment alone with Pérez’s father. He requested—and received—his blessing to marry.
The next step was figuring out the occasion. Luckily, a new opportunity had opened up for the two performers: They had both been cast in San Francisco Opera’s 2021 revival production of Tosca.
It was the first time they would be working together since they met in Santa Fe. Pérez would be making her debut in the title role—that of a singer trapped in a cruel plot concocted by Rome’s chief of police. Howard, meanwhile, would play Cesare Angelotti, a wrongfully imprisoned politician on the run from the law.
But to give Pérez the proposal he felt she deserved, Howard wanted to ensure their family and friends could be in attendance. With the coronavirus pandemic a continued threat, Howard calculated that everyone could get fully vaccinated just in time to see the final performance.
Finally, he had to find a ring. Howard opted for a round cut stone, and he himself sketched what he imagined the band might look like. But the jeweler didn’t have the setting he wanted. Howard decided to move forward anyway, though he plans to find a better band later on: “I'm just looking to make it perfect for an opera diva,” he says.
With the big day approaching, Howard—a self-described introvert—found himself being drastically antisocial. “I pretty much had gone missing,” he laughs. He spent much of his time talking to his recently married younger brother on the telephone, gathering advice.
Pérez started to worry. “Is everything okay?” Howard remembers her asking. “Is everything okay with us, with the relationship?”
Howard jokes that planning the proposal gave him a future in playing opera villains. He enjoyed the secrets, the plotting. “I had so much fun,” he recalls. Every time he saw her, he thought: “You're getting ready to get married and you don't even know it.”
The night before the final performance, Howard took out the ring after Pérez had gone to sleep. “I put it in the nightstand right beside her,” he says. “So she slept beside her ring the night before.”
Still, even as he prepared to take the stage in the last Tosca, Howard was unsure about exactly how to propose. “I’m very spontaneous. It's the social introvert in me,” he explains. “If I think about it too much, then I’m hesitant.”
Would he drop to one knee before the performance, in her dressing room? Or after, as she got out of hair and makeup? Or what about once the bows finished and the curtain fell? Each plan had a problem: None of their family and friends would be able to see it.
While some of his co-stars and backstage colleagues knew he hoped to propose, Howard says the plan came together minute by minute. All the while, he still had to focus on the physically demanding task of singing an opera.
“It was almost an out-of-body experience because I was so nervous,” Howard explains.
The curtain call finally arrived, and Howard stepped on stage with the rest of the cast to take a bow. It was now or never. The curtain would fall at any moment. And still, he was unsure. He remembers turning to bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who played Tosca’s villainous police chief Scarpia, and asking, “Should I go now?”
What happened next was cheered across the theater, with cellphones lighting up to capture the moment. Howard dropped to one knee. With an excited little hop, Pérez leaned over to kiss him. Then, standing up, Howard lifted Pérez into his arms.
The following days were a return to the hectic life of an opera singer. Tosca closed on a Sunday, and by Tuesday, Pérez was in New York City for another performance. Howard, meanwhile, remained in San Francisco, where he prepares to star in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio this October.
But news of their engagement started to go viral, appearing on media outlets like ABC News, the San Francisco Chronicle and Good Morning America. The couple’s phones filled with messages from well-wishers. Howard says he could hardly sleep for all the excitement.
Howard professes to be undaunted by the pressures of a showbiz romance. “I grew up in church. I’m a preacher’s kid,” he explains. “So for me, if it's my destiny, if it's my purpose, if it's God's plan for me, then that's what I have to do.”
And in soprano Ailyn Pérez, Howard believes he’s found his match. “None of us are perfect, but some of us are perfect for one another,” he says. “It may not work for everyone. But we’re not everyone. I’m Soloman. She’s Ailyn.”
And soon, he hopes, they will be husband and wife, too.