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Something a Little Different

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo talks about his double-sided career as singer and producer.
By F. Paul Driscoll
Photographs by Ryan Pfluger 

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Photographs by Ryan Pfluger
Grooming by Benjamin Thigpen/Statement Artists
Fashion styling by Keith T. Pollick/Utopia NYC; assistant Troy Joseph
“THE VERY THINGS THAT MADE ME DIFFERENT AT THE BEGINNING OF MY CAREER
CAN BE USED AS ASSETS NOW.”
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Photographs by Ryan Pfluger
Grooming by Benjamin Thigpen/Statement Artists
Fashion styling by Keith T. Pollick/Utopia NYC; assistant Troy Joseph
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As Gluck’s Orfeo at Florida Grand Opera, 2018
© Chris Kakol

ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO is waiting for me outside Jamali Garden in Manhattan’s Flower District. He doesn’t see me approach: he is too intently focused on the screen of his cell phone as he bangs out a text, his shoulders squared, his elbows held high and away from his body and his feet planted slightly apart but rock-solid on the sidewalk. Costanzo’s brows are knit, his lips are narrowed and the pace of his thumbs on the phone is rapid and relentless. He presses “send,” looks up and catches me watching him. He laughs, holds up the phone, points to it and says, “Sorry! I was in a virtual business meeting.” 

Costanzo has been one of classical music’s most visible and admired countertenors since 2009, when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. Now thirty-six, he balances a full calendar of singing engagements in opera, concert and recital with producing his own projects, among them Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a hit at National Sawdust in Brooklyn in 2017, and Orphic Moments, a sophisticated combination of Gluck’s Orfeo and a new piece by American composer Matthew Aucoin, most recently presented in May 2018 at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

When we meet in late April, Costanzo is already deep in preparations for the world premiere of Glass Handel, an elaborate, multidisciplinary installation scheduled to open in late September as part of Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival. Costanzo will headline Glass Handel as well as coproduce and cocurate the event in collaboration with producer Cath Brittan and the avant-garde fashion/art company Visionaire. Glass Handel will gather conductor Corrado Rovaris, choreographer Justin Peck, dancers David Hallberg and Patricia Delgado, painter George Condo, designer Raf Simons, film director James Ivory and performance artist Ryan McNamara, among other bold-faced names, to join Costanzo in exploring the music of Philip Glass and that of George Frideric Handel, the two composers featured on ARC, Costanzo’s new solo album for Decca Gold. The inaugural run of Glass Handel in September will be followed by November performances in Manhattan, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with other U.S. dates in the planning stages. There are a million details to remember and decisions to be made, but Costanzo seems to enjoy the pressure. Today he is wearing a sharp black-and-white sportshirt printed with a quote from Vincent van Gogh: “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” 

On the advice of a mutual friend, I have suggested that Costanzo and I go shopping for plants before our interview in the offices of OPERA NEWS. He loves plants, finds shopping for them relaxing and knows the Flower District very well: we move through several shops at a moderately brisk pace. Small and lean, Costanzo walks with a distinctive, slightly heavy tread that charges every step with purpose; he is incapable of ambling, but never rushes. As we enter Foliage Paradise, Costanzo murmurs, “This is fun, because you never know what you’ll find in these places. But I’m always looking for something just a little different.”

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Bath time in Costanzo’s production of Aci, Galatea e Polifemo at National Sawdust, 2017, with Ambur Braid (Aci)
© Jill Steinberg

IN COSTANZO'S Manhattan apartment, most of the plants are cacti and succulents, their cool, chalky greens the chief note of color in the peaceful, light-filled rooms. The apartment is not large, but Costanzo, an energetic and accomplished cook, often hosts five-course sit-down dinners for friends when he is at home in New York. The menus are complicated and theatrical; Costanzo always makes his own pasta and often serves individual soufflés or homemade ice cream for dessert. “I like cooking, because it’s very hard for me to take time off—often because there’s so much to do that it feels more stressful to be not doing it than doing it. Do you know what I mean? The way I take time off is to give myself another very time-consuming task, which means chopping onions and cooking dinner at my apartment for seventeen people. When I have to focus on just that, I forget about everything else—and it has a similar effect to taking time off. I admit that I’m an overachiever—that’s how I’ve always been—and I like to impress people and make them feel as if they are being fussed over. I got into this five-course thing a while ago, and that’s my routine. I like it. In high school, I was addicted to the original Iron Chef from Japan. They would make unbelievable things—almost beyond comprehension—that were created with this intense technical knowledge that would permit them to be spontaneous. There is a parallel to opera in that—you learn the technical skills that will allow you to create something new. For spontaneity to happen, you need lots of forward planning.”

Costanzo has little time to entertain at home these days. During the first few months of the 2017–18 season, he traveled to Houston Grand Opera for his first performances in the title role of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, sang the Boy in the Opera Philadelphia premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin and made his Florida Grand Opera debut in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. In the months between our April meeting and the opening of Glass Handel, Costanzo will sing in Charleston, Cincinnati and Tokyo; teach at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada; promote his new Decca Gold disc in South Korea; and spend a residency in Vermont with AMOC (American Modern Opera Company), a new group of which he is a founding member. Costanzo has been performing professionally since he was eleven; his childhood credits include national tours of The Sound of Music and Falsettos and A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, as well as a key role in the 1998 Merchant Ivory film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. His producing career began with his senior thesis project at Princeton, when he cowrote and starred in The Double Life of Zefirino, a Baroque pastiche, directed by choreographer Karole Armitage, with costumes designed by James Ivory. “That experience taught me a philosophy of producing—to create win-win situations. I believe I am good at communicating with people and being empathetic—maybe because my parents are both psychologists. That is one of the fundamental reasons that I’ve had any success in my career, either as a singer or as a producer. I believe that the art you are able to make is largely determined by the relationships you have. And that can be in a big way, or a small way. Relationships lead to opportunities. For a producer, those relationships will ultimately determine whether you get the money you need for a show or not.”

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As Nero to Sarah Shafer’s Poppea in The Coronation of Poppea at Cincinnati Opera, 2018
© Philip Groshong

HAS BECOMING a producer made Costanzo’s other life as a singer-for-hire any more difficult? “Yes, in some ways. If I am working with people I really respect, I want to learn from them—even if I don’t always agree with what they are doing, I want to understand how and why they do it. That’s easy. What is difficult is working with a collaborator who I think is doing a bad job of things—in those situations I try to focus on making my own performance as good as it can be. Even in a rehearsal room where something is going on that I don’t agree with, I try to be a positive force. When you are in a room rehearsing, and the feeling isn’t right—generally the show doesn’t turn out well. That’s why people want to work with artists like Joyce DiDonato, or Stephanie Blythe, or David Daniels, or Bill Burden—they know how to make a room feel good. They can take any situation and make it enjoyable for the rest of the cast—and that produces a good show. 

“If I had been a tenor, or a soprano, or something like that, it might have been easier for me—at this point in my career I’d have certain standard-rep roles that I could do around the world. But as a countertenor, there are fewer opportunities. And I’m not competing with 300 sopranos who are at the top of their game—I’m competing with maybe ten countertenors who are at the top of their game.

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Photographs by Ryan Pfluger
Grooming by Benjamin Thigpen/Statement Artists
Fashion styling by Keith T. Pollick/Utopia NYC; assistant Troy Joseph

“So, in order to have a career, I’ve had to generate my own projects, and that has informed my identity as a singer. I would rather do an interesting project or create something with artists who generate interest and change the DNA of what it is to be an opera singer. When I started, I didn’t know what it meant to be an opera singer—but I discovered that the standard opera career, if there is such a thing, never felt like my identity. I came to Manhattan School of Music from the theater and then from the university world and didn’t know what the norms were in opera. But I’ve seen what the limitations of those norms are—audience dwindling, not being able to engage younger people, getting stuck in a sort of insular world. I realized that the very things that made me different at the beginning of my career can be used as assets now. But in order to get to the place where I could do that, I first had to go through the regular opera-singer trajectory. I tried to become a part of the established opera world in order to execute the change I believe was needed.

“If you’re an audience member coming to the opera, and the people in the opera are simply opera singers, who know nothing except opera, there’s nothing for you, the audience member, to connect to. Opera singers need to reach out to the audience, whether it’s through the production or through their own performance values. Opera singers don’t always see that as part of their job. Some of them do—Joyce DiDonato certainly does. But too many of them think, ‘I’ve been hired, and I’m going to sing the role as well as I can sing it. I’m going to get all my vowels lined up. And I’m done.’ Now I’m not saying I don’t work on the technique of singing really, really hard—the more you have that under your belt, the easier you’re able to communicate with an audience, because they instinctively understand when singing is good. But for technique to be a singer’s only focus is just not the reality of the world we live in. I don’t want to sound like one of those people who is down on everything and down on opera—there are incredible things going on everywhere. And I don’t believe that what everyone else is doing is wrong and that what I am doing is right. But I do worry, especially when I do master classes, that things have become so focused on making the voice perfect that we have lost track of what the art form can do—its true capacity to excite people and to move them.

“Just getting work and making a living making music is wonderful, but when I teach children, or do a huge project like Glass Handel that has the potential to reach out to people who have never encountered opera, or Baroque music, or Philip Glass’s music, and then transform their perception—that is what I find thrilling. When people have an emotional response, as they can with opera, they can reach a crucial understanding of the human condition. When I perform now, I never think, ‘Oh, I’ll really get them with that last high note,” or whatever—I try to make every instant I’m onstage be a moment for the audience to connect to what I am singing about.” 

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In the title role of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at LA Opera in 2016, with J’nai Bridges (Nefertiti) and Stacey Tappan (Queen Tye)
© Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera

COSTANZO IS FOND of saying that most of his career is spent singing “music written before 1750 and after 1950. For countertenors, the nineteenth century pretty much doesn’t exist.” Costanzo’s dramatic imagination, honed by his training as a singing actor, sets him apart from many of his colleagues in the opera world. In 2015, Costanzo demonstrated his versatility with scene-stealing 

turns in two high-profile world premieres: Roane Heckle, the worldly gay stage manager in Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, at Dallas Opera, and César, the teenage terrorist in Jimmy López’s Bel Canto, at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Both operas were overlong and over-ambitious, but Costanzo’s lucid work in each of them was sharp, smart and universally admired. 

The high-water mark of Costanzo’s opera career thus far is the title role in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, which he has sung in Phelim McDermott’s production at ENO (2016) and LA Opera (2017). In February 2019, ENO will revive the McDermott staging, which will move on to the Met in 2019–20. Costanzo, who is a first-class musician, sings Akhnaten with scrupulous commitment and impressive imagination; the bracing, citrusy quality of his countertenor is perfectly suited to Glass’s score. The McDermott production requires Akhnaten to make his entrance nude—a staging detail that Costanzo embraced, after some initial hesitation, because it emphasized the boy king’s vulnerability. “Vulnerability is something that all singers should understand. The only times that I get scared—as distinct from being nervous—are in the most human points of vulnerability, when I am subject to my own body and my two tiny little vocal cords. The most vulnerable position you can be in is being a singer. When you’re in front of thousands of people and singing and you are somehow physically impaired because you’re sick, or tired, or whatever, that can be scary. Naked isn’t scary. But allowing for that vulnerability is what makes an artist interesting to watch. Somebody who’s always fearless and has no compunction about it is boring, I think—but someone who struggles with it and accepts the challenge to be fearless can be wonderful.” spacer 



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