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Artist Profile: Anthony Roth Costanzo on Opera, Interdisciplinary Collaboration, and Identity

Photo of Anthony Roth Costanzo.
Photo of Anthony Roth Costanzo. By Courtesy of Matthew Placek
By Lara R. Tan, Contributing Writer

A not-so-quick trip down the YouTube rabbit hole and chances are someone comes across this Vox video: “How an opera gets made.” The video features the spectacle of the opera at hand — Philip Glass’s modern masterpiece “Akhnaten” — as well as the unforgettable virtuosity of its leading man, Anthony Roth Costanzo.

Possessing one of the rarest voice types in opera — the countertenor voice, the modern equivalent of the castrati or castrated male soprano — Costanzo is internationally renowned and was hailed by the New York Times as a “vocally brilliant and dramatically fearless” performer. The Harvard Crimson sat down with Costanzo to probe beyond the mere tip of the iceberg of his dizzying artistry to discuss his personal journey in opera and its adjacent fields.

Costanzo’s journey started early, beginning on Broadway at the age of 11. But the singer eventually landed on opera as a professional career after dabbling in film, musical theater, and, more recently, dance and fashion.

“What I love about opera and continue to love about opera is that in its conception, it is interdisciplinary. It’s the marriage of poetry, theater, music, dance,” Costanzo said.

He described the interplay of his early experiences as helping him to revolutionize opera in order to keep it relevant in an ecosystem that is quick to write off opera as old-fashioned.

It is this perception of opera against which Costanzo so actively pushes, tackling misconceptions with his own ability to communicate the power of art through diverse artistic capacities.

His appetite for interdisciplinary collaboration distinguishes him from many of his operatic peers, which he views as a vital opportunity to see the art he creates through the eyes of professionals in other fields.

“I think that we can so easily, any artist can get stuck in what we’re doing. And seeing what we do through someone else’s eyes becomes crucial for communicating it to another audience, other than ourselves,” Costanzo said.

His past collaborations include an art installation with multimedia fashion and art company Visionaire and visual artist George Condo, to whom Costanzo attributed an especially musical style of painting that influenced his own attitude towards music. In addition, Costanzo has explored intra-disciplinary collaboration with jazz artist Cécile McLorin Salvant, who he praised for her consummate vocalization and improvisational skills.

Costanzo also spoke about accessibility in opera. Rather than pigeonholing his work into a wider conversation about accessibility and bringing opera to less-informed or less-advantaged audiences, he insists his work is fundamentally about communication.

“It could be very abstract or very obtuse, but does it communicate to someone? Does it move them? Does it mean something to them? And the only way we can reach the broadest possible group of people is by having the largest number of perspectives in our creative process,” Costanzo said.

Even as an individual performer, Costanzo is no stranger to exploring the full spectrum of music. Due to his unique voice type, Costanzo mostly sings Baroque or contemporary music, as they both make comparatively more use of the countertenor voice.

Despite their superficially different natures, Costanzo feels lucky to be immersed in these two repertoires. On one hand, he describes the Baroque as a “dream space” with its dramatic internality and “potential for catharsis” — characters often sing lengthy and vocally demanding arias exploring the full vicissitudes of human emotion, while adding individualized improvisations to highlight their vocal technique and dramatic interpretation. Costanzo noted similarities in the potential for an individualized approach to contemporary music, speaking about his current collaboration with Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose work he will be premiering in a few weeks at Carnegie Hall with the Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble. From Golijov changing certain notes to fit Costanzo’s voice and a sometimes surprising personal interpretation of Golijov’s music, Costanzo described the process as a dialogue with him rather than a one-way street.

To some, Costanzo’s eclectic, avant-garde artistry might seem at odds with expectations of an opera singer as a practitioner of a hallowed, centuries-old art form with its associations of conservatism and elitism. However, Costanzo navigates this tension with his characteristic intellectual deftness, as he strives to consciously challenge this regressive perception of opera by pushing boundaries and embodying artistic innovation. In particular, Costanzo's identity as a queer person is central to his work.

“Being who I am challenges inherently because I’m a very confrontational person,” Costanzo said.

Giving a timely reminder of opera’s less-discussed salacious past, with the sexual subversiveness of not only works in the genre but also the history of the castrati, Costanzo even quipped that he wanted to name an album of his “Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music.” Costanzo maintains that such controversy and boundary-pushing have always been at the heart of opera.

As a queer person and a countertenor, Costanzo meaningfully harnesses both facets of his identity. In the vein of interdisciplinary collaboration, he collaborated with transgender singer-songwriter Justin Vivian Bond in a cabaret show titled “Only An Octave Apart.”

“It was such a liberating and wonderful experience, and I found that people who came to it who weren’t queer were able to tap into both the joy and the emotion of it all in a way that was really galvanizing that brought everybody together,” Costanzo said. “And I think that that’s the power that art has to express the inexpressible.”

Costanzo will soon be performing in Harvard’s own John Knowles Paine Concert Hall in a production titled “Don’t Look Back” as part of his MYTHS festival, a series of performances and events that explore the idea of myth in personal, societal, and historical contexts. While Costanzo graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University in 2004, he professed a soft spot for Harvard. His mentor, Harvard University Department of Music Chair Carolyn Abbate taught him while he was at Princeton and invited him to Harvard for the occasion.

The production at Harvard comes as Costanzo prepares to take to the Metropolitan Opera stage to sing the role of Orfeo in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” in May. In yet another interdisciplinary, academic collaboration with the Morgan Library in New York, Costanzo will lead an experience that transcends a conventional recital, creatively using technology to open a dialogue between his music and source archival materials related to the opera.

Costanzo described “Don’t Look Back” as an abstract vision of the process of each composer putting music on paper, with works by George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart programmed as well.

“It’s extraordinary to look on a piece of paper and see that it is something a composer writes down. And in that, we see the impulse and the freshness and the excitement of the music, rather than a prison of notes and rhythms that we have to be confined to,” Costanzo said.

Anthony Roth Costanzo will present “Don’t Look Back” in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall on March 28.

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