Vocalist of the Year:
Anthony Roth Costanzo

By Heidi Waleson

With restless intelligence and passion for communicating through art, he wants to do more than just insert himself into available slots. “As an opera singer in today’s world, you can’t just sing your roles well,” he insists. “You have to be a creative spirit and a driving force.”

2019 Muscial America Vocalist of the Year:<br>Anthony Roth Costanzo
Grace Beahm Alford/The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC.

Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role of Vivaldi’s Farnace at the Spoleto Festival USA, 2017.

To understand what makes the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo remarkable, one could start by looking at the cover art of his debut recording, ARC, which alternates arias by Handel and Philip Glass. This is no ordinary artist photo or anodyne image: Rather, in a startling, Cubist-looking painting by George Condo, Costanzo’s chiseled, three-quarter profile gazes intently into the distance, its one limpid eye, distinctive nose, and sensual mouth enfolded in a design of multicolored, geometric shapes. (Condo, a major American artist, previously ventured into album cover art for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.) For another example of Costanzo’s boundary-pushing, consider the offbeat “Opera Party” at New York radio-station WQXR’s Greene Space in 2017, for which he served as curator and host, and gave a wrenching performance of Charlotte’s "Letters” aria from Massenet’s Werther, accompanied by live critical commentary from Opera News editor F. Paul
Driscoll. The event’s theme was “Mistaken Identities,” so a man performing a woman’s aria was right on target. But there is no mistake about Costanzo’s uncanny musical and theatrical gifts.

Costanzo, 36, will never be content to do the obvious thing. In the past two decades, his voice type has gone from being a curiosity to a more mainstream phenomenon, and audiences no longer routinely gasp in astonishment at the sound of a man singing robustly in a vocal register typically inhabited by women. However, countertenors still have a more challenging career path than sopranos or tenors do, and must often make their own opportunities—“to blossom within constraints,” as Costanzo puts it. Costanzo sings his share of baroque heroes and, occasionally, heroines. He has become known for creating—or recreating—roles in contemporary works: He had a breakout success as the title character in the English National Opera’s hit production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, which traveled from London to the LA Opera and arrives at the Metropolitan Opera in 2019. But with his restless intelligence, insatiable curiosity, and passion for communicating through art, Costanzo wants to do more than just insert himself into available slots. He sees the problems faced by opera producers, recording companies, and the rest of the classical-music industry, and he wants to help remake the whole picture.

For ARC, Costanzo paired his two touchstone composers: As he puts it, “Handel defined me and Glass changed me.” The Glass pieces required some complicated musical adaption and arranging, and that was just the beginning. To support the album, the singer assembled a team of high-profile friends and friends of friends from all manner of artistic disciplines—art, film, music video, fashion, dance, theater—to create a live, multimedia performance piece, “Glass Handel,” designed to attract fans from beyond the insular classical-music world. “We want to appeal to an audience that is primed to appreciate aesthetic things but doesn’t really have an ‘in’ with opera,” Costanzo explains. “Interdisciplinary collaboration, growing audiences, and creating interesting art, whether I’m producing it, or curating it, or just making introductions among opera companies and directors, are all important to me. As an opera singer in today’s world, you can’t just sing your roles well; you have to be a creative spirit and a driving force.”

The cross-pollination of the project is pure Costanzo, like the regular “supper clubs” he holds in his tiny New York apartment, five-course feasts that he cooks for 15 guests drawn from all corners of his life. (“I’m Italian and Jewish, and food is important,” he says.) Or The Tale of Genji, in which a budding friendship with a Japanese writer led to Costanzo being integrated into a classic Kabuki drama—costumed and performing music by Dowland and Scarlatti, alongside Ebizo Ichikawa, a legendary Kabuki actor. The show, which had 26 sold-out performances in Kyoto in 2014, made Costanzo a local celebrity; it was revived and expanded this summer for another sold-out run in Tokyo. Or his participation in the American Modern Opera Company, a consortium of 17 singers, dancers, and instrumentalists, which is devoted to reimagining what it means to make opera in the 21st century. Costanzo notes with pride that he introduced AMOC’s co-artistic directors, composer/
conductor/pianist Matthew Aucoin and director/dancer/ choreographer Zack Winokur, to each other. “I really think relationships are how art is made,” he maintains. 

The son of two psychology professors at Duke, Costanzo leaped onto the stage at the age of 8, performing in community theater musicals in North Carolina. At 11, he persuaded his parents to let him try New York; they alternated as his big-city chaperones, since he was successful enough to pay for plane tickets to fly them back and forth. At 13, he had a stint as Miles in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, which introduced him to opera and the suggestion that he was no longer a boy soprano, but a countertenor. Two years later, James Ivory cast him as a precocious young singer in his film, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries; look for the charming clip of him performing Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” in front of a spellbound classroom. One of the conductor James Conlon’s daughters was also in the movie, a connection that led him, circuitously, to the voice teacher Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, with whom he still works. At Princeton, Costanzo’s senior thesis was a baroque pasticcio; he also made a documentary about its creation that went to the Cannes Film Festival. One participant in that project was the choreographer Karole Armitage, who persuaded him to run her dance company for two years after he graduated. But Costanzo was destined to be onstage, not just behind the scenes, and, in 2009, he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a major step in a career that would quickly take off. Even there, he followed his own path, insisting on performing the obscure “Stille amare” from Handel’s Tolomeo at the Grand Final concert, which he felt would have the greatest emotional impact, even as the Met tried to persuade him to sing a more familiar Gluck piece instead.

Costanzo is electric on the stage. Small and slender, he is a vibrant, mercurial presence. The brilliant, piercing clarity of his voice can blaze with passion as he embodies the doomed young artist in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, turn chill and ghostly in an anguished aria of mourning in Vivaldi’s Farnace, or float in hypnotic serenity in the “Hymn” from Akhnaten. He can play funny, camping it up as Orlofsky in the Met’s Die Fledermaus. He excels in the fast and florid singing that is the meat and potatoes of the baroque repertoire, but he always invests those pyrotechnics with meaning, and he believes that even Handel laments sometimes need “blood and guts,” as he puts it. He doesn’t ever want to be too proper. 

His voice is a tool to an end. “Above all, I am an actor,” Costanzo says. “That was really cemented in front of a camera with James Ivory. Working with directors like Peter Sellars and Phelim McDermott continues to change and shape me and so I feel in no way set as a performer. I have a bag of tricks and a lot of experience, but I’m constantly excited by new methods.” Whether he’s figuring out how to find the courage to stand completely naked onstage in Akhnaten, or conceiving and starring in Orphic Moments, a double bill of a new cantata by Matthew Aucoin and Gluck’s Orfeo with a feast served to the audience in between, Costanzo is always looking ahead, primed to experiment with new models for the opera of the future. •

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal and the author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future Of Opera in America (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2018).