Anthony Roth Costanzo: A Countertenor For The 21st Century

Sep 21, 2018
Originally published on September 24, 2018 8:12 am

Despite being one of the first and oldest forms of popular music, opera sometimes struggles to connect with 21st century audiences. However, Anthony Roth Costanzo is breaking down the genre's stodgy stereotype and making opera more accessible — taking his distinctive sound to the masses, from a sixth-grade classroom in the Bronx to NPR's own Tiny Desk.

"I'm trying to turn that around, transform it and say, listen, this is something that can connect to all different kinds of people," Costanzo tells All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro. "I feel like the emotional sweep of opera is what we need to give us some perspective on our lives, on this time we're living in, on all of that. We need that kind of catharsis."

Costanzo's debut album, ARC, reaches across 250 years of music history, by pairing George Frideric Handel with Philip Glass. One track, Glass' "Liquid Days," features lyrics by David Byrne which render, in modern day mundaneness, the abstract concept of love: "I offer love a beer/Love watches television." The juxtaposition of past and present is a common thread throughout Costanzo's work. Drawing from opera's interdisciplinary tradition, Costanzo collaborated with a broad range of creatives — from fashion designers Raf Simons and Calvin Klein, to choreographer Justin Peck, to painter George Condo and filmmaker James Ivory — for a show surrounding ARC's release.

"There's so much in opera," Costanzo says. "There's joy, there's sex, there's drugs, there's rock and roll. It's all in there, you know what I mean?[Collaborators] want something that's rich like that."

Aside from bringing compositional relevance to opera in 2018, Costanzo's vocal range is what makes his performances truly shine. As a countertenor, he taps into a musical tradition of men singing high up in the alto register. Beginning in the 1500s, young male singers were castrated in order to preserve their prepubescent high register; the "castrati" were effectively the rock stars of Handel's day. Costanzo jokes that he's "managed to do it without castration," as modern-day countertenors sing in falsetto to achieve their sound.

"As a countertenor, I feel like I'm a freakazoid," Costanzo admits. "I love to use the novelty of that to recruit new audiences. But also, I kind of have to forge my own path. The major opera houses may only do one thing a season that has a countertenor, if even that. So I've created all these projects, and engaged different kinds of people."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Even if you're prepared for it, there's a moment of shock the first time you hear Anthony Roth Costanzo start to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO: (Singing) Oh, round desire...

SHAPIRO: Costanzo is a countertenor. He sings in a range more typical of women. Here he's at NPR's offices for a Tiny Desk Concert, where musicians play a few songs in front of a small audience for an online video. He's singing songs from his new album, "ARC."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: Costanzo has made a career defying people's expectations of opera singers, collaborating with fashion designers and visual artists, performing in untraditional settings. And this short set was no exception. He started with a song by Philip Glass and David Byrne called "Liquid Days," accompanied by harpsichord, bassoon and flute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing) Love takes its shoes off and sits on the couch.

SHAPIRO: Between songs, he cracks jokes about the roots of the countertenor tradition. Centuries ago, male singers' high voices were preserved through surgical means.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: So now we go from Philip Glass' 1980s compositions with David Byrne writing the lyrics to the bread and butter of the countertenor, the music written for castrated men, which is, you know, how...

(LAUGHTER)

COSTANZO: But I've managed to do it without the castration. And...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

COSTANZO: Applause for that. Thank you - took a lot of work.

SHAPIRO: And with that, he switches to Handel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing in Italian).

SHAPIRO: After he finished singing, I got to ask Anthony Roth Costanzo a few questions. And we've woven in some of his live performance under our chat.

You have such a rare voice. Do you think that allows you to make musical and career choices that you might not have made if you had had a more common voice?

COSTANZO: Totally. As a countertenor, I feel like I'm a freakazoid. And so everyone sort of thinks, what is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Vocalizing).

And I love that. I love to use the novelty of that to recruit new audiences. But also I kind of have to forge my own path. The major opera houses may only do one thing a season that has a countertenor if even that.

SHAPIRO: You use the term freakazoid.

COSTANZO: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Your word - with enthusiasm. And you've talked a lot about the sort of delightful shock of hearing this beautiful, feminine voice come out of a stereotypically male body. Was it a process for you to realize that that could be a wonderful shock and not just a shocking shock?

COSTANZO: You know, my parents are both psychologists. So growing up, I feel like I had the support system to not think it was weird at all. And therefore I always present it to people as if it's completely natural, and they somehow absorb it that way. That 30 seconds of shock turns into a keen interest. And so I feel like my normalizing it makes it easier to swallow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing in Italian).

SHAPIRO: There's this very popular video that you filmed in a sixth-grade classroom, which is kids who presumably have not had a lot of experience with opera or classical music. And over the course of the video, you watch the evolution of their reaction. And I just thought as a person who has unpleasant memories of the sixth grade, putting myself in a position like that seemed terrifying.

COSTANZO: It is in a way. But I wanted them to laugh at me. I wanted them to have these emotional responses. And at the end, they're the litmus test, right? And if they can cry without knowing - I didn't tell them what the lyrics meant. I didn't give them any context. I just wanted them to connect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing in Italian).

And one girl said to me, you know, I think what it is is that you connect to the music, and we connect to your emotion. And that's all we need.

SHAPIRO: A lot of people in opera and classical music are trying to figure out how to make this centuries-old art form relevant to a contemporary audience. Clearly those choices suffuse every artistic decision that you make from beginning with an aria here at the Tiny Desk that has lyrics about love is watching television; you offer love a beer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing) I offer love a beer. Love watches television.

SHAPIRO: If you could condense the answer to that question of how do you keep it alive and make it relevant, what's the solution?

COSTANZO: Collaboration. I think opera was the first interdisciplinary art form in that it incorporated set design and costume design, fashion, dance. Ballet began in opera. So in a word, my tactic has been find other artists, find different people who you can infuse with this music, and then take it out to different audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing) Still is the night. It is much further than we thought.

And I feel like the emotional sweep of opera is what we need to give us some perspective on our lives, on this time we're living in, on all of that. We need that kind of catharsis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing) Fly home, daughter. Cover your ears.

SHAPIRO: Anthony Roth Costanzo, thank you so much for joining us here.

COSTANZO: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: That's countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo. His new album, "ARC," is out now. And you can see his full performance at npr.org/tinydesk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COSTANZO: (Singing) Let nothing... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.