Most countertenors make their careers out of singing traditional baroque repertoire.
The voice type, so popular during the art form’s formative years, was extremely popular in its day with the major composers assigning leading roles to the countertenor.
But that is no longer the case today, the countertenor is seen more as a novelty than a bonafide fixture in the operatic canon.
Anthony Roth Constanzo refuses to fit into that mold and has sought out a wider-ranging career path that sees him take on those traditional countertenor operas while exploring new ground. His excursions into the opera of Philip Glass are duly noted.
Costanzo recently spoke to OperaWire about another experimental project, the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, but with a twist. He will not only be singing, but dancing as well to choreography by Jessica Lang. Here’s what he had to say.
OperaWire: So you’re kicking off the 2017 White Light Festival and doing Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” in an unusual style of performance. Can you tell me a little about that?
Anthony Roth Costanzo: Absolutely. This is a sacred piece of music and it’s really incredible that Pergolesi wrote in his early twenties, because he died shortly thereafter. So it’s amazing to understand the complexity of the music and that juxtaposition. Opera is one of the first truly interdisciplinary art forms; ballet came out of the opera, and so it makes perfect sense to combine dance and opera in this way. But I think what’s exciting and what feels fresh about the way we’re doing it is that instead of having the singers stand in the orchestra pit or on the side of the stage as a kind of accompaniment to the dance or the dance being an accompaniment to the concert., we’re really integrated as we move and dance. Jessica Lang, the choreographer, has really worked with both me and Andriana who have both trained in dance some, although we’re not nearly as good as her wonderful company, she’s taken advantage of what we’re able to do physically and I think it’s enlivened the music in a really exciting way. That’s one element of it. Singing with Andriana Chuchman and finding the incredible dissonances that Pergolesi has written, and bringing the pain and drama out of those dissonances in this work has been really gratifying.
OW: What’s something that you’ve learned from Jessica Lang?
ARC: Great question, let me think. I’ve learned a lot about collaboration. I think choreographers with singers can sometimes be hesitant to make us do something they’re worried will disturb the singing or things like that, and I’m the kind of performer who likes to try everything and then if it’s bad or gets in the way of singing somehow then we can scale it back. In 2013, when we made this piece, I remember Jessica was constantly excited because I was saying to her “I think I can do more. I don’t think I need to be stationary for this whole piece and I think it’s more exciting if I do more.” I think the success of a work is often about the process of collaboration and that is something that is really exemplified by this.
OW: What are the particular challenges of dancing and singing at the same time in this setting?
ARC: As an opera singer, you’ve got a lot going on in your head; you’re watching the conductor, you’re keeping track of your technique, so if you’ve got a high note you may be thinking about where your tongue is or something like that, your breathing, etc. We’re used to doing staging, which in an opera tends to be more free-form so you can move as you feel, but with choreography where something is very specific, and a dancer is going to be running by you, very soon you have to hit your mark so it takes that much more brainpower, you have to multi-task that much more. One other thing I noticed as a distinction between dance and opera is that dancers, with their breath, everything tends to go up and “puff” a little bit so their body is beautiful and upright; with opera and singing classically you sort of have to go down and out. There’s also the question of the keeping the breathing low and healthy but looking like a dancer.
OW: Do you have any favorite moments in the Stabat Mater?
ARC: I really love the penultimate movement, which is called “Rondo Fortis,” which is a very slow, incredibly exquisite movement in the music that I just think is almost unparalleled in this repertoire. Also I get to be lifted in this really interesting way by the dancers and I always look forward to that because it’s a breathtaking moment, so even though it makes me nervous I think the audience will enjoy it.
OW: What do you think the audience will take away from experiencing the Stabat Mater in this fashion?
ARC: In a way, the dance, and Jessica’s work in particular, really illustrates the music. It’s a way of making the molecules of musicality visible. Whereas for a work like this, we’re used to just watching people sing in a concert setting, this gives you more things to grab onto, and more ways to let the music affect you in a multi-sensory kind of way so I think it opens the door to more emotional catharsis.
OW: You have a very interesting career trajectory, taking a lot of risks with your repertoire. What inspired this path for you?
ARC: It’s funny. As a countertenor you can’t have the career of a soprano because the great opera houses aren’t going to do your repertoire all season long, so you have to learn a specialized repertoire, but if I want to have a gratifying career as a countertenor I, from the very beginning, have had to create my own opportunities to a certain extent. What’s that’s led me to is all sorts of interesting collaborations and also having begun on Broadway, and then having made film, and then having been in the world of dance, and fashion, and art in various ways, I’ve amassed this group of artists who I hold dear, who keep me curious about different ways to change the form of opera, to get it outside the form of its box. I feel a certain responsibility as an opera singer in this time to reach out to different audiences, to make the form itself take on a new guise and to make work that is engaging to me as a performer because ultimately I think that’s what people connect to: A human being who is being engaging. I’m always excited about forging new paths and curating and producing in addition to the singing that I do. For me, it’s all a part of the whole.
OW: Tell me about your new album that combines Philip Glass and Handel together. How did you draw that connection?
ARC: As a countertenor I sing a lot of music that was written before 1750 and music that was written after 1950; I’ve just opened “Giulio Cesare,” which was written before 1750, at Houston Grand Opera. This weekend I’m studying “Written on Skin,” which was written recently for Opera Philadelphia as well so I’m always in that gap. When I want to make an album, instead of doing that normal countertenor singing, I want to make a disc of Scarlatti arias or something straightforward like that which represents my career, which is half contemporary and half Baroque. Having gotten really closely acquainted with Glass’ work from “Akhnaten,” I knew that I loved it and I found these pieces, some never before recorded, and some not particularly well-known, that really resonated with who I was and I had these Handel pieces that were part of my history, two pieces that I won the Met competition with and have sung all over the world. As to how I draw that connection, I didn’t know exactly until I was working on preparing the album and recording it, and I noticed all of these parallels and connections, for example repetition; Handel does it in a different way but of course Glass is known for his repletion of things, but a De Capo aria, which is the form of almost every Handel aria, is ABA. So the psychology of that is surprisingly similar because with Glass I don’t think about it as repetition but rather a journey forward in an emotional way, and the accumulation of each repetition is what creates the emotion. In Handel it’s the same thing, I don’t think of it as going back to A, but rather going forward to an “A prime” that has ornaments and different colors and emotions. Glass is of course known as a minimalist composer, Handel is very much the same; when you look at a score of Handel, it’s not Rossini where he writes out all the decorations, he leaves an enormous amount of space and I find that both Handel and Glass leave space. What that space is for, I can’t tell you. As the listener, as the singer, it’s space for interpretation, it’s space for projection of your own feelings when you’re listening to it, but there’s space in that music. There’s a lot of consonances in Handel and Glass and I’m excited to show people even more when the album comes out, it’s one of the best musical experiences of my life and I’m thrilled for the result.
OW: When did you first discover the music of Philip Glass?
ARC: I went to see “Einstein on the Beach” when I was in my twenties, and that was when I was bit by the Glass bug. I thought for the first ten minutes “There’s no way I can make it through this for four hours, I’ll go crazy,” but then as many of us who have experienced it know, something happened and it becomes addictive, and it becomes transcendent, and all of the clichés you’ve heard are absolutely true. Since then it’s something that’s a huge part of my life. I find it wonderful to perform some of the most exalted experiences I’ve had, performing Glass’ music, but I also find it fantastic in banal circumstances like running on the treadmill at the gym so it’s an incredibly versatile kind of music.