Opera Meets Film: A Deep Dive Into Anthony Roth Costanzo’s ‘Glass Handel’ (Part One)

By Gareth Mattey

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a film section or a film in its entirety and highlight the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features “Glass / Handel.”

What is the difference between a music video and an opera film?

Given how both bring together a combination of music and visuals in pursuit of narrative, mood, or both, is there a difference? The production background to these forms is definitely different – while opera films remain niche (despite the frequent use of opera within mainstream cinema soundtracks), music videos are a major pillar of the music industry and often have a commercial role to play in advertising the song and artist to hand. To prioritize this commercial aspect though is to do a great disservice to the artistry found in the music video form, from seminal works by Derek Jarman through to Beyonce’s combination of the personal and the epic in her visual albums “Lemonade” and “Black is King.”

One project, in particular, has created a body of work that journeys deep into the muddy territory between music video and opera film – Anthony Roth Costanzo’s “Glass/Handel” project. A countertenor, actor, curator, and producer, Costanzo has frequently embraced interdisciplinary collaboration within his practice and “Glass/Handel” is no exception. Bridging together famous arias from the operas of Handel and Philip Glass, and exploring the overlap between the baroque and minimalism, the project exists as a recording (entitled “ARC”), a live show, and as a series of videos, where different directors have offered their interpretation of a Handel or Glass aria, with Costanzo’s voice always at the center.

In this first part, I’ll explore the different ways Philip Glass’ music has been treated visually by four of the different directors involved, our expectations of his music and how this ties into Costanzo’s wider project, while the second part will focus on the videos that use Handel’s music.

Liquid Days

This video is directed by Mark Romanek, one of the most decorated music video directors working in the industry. Renowned for the close relationship between music and image in his work, as seen in videos like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” “Liquid Days” sees Romanek collaborate closely with choreographers Ron Myles and Rich+Tone to create a single unbroken shot that closely follows Ron Myles as the central dancer. The camera doesn’t cut away from Myles’ performance but delights in it, allowing the dialogue between Costanzo’s voice, the instrumentation and Myles’ liquid movements (and liquid costume) to flourish.

In many ways, it seems like a stereotypical “music video” – the backup dancer supports the singer (the choreographers Rich+Tone themselves have performed in music videos). Except here, the singer’s body is absent, and the dancer takes the foreground, the camera unable and unwilling to focus anywhere else. Starting and ending with a closeup of Myles, the music video avoids the tangle of imagery that make up the song’s lyrics (written by David Byrne, the only piece in this project not to come from an opera), and avoids any concrete narrative direction, to instead focus on the humanity, mood, and skill of its singular subject.

For a wider project that focuses on bridging the Baroque and the contemporary, this video sets the tone for many of these Glass videos in that it feels particularly modern – in its deserted overpass setting and the passing cars and trains that seem to dance to their own tune, in the choreography and in feeling most like a ‘music video’ of all the videos within this project. It brings this scintillatingly strange song out of the concert hall and into a recognizably contemporary world.

1000 Airplanes on the Roof: The Encounter

“1000 Airplanes on the Roof” is a “science fiction music drama” by Glass and David Henry Hwang that follows its protagonist M’s experiences of alien life forms, and the messages these visitations bring. The video, directed by Mickalene Thomas, certainly seems to embrace the disorientating and kaleidoscopic effect an alien visitation must have. Known for her work as a painter who regularly embraces and plays with rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel, Thomas has also explored all kinds of multi-media work, including photography, sculpture, installation, and video art, including a design collaboration with Solange. In this video, it is that core textural work we are most drawn to.

Matching the fast repeating patterns of Glass’ music, Thomas cuts between and into a series of fast-moving patterned textured backgrounds, where the rhinestone especially takes precedence. These backgrounds are in constant motion and are often mirrored, letting the image reflect itself in its constant exuberant motion. Costanzo’s voice soars overhead throughout, repeating “ah” over and over, occasionally disrupting the background motion as Thomas times flickers and flashes of imagery with their voice.

The only solid image and reference Thomas offers us is the human eye – repeatedly referenced throughout, collage-like cut-outs of the eye (and sometimes prints) burst into the foreground and flicker out just as quickly. Given the opera’s themes of alien visitation, and the aria’s title “The Encounter,” the focus on the eye within this world seems to foreground a visual confrontation with the alien, the kaleidoscopic, and the impossible. We are asked – what did M truly see? What overwhelmed and excited this voice so much? Thomas’ video, in asking this, offers an encounter with a dizzyingly abstract and beautiful montage, that would not look out of place as an art film in a gallery setting.

Monsters of Grace: In The Arc of Your Mallet

“Monsters of Grace,” created in collaboration with director Robert Wilson and with a libretto based on the works of the poet Rumi, is an interesting choice for this project given that the original production was itself a hybrid of film and opera. Wilson’s plans for the original 1998 production were believed to be impossible to stage and so the project was turned into a 3D CGI animated film that played alongside the orchestra. Wilson notoriously disliked the process, and it is interesting to see the differences between Wilson’s early digital vision for it, and filmmaker Daniel Askill’s interpretation here.

A director with a background in music composition and performance, Askill has directed the award-winning short film “We Have Decided Not To Die,” as well as directing for VR, fashion films, adverts, and music videos, including regular collaboration with Sia. The action of his video for this aria is very simple – a young girl in an ancient forest pushes through upset and distress to action, punching through a broken tree. Similar to his video for “Chandelier,” he foregrounds the experiences of a young female protagonist, with dance replaced by violence. It stands in stark contrast to the music, as the girl becomes more active as the music slows down, sending chunks of dead tree fly across the screen during the aria’s more laconic moments.

Filmed in black and white, with a shaky camera and frame rate that sends anything in motion into jitters, the video brings with it a sense of being home-made, somewhere between the shaky-cam stylings of “The Blair Witch Project” and the home-videos on amateur equipment. Its style is a far cry from Wilson’s CGI vision of the piece, which stays distant from both music and lyrics, harking closest to the piece’s title – we are very much in the arc of her mallet.

The Fall of the House of Usher: How All Living Things Breathe

A chamber opera with a libretto by Arthur Yorinks, based on the eponymous short story by Edgar Allan Poe, Glass writes in his notes to the opera on his fascination with the story’s uncertainties – its play with reality and hallucination, with horror and the supernatural, and the brutal things that happen inside the house. It is these same uncertainties, this mix of the supernatural, the unexpected, and the violent, that motivate director Rupert Sander’s video setting of the aria that avoids the historical setting of the source story to again take place in a contemporary world.

Knowing Sanders’ work with TV adverts for video games and action cinema (specifically the recent Western adaptation of “The Ghost in the Shell”), this slow opening of a figure walking towards the camera in a deserted industrial warehouse (closely matching the opening harp arpeggios) gains menace in the armed figures we see hovering in the edges and the shadow of a tank behind her. It offers the viewers all the expected iconography of an action film at an unrecognizable tempo for an action film. It is a music video that prioritizes spectacle and scale in this warehouse, a space as decaying and cracked as the House of Usher itself.

As the figure gets closer, that same strangeness behind the aria becomes more apparent – the figure is bald but has hair around the neck of her coat, the tank is pink and covered with flowers and the figures are soldiers from all different time periods. This menace culminates in a samurai slicing the figure clean in half, releasing blood and butterflies as they collapse. An aria fascinated with how all living things breathe and live and contribute to history ends with the sudden death of the lead figure. Afterward, the tank continues its forward motion to the camera, drowning it in a final flash of pink.

Philip Glass on Video

The cumulative impact of the videos that set Costanzo’s recordings of Philip Glass arias is that the overlap of music video and opera film also overlaps with that of art film and video art – while not all of these directors regularly exhibit in galleries, all four of these videos could easily feel at home in that environment. All of them also demonstrate a fascination with Glass’ rhythms and tempi. The repeating patterns that form the core of much of Glass’ music is seemingly of less interest than the energy and pace that it offers – whether to follow it like Thomas or resist it like Askill. These videos brought together as well remind us of Glass’ long heritage working with film himself, from his scoring work for films like “Kundun,” “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” and “Konyaaniqatsi” to his hybrid film opera trilogy adapting works by Jean Cocteau. The impression these works give is of a relentlessly modern composer, charting the relentless pace of modern life, in all its strangeness, violence, and beauty.

In the next part of this feature, we’ll explore the links Costanzo’s project brings between Glass and Handel, how the videos demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) this relationship and what further perspectives a series of Handel music videos brings on the form itself.


Opera Meets Film