Interview - Anthony Roth Costanzo

Anthony Roth Costanzo
TimeOut New York

By David Shengold

A fast-rising, award-winning countertenor has his New York City Opera debut.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has accomplished things most classical singers never dream of. He’s done Broadway tours (Falsettos, The Sound of Music) and appeared in several films, including 1998’s Merchant Ivory release, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries—for which his postproduction tasks included cooking an impromptu dinner for 50, among them Kris Kristofferson and Leelee Sobieski, in a Venetian palazzo. Hip, innovative choreographer Karole Armitage directed Costanzo’s senior thesis, a performance piece examining gender, sexuality and high-voiced male singers from the castrati to Michael Jackson, which persuaded Princeton to help fund the resultant documentary, due on PBS this year. Between his increasingly impressive singing engagements, Costanzo has been lecturing on castrati and countertenors for the Met and City Opera. He makes his stage debut with the latter company in Handel’s Partenope on Saturday 3.

Did we mention he’s only 27?

Deploying his clarion, pure sound with uncommon intelligence and stylistic awareness, Costanzo all but walked off with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas this past summer at Glimmerglass; he played the Sorceress as a deceptively slight guy in a hoodie, principally armed with a cell phone. Dapper and charming in person—operatic composers looking to cast Sal Mineo and Michael Urie roles should look no further—in the unsettlingly truthful romantic comedy Partenope he plays Armindo, the “nice guy” among three princes competing for the hand of the titular siren (played by astounding soprano Cyndia Sieden). Costanzo rejoices in his high-octane castmates (“Baroque specialists tend to come prepared, and the teamwork is excellent”), and in having found a path for the initially mild-mannered Armindo to—spoiler alert—get the girl (“We’ve created an arc in which you see flashes of courage and realism.”)

Handel and his heroes loom large in any countertenor’s world. “We all owe a debt to David Daniels, the first countertenor whom opera companies ask to do projects,” Costanzo says. The stage presence and vocalism of Daniels and Bejun Mehta, he explains, have helped to win countertenors some of the erotic energy that castrati wielded onstage in Handel’s heyday. “But our sounds are all so different; it’s like different wines.” Naturally, Handel also looms large in Costanzo’s calendar: He returns to Glimmerglass this summer for the U.S. stage premiere of Tolomeo, with Agrippina coming up in Boston and unspecified Met projects ahead.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Costanzo has cleaned up artistically (and financially!) at major vocal competitions run by Houston Grand Opera and the George London Foundation. Seeing all the Stetsons and big hair at the Houston event, where he was the only countertenor, he was nervous about how folks would take to hearing ten elegiac minutes of Handel (“Aure, deh, per pietà” from Julius Caesar) amid all the Puccini. Costanzo needn’t have worried: He walked off with the Audience Favorite prize. “Some of that erotic energy is connected to the fast, bravura numbers,” he said. “But I really enjoy the lingering slow movements, where you keep moving inward. I love to tug at the heartstrings.”

Partenope opens at New York City Opera Sat 3.