Anthony Roth Costanzo: The Highs of Masculinity
When countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings, he confounds expectations of how a man should sound.
Anthony Roth Costanzo is a celebrated countertenor. He has performed with many of the world’s leading opera companies and orchestras, including the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Costanzo was born in Durham, NC, in 1982 and began to sing professionally at an early age. Before graduating high school he sang in several Broadway shows, sang backup for Michael Jackson, and appeared as a Mozart-singing student in the 1998 film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. He earned a BA at Princeton University and a masters at the Manhattan School of Music.
Known for his forceful and powerful voice in registers usually associated with female singers, Costanzo’s repertoire includes 18th-century works by Handel and Vivaldi and new operas by Jake Heggie, George Benjamin, and others. In 2019, he performed the title role in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at the English National Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera.
He teaches at Princeton University.
Anthony Roth Costanzo knows how to captivate audiences, even in places they don’t expect.
Anthony Roth Costanzo: Sometimes I’ve done it in the subway, and people who have no idea, even opera people, many of them haven’t heard a countertenor and they think, what the hell is going on? Why is this guy singing in this woman’s register? And a child’s initial response to it is to laugh at it, and I say bring it on, laugh at it. Look at me as effeminate, or gay, or whatever you want to do, because in those 30 seconds that you’re that engaged with me that you’re listening, that you’re laughing, I can do something beautiful enough to bring you along, and then you stick around.
The voice may sound freakish and unfamiliar, but has actually been around for hundreds of years.
Costanzo: I’m going to take you back for a minute to why I sing like a girl, and that’s because in the 18th century, really in the 17th century there were these castrated men, and they became the rock stars of their era, and I really feel that crosses forward across the centuries to Michael Jackson and Prince and Justin Timberlake singing in a falsetto, and that’s really what we’re doing as a countertenor, what I do all day long.
The voice has taken Costanzo to major roles, such as Written on Skin at Opera Philadelphia, and appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera. In just the past year, he’s landed something that many thought had already gone the way of dinosaurs, a solo recording contract with the mighty Decca Gold label, but there’s a bigger mission for this 35 year old countertenor that has nothing to do with stories, costumes, or recordings.
Costanzo: When I go to the Bronx into a school where kids don’t know anything about opera, and I say but all it’s about is emotion, that’s all you need to know. You don’t have to know the language I’m singing in, doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know what it’s about. I just want you to talk to me about your emotions, and I want you to know that this piece is about an emotion and I’m going to sing it for you, but I do know in working with children who have no biases, no points of entry, and no reason to be interested, that they shed tears with this music. When you feel sad, what do you do? Give me a sense of what that sounds like. Let me take that feeling and let me put that in the music. I would love to go to parts of the country where men should not, you know if they were wearing nail polish at school, they’d be beaten up. That’s where I want to sing a concert. That’s where I want to sell an album. I can expand this idea of what is masculine, or what is macho. It doesn’t have to do with our narrow definitions as they come from the past, but it rather has to do with what it is to be human.
Costanzo began as a child performer in Broadway shows like The Sound of Music and Falsettos. He made an unforgettable appearance in the 1998 Merchant Ivory film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, playing a painfully effeminate boy who sang Mozart to his classmates. The more grown up Costanzo received a formal education at Princeton, but that hugely promising future almost came to an early end.
Costanzo: I had thyroid cancer, and the thyroid sits on top of the nerves that control all vocal function, and cutting it off of those nerves is like pulling gum out of hair, so you just, if you nick the nerve in a wrong way you could maybe not speak the same way or not – So I had to, at about 26 or so, come to terms with the fact before I had this surgery that I may not be able to sing again. I don’t know what will happen, and that gave me a whole other perspective to approach what I do with, which is that it is not the most important thing in the world. That it’s there really not to serve me, but to serve other people in some way, and that’s when it’s most gratifying. I don’t need it as a human being in order to survive. What I’m interested in is impacting people, but I think the truth is that art really does change people. It can make people peaceful, it can make them compassionate, it can make them understand others’ experiences in ways that are really important, and that is something not to lose track of, so having the experience of almost losing my life and my voice, or one or the other in having cancer gave me, opened a window into that whole realm so that it doesn’t become some kind of vainglorious exercise.
And Costanzo has lent his remarkable voice to all kinds of stories, playing the gods of antiquity in 18th century operas by Handel and Vivaldi, and the eponymous Pharaoh in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. And then there are the uncharted regions of the work in progress dance opera Wolf-in-Skins based on an ancient Celtic myth, and uniquely suited to Anthony Roth Costanzo’s vocal capabilities.
Costanzo: Generally, opera is dream time. There’s a sort of vacuum where sound disappears and in between the notes, or when someone’s singing very softly, there’s a kind of intensity to the air quality that I can’t find anywhere else, and that collective experience, that community as you engage with art is a very special thing that I don’t think is to be taken for granted.