- When countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings, he confounds expectations of how a man should sound.
- Long before Kory Stamper started writing dictionaries, she was just a kid in love with language.
- Former NASA physicist Robert Lang finds a natural fit for his mathematical mind in the ancient art of origami.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that examines how creativity is the very essence of our humanity. On this episode of Articulate, When Anthony Roth-Costanza sings, he confounds expectations of how a man should sound.
Anthony Roth-Costanza: I can expand this idea of what is masculine or what is macho, as you’re saying. 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.
Tori Marchiony reports on how long before Kory Stamper became a Merriam-Webster lexicographer, she was just a kid in love with language.
Kory Stamper: For me, as a nerd in high school, I didn’t, I sure didn’t have looks, I was never gonna be popular, and I was way too smart to be cool. So the only thing I really had were words.
And, former NASA physicist Robert Lang found a natural fit for his mathematical mind in the ancient art of origami.
Robert Lang: Math is at its heart the study of patterns and relationships.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
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.
Grammar and language use may well be the last refuge of acceptable snobbery, yet in truth what is correct English cannot be dictated. It is changeable, democratic, and governed entirely by how real people apply it. For the past 20 years, Kory Stamper has spent most work days in silence, poring over the English language, searching for clarity that might help the rest of us define our lives. Writing dictionaries is a tiny niche. She’s one of only about 35 lexicographers working in the US today. So, it’s a good thing she’s really into it.
Kory Stamper: I’m agog when you use a word I don’t know! I love it, and I will, I’m the nerd that’s like wait, say it again, what does it mean? How do you spell it? Can you use that, can you use it in a different sentence? Can you use it as a verb? Can, you know and people are like—
AJC: I don’t know—
Stamper: “Lady, don’t talk to people on the bus,” like yeah.
When Kory Stamper graduated with a liberal arts degree that involved studying Latin, Greek, Norse, Old English, and Middle English, it was unclear what her career path might be, but when she got hired as an editorial assistant at Merriam-Webster, it was a natural fit for the Colorado girl who had grown up enchanted by words.
Stamper: For me, as a nerd in high school I didn’t, I shouldn’t have looks, was never going to be popular, and I was way too smart to be cool. I was in the band, so you know it’s like everything was against me in high school. So, the only thing I really had were words, and I just loved the sound of words in my mouth, and sort of as I discovered language more and more, like initially language just became a weapon. It was a way that I could deflect, so if someone was being horrible in the hall I could call them a troglodyte, and that you know everything would stop because cause nobody in high school knows what that word means, or I could you know call them ‘cacafuego,’ or I could call them ‘lickspittle’ and you know, I loved the word ‘lickspittle.’ For some reason it sounds so much more obscene than ‘brown noser,’ I just loved the way these words felt in my mouth. You know, you could really chew on them.
AJC: And where were you finding them? Were you sort of like someone would upset you in gym class and you’d go to your dictionary, or was it that you were just sort of taking notes in everything you were reading?
Kory Stamper: I mean it was kind of both, you know? I mean yeah, I was a voracious reader. I mean when I found my local library and started, I would just start pulling books at random. Just I’ll take this, I’ll take this, I’ll take this, and so I’d find some of these words in the course of reading and then you know also in the course of reading, encountering words that I didn’t know what they would mean, I’d go to the dictionary to look them up. And then you know you spend five minutes sort of flipping through and just looking at words that catch your eye. So, I did both of it. I sort of, I collected from all sorts of different places.
To Stamper’s delight, lexicography would turn out to involve quite a bit of reading, but it’s a very specific type of close, critical reading called ‘marking’ in which lexicographers search for examples of how words are being used in different contexts in everyday life. Those examples become citations, the building blocks of definitions. For Stamper, marking has become such a compulsion that reading for fun is nearly impossible.
Stamper: Yeah, it really messes you up. When I read for pleasure, I usually have to read the first chapter two or three times just to be like okay, we’re not at work, I’m not at work, it’s not a problem.
AJC: Was that sad that, I mean sometimes they say don’t make what you love your work because it’ll become work.
Stamper: I don’t know that I’d say it was sad. It took getting used to, I think.
AJC: So, does it feel like a calling then? Because also jobs that you can’t leave at the office, then so much become who you are.
Stamper: Right, first anyone who stays at this job for as long as I’ve been at it, you really have to love it because it’s not an easy job to do. So, in that sense, it is like a calling because you do end up devoting yourself to it in a way that I think most people who have long term careers probably don’t, because it does change how you interact with language, and you interact with language all the time. On the other hand, it is kind of like any other job, and I think the idea of it being a calling also gives you a sense of being like ‘yes, you were made to do this.’ I think that perpetuates this idea that lexicography is some sort of special, divine gift or it’s some kind of inspired art, and it’s not.
It took Stamper about 10 years to get a handle on the craft of lexicography. In 2017’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, she details the rigorous training process, which began with several months of close instruction. During this crash course, Stamper learned many truths about the English language that broke grammatical rules, the same ones she had always been taught to invest so much of her self-esteem in.
Stamper: If you are raised in the American educational system, your view of language is –there’s a bunch of it that’s right and there’s a bunch of it that’s wrong. If you use this, you’re going to get an A. If you use this, you’re going to get a D. And the reason that you need to know those is because you need to understand sort of this broader picture that people have of language, mostly so you can start tearing it apart. You know there’s sort of a breaking point I think for every lexicographer where you come up against a word you hate, or a word you believe is unworthy or a word you don’t even think is a word, and you have to grapple with it actually being a word, or being something that people use, or having a context that makes it worth entering. And yeah, there’s a little death to self there, like you have to be willing to let it go and I think the benefit of it is that it actually makes, it makes you a more gracious listener. I can then engage in a conversation or listen to a person and not be hung up when they misuse the subjunctive, or when they confuse lay and lie or when they use that when they should’ve used which. You know, all these fiddly little rules and in the moment it’s more about communication. It’s not so much about catching people in error. So I think if you’re willing to let go of all of that. If you’re willing to acknowledge that English is a mess, and it still holds together, then it makes you a more gracious person and it makes you more interested in language in a right way as opposed to in a way to shame other people.
AJC: And then in terms of the ocean that you swim in, I feel like it would be really easy to both talk yourself into and out of an existential crisis every single day. Of like ‘oh my god, this is so important and then ‘oh my god this doesn’t matter at all. We’re just going to do another dictionary after this.’ So sort of how do you, where’s your inner peace in these—
Stamper: It’s yeah, there are times where especially you finish a dictionary, it’s out the door. There’s sort of this, you get a couple of days to you know, breathe, read, and then we’re back at it and there’s a sense sometimes where the minute I put it in writing, it’s out of date. And there is a sense of like why? Why do I bother? But I think if you are committed to doing this, and if you’re a lexicographer you also understand that language is always going to outstrip whatever we try and do, and then it becomes a chase.
A chase to perfectly document the evolution of a language as imperfect as those who speak it.
The celebrated origami artist and former NASA physicist Robert J. Lang can fold forms of great beauty, but also great purpose. For years, companies have been commissioning him to apply his folding expertise to their real-world problems, like virtually testing airbags, but today Lang is on the brink of a breakthrough that could transform healing forever.
Robert J. Lang: I have one client right now and I can’t say what it is, but it has to do with cancer, and it’ll play a significant role in the life saving treatments.
AJC: When will you be able to tell us about it?
Lang: I hope within a year. I think my client probably hopes within a year, but—
AJC: And this is something, and I’m not going to pester you, but it’s something that’s directly related to the art of origami.
Robert Lang folded his first shape more than 50 years ago, and he says he’s still completely enamored with his chosen medium.
Lang: Paper has one very unique property that almost no other sheet-like material has, which is if I make a fold one way and then unfold it, the paper remembers that and naturally folds easily the other direction in exactly the same place.
AJC: Interesting. Then that paper has a memory.
Lang: You can do things with paper that you can’t do with any other material.
Not that Lang hasn’t made other materials work for him. As a physicist at NASA’s jet propulsion lab, his work in lights and lasers generated 46 patents, and though on the surface optics and origami might seem worlds apart, a calculated approach has served Lang well in both fields, confirming his belief that beauty can be measured objectively.
Lang: Math is at its heart the study of patterns and relationships, and because we as human beings respond, often favorably, to patterns, we see repeating patterns and we say that’s beautiful. If it’s a mix of repetition and some randomness, but in the right balance and that’s an aesthetic judgment we say that’s beautiful and we can describe those patterns using math.
One of Lang’s early innovations was to impose mathematical discipline on origami. His technique circle/river packing was detailed in his book Origami Design Secrets, now a standard tome for all aspiring origami artists. On his first trip to Japan in 1992, Lang was introduced to another calculated folder, Toshiyuki Meguro. As it turned out, both men had developed similar theories concurrently, without ever knowing of each other’s efforts.
Lang: And we were both kind of surprised. Someone else had come up with the same idea of using circles to represent flaps and turning it into mathematical packing problems.
Lang: But the beauty of mathematics is it is universal and I’m a mathematical Platonist, meaning I think there is a mathematical reality out there that anyone can discover.
And Lang has made sharing his own discoveries something of a personal mission. TreeMaker is his popular computer program that generates origami crease patterns, which can then be printed and folded.
Lang: Some people don’t need or want those particular tools. They use other tools, they use their intuition, and that’s great, but there are a lot of people who want to design complex figures because that’s the aesthetic excitement, and the only way they’re going to be able to do that is to use these mathematical tools, and so by presenting these tools they can now achieve their artistic vision.
AJC: It was generous of you.
Lang: I didn’t even think about it in terms of generosity. It was more like I want everyone to be able to do what I’ve been able to do by using those tools. I first got into it, I wanted to fold things at a level of precision and detail that I’d never been able to, and I’d never seen anyone else be able to, and once I started achieving that, each act of creation you get this little thrill of adrenaline from, and I wanted other people to be able to get that same thrill of adrenaline.
AJC: What happens when you go? I mean, is there somebody in this neighborhood who can come in here and take over what you’re doing?
Lang: Oh, there have been over the last 30 years, a generation of young folders who are doing amazing things. Things that I wish I could do, and I console myself when they say well, I’m using a X move, and I go that was one of mine. So that’s my satisfaction. In origami we give away our secrets. The things I come up with, I try very hard to get out there and what I’ve seen is not just that people have adopted the techniques I developed, but they’ve built on them, they’ve advanced them, they’ve developed new techniques that are legitimately their own brilliant innovations. The world’s and origami’s going to keep going.