When countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was 11 years old, he performed in a Broadway production of “The Sound of Music” alongside capital-P Personality Marie Osmond. Out of the goodness of her heart, Osmond offered the boy a deep discount on her range of dolls, a line she developed with the television shopping channel QVC. Costanzo ended up buying it for about $30. He still owns the doll, and may occasionally use it to scare the living daylights out of innocent reporters.
Nearly 30 years on, this story illustrates Costanzo’s enduring fascination with high camp, a subject on which he trains his clean tone and excellent technique. On January 28, Costanzo and his frequent collaborator—another Personality, Justin Vivian Bond—will release their joint album, “Only an Octave Apart.” I recently spoke with Costanzo on Zoom about the musical benefits of a gym body, the dangers of classical singers performing popular music, and the luxurious boredom of the opera.
VAN: In 2019, you were interviewed by Justin Vivian Bond for BOMB Magazine, and you two joked merging into one artistic personality. With this new album coming out, do you still feel that’s true?
Anthony Roth Costanzo: We were born one day apart. We’re both these determined Tauruses. What we realized is there are some ways in which we’re very similar, but there are other ways in which we complement each other. Viv is incredibly incisive, clear, and free—and I am unerringly diligent. Really, that’s my only quality: diligence. I can carry forth the visions that we have together.
With a cabaret artist and a classical singer, the priorities for what you want to hear on a finished album seem like they’d be pretty different. How did you find the take where you were both satisfied?
The one priority that’s the same [for us] is spontaneity. Good opera sounds spontaneous. Voice teachers are always saying, “Sing this as if you’re saying the words for the first time.” It’s the same in cabaret, but how we arrive there is very different. I think there is a precision that I am going for… Viv is very precise in their way, but they’re going for the feeling of the track. And I’m like, “Oh my God, that B-flat sounded horrible.” Viv was incredibly patient in the studio. They were pretty much ready in one or two takes and I was like, “I need to do it again.”
When classical musicians do more pop-influenced albums, it often sounds tense, over-enunciated, overly on the beat. Think of the Jonas Kaufmann Christmas album. Was that something you had to consciously work at letting go of?
As this project was happening, there was this dirty word that we kept hearing people talk about: crossover. I don’t think the album is crossover. I feel each art form heightens the other. It’s not a blend. That said, when I was going to sing “Under Pressure,” I was like, “Oh my God, no; I sound like one of these opera singers singing a pop song.” It is, as you said, a question of how you pronounce the words. If you make it too poppy, you sound like an opera singer trying to sound like a pop singer.
It’s a delicate balance. As a countertenor, you’re always on the edge of Mickey Mouse anyway, so it’s about finding it. We worked with Zack Winokur, who directed the show. He was also there for all the workshops on the album. He was my sounding board, like, “I don’t buy that. It doesn’t sound honest.” At the end, it’s not so much about the enunciation or the vibrato, it’s about what feels honest.
In an interview with NPR, you talked about how castrati were considered ambivalent sex symbols in their time. I feel like something similar is true of countertenors today. Do you think there’s a connection?
Absolutely. I think that lineage carries forward. Many pop countertenors, like Prince, exploit the same fascination with the high voice: what it can mean, what it can do in this body. One of the things that I’ve been talking about for this series I’m doing with the New York Philharmonic called Authentic Selves is: If I look different from the way I sound, how do I either close the gap, or leave it between expression and perception? Because we’re perceived one way and we express ourselves another. I think that disparity can be sexy. Maybe the word is titillating, even, because it is so shocking to people on some level.
When I sing in a room, people don’t necessarily understand the relationship between the voice and the body, which I enjoy. Funnily enough, one of the adjectives that has been most used to describe my voice—we used to keep a tally of how many times The New York Times said it—was the word “penetrating.” I found that funny.
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How many times was it used?
I think they used that like four times or something, which is a lot of times.
With the New York Philharmonic, you organized the Bandwagon project, performing concerns outdoors in New York City. Did you ever get funny comments?
My favorite thing was that the construction workers would often sing back in falsetto, which I love. People passing in a car would roll down their windows and sing.
You’ve admitted that you fall asleep sometimes at the opera. Can you remember the last opera where that happened?
I almost fell asleep during “Tosca,” which is the last opera I saw at the Met. But Viv’s line about that is that the best part about falling asleep at the opera is waking up at the opera. I guess it’s a part of my whole campaign that opera can be boring and that’s fabulous. We should have that as a part of our lives and embrace that. Being bored with an entire orchestra and beautiful costumes and sets feels like the greatest luxury. It allows space for reflection that we maybe don’t otherwise do. I love getting to that REM state at the opera.
You’ve talked often about the moment when you entered the Met stage naked for “Akhnaten.” You’ve said that you were in the gym a lot to prepare for that, but why was going to the gym so important to you?
A good question. We did the waxing for the full authenticity of ancient Egypt—they hated hair—but the statues of Akhnaten clearly show him with a belly. I think there are two answers. One is, there’s a ritual and discipline that gets me into this place where I can be on stage for three and a half hours straight, walking really, really slowly up and downstairs and the cross-stage. I remember when I was first doing “Akhnaten” in London, there’s one scene at the beginning of Act II that is impossible to memorize. Every morning I would go on the treadmill. It was a 12-minute scene, so I’d run for 12 minutes to the rhythm of it. There was a ritualistic aspect to it.
The other thing is, if someone told you you’re going to be naked in front of 4,000 people, many of whom are your close friends who’ve all come to see you… You want to look your best for your wedding. It’s like a naked version of that. I feel like everybody might want to look their best in that scenario.
Sure, but looking your best doesn’t necessarily mean having an extremely chiseled physique.
Psychologically, it’s about making that effort and knowing you’re going to do it. Also, there’s a way in which it’s a loss of control and a way in which it’s freedom to be naked on stage. There are moments of sheer terror. Then there are these moments when it’s actually happening, where you have to command and channel the audience’s attention for it to become ritual instead of silliness or sensuality, and it feels incredibly free. Like the most free you’ve ever been. That’s exciting, but both of those things involve loss of control. I feel like working out is the one way to feel I have control over some aspect of the situation."Opera can be boring and that's fabulous.… Being bored with an entire orchestra and beautiful costumes and sets feels like the greatest luxury." Countertenor @a_r_costanzo on falling asleep at the opera in @vanmusicmag. Click To Tweet
In interviews, you often mention your teacher, Joan Patenaude-Yarnell. Do you still take lessons with her?
I have one Sunday at three. She’s iconic, a high diva. She says these amazing things sometimes that sound so ridiculous. She speaks in a Mid-Atlantic accent. She’s from Canada originally but has this Golden Age air about her. I started with her when I was 16, so we’re on year 23 now.
The singers that I knew in conservatory had a lot of ups and downs with their vocal teachers. Was that similar for you and Patenaude-Yarnell?
We have small hills and valleys. Singing is so personal: You feel so much ownership over it because it’s your body. Sometimes you don’t want to hear what they’re saying or you don’t think it’s right, but we lock horns and then we resolve it. When I had cancer, Joan was amazing. Two weeks after my surgery, she was like, “Come every morning before I start my lessons at school and we’ll do three minutes a day.” We did three minutes a day for a week, and then we moved it to five and then on from there. When someone is that much a part of your life from a teenager through cancer… it becomes a real way to remember who you are. ¶
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