Behind the Gold Curtain
COUNTERTENOR ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO enjoys a remarkably versatile career. Equally at home performing a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR and on the monumental stage of the Met, Costanzo brings his enthusiasm, love of music, and eclectic repertory to audiences all over the world. Shortly after returning from a series of triumphal performances of Akhnaten in London this spring, Costanzo sat down with the Metropolitan Opera’s Kamala Schelling to discuss his voice type, the journey that brought him to the opera stage, and the unique challenges of singing Akhnaten’s title role.
KS: Tell us a little bit about how you got into music and singing. What first attracted you to opera in particular?
ARC: I started taking piano lessons when I was six, and it was my piano teacher who first suggested I try singing. I sang a lot of musical theater in my home town in North Carolina, but when I was 11, I decided I wanted to try singing professionally, in New York. I started by singing on Broadway, where I had an amazing time. Two years later, when I was 13, I was asked to do an opera. It was Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a complicated psychological story with very difficult, very beautiful music, and it had a kind of emotional expression that I hadn’t found in other music. I really liked having this connection to human emotion through art—that’s what got me hooked on opera. In a more general sense, opera deals with major subjects like love and death: things that happen only a handful of times in our lives. So opera lets us see and think about these major subjects through a lens of beautiful art, which I think is very valuable.
KS: Why and how is opera singing different from the other kinds of singing you’ve done?
ARC: Opera has no microphones; instead, we use singing techniques that are hundreds of years old to project our voices. If you think about opera as the Olympics of singing—as the most extreme thing that we can do with the human voice—you realize it’s all about the mechanics of how our bodies work. You have to use your body to get as much breath as possible, and then you have to control how that breath comes through your vocal cords. If we had no head—if our head was cut off at the throat—vocal cords would sound just like a kazoo. But as we change the shape of our mouth, or manipulate different pieces of skin in our throat, or use any of the other things we learn how to do as singers, that “kazoo” sound bounces around into what we call resonators and takes on shape and color. It’s really the shape of your face that determines the sounds you make, which is what is so cool and so deeply human about singing opera.
KS: You’re a countertenor, which is an unusual voice type in opera. Tell us about your voice: What is your range, and how do you do it?
ARC: I don’t want to rely too heavily on gender, but in the simplest terms I am basically a man singing in a woman’s register using what’s called “falsetto,” or the “head voice.” We all have two different vocal registers: our “chest voice,” which is the voice that we speak in, and our “head voice,” which you can find if you slide your voice all the way up until it cracks—that’s where the head voice begins. Now imagine you’re stretching a rubber band. The more you stretch it, or the shorter the piece of rubber you have, the higher the sound will be when you pluck it. What I’m doing with my vocal cords as a countertenor is either stretching them out or making them shorter so the sound they produce has a higher pitch. And I’m doing that by only vibrating part of my vocal cords. So we countertenors just take normal physiology, the standard tools that anyone uses when they speak or sing, and then do slightly different things with them.
KS: How did you discover that you wanted to be a countertenor? What made you want to focus on your falsetto range?
ARC: I sang on Broadway as a boy soprano, and I really enjoyed and had a lot of success with it. Then, when I was doing my first opera, people started saying, “Your voice has changed, but you’re still singing high; maybe you’re a countertenor.” I didn’t even know what that was, but I thought, “Well, if I can keep singing like this, then great!” So when I was about 13, I started to take lessons and figure out how to sing as a countertenor—very gently and in very simple ways—and I never looked back.
KS: Why do you think Philip Glass chose a countertenor for the role of Akhnaten?
ARC: There are statues and paintings from ancient Egypt that depict Akhnaten with some features—hips, chest, even lips and cheeks—that some people feel look more feminine. So was Akhnaten a hermaphrodite, or was he potentially trying to make himself more feminine because he saw god as the unification of man and woman? Akhnaten saw god as the sun, rather than as a specific, gendered person. And since Akhnaten made himself more female, was in a sense “between” man and woman, I think Philip Glass thought the perfect voice for this leader and thinker would be that of a countertenor, which straddles that line between masculine and feminine.
KS: You’ve sung a good deal of Philip Glass’s music. What are some of the challenges of singing his work?
ARC: First of all, memorizing Philip Glass’s music is almost impossible! There is a lot of repetition. Philip Glass will take a little chunk of music and repeat it two or three times, and then he’ll make a small change and repeat that two or three times, then make another small change and repeat that … So it’s easy to get lost. And Akhnaten is three hours of music—that’s a lot of music to remember, and a lot of repetition! The only way to learn it is to practice, practice, practice. It took me about four months to learn this music by heart. Also, once I enter in Akhnaten—which is about 15 minutes into the show—I’m singing almost the whole night through. And so, for me, singing Akhnaten is like running a marathon. I have to be really prepared, I have to be really strong vocally, and I have to understand how to pace myself, just like you would if you were running a long race.
KS: Akhnaten’s libretto features three ancient languages: Hebrew, ancient Egyptian, and Akkadian. What are the specific challenges of singing those languages?
ARC: Hebrew is a language that still exists, so we know how pronounce it. Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian are much more challenging, because we don’t know exactly how they were pronounced. We know what the consonants were, but (and this is my understanding from talking with Egyptologists and scholars) we don’t know exactly what the vowels were. For instance, if you look at how Philip Glass and one of the librettists, Shalom Goldman, chose to spell Akhnaten, you might notice it’s with one fewer E than you often see—sometimes it’s spelled Akhenaten. That was because we don’t know exactly how many Es were in there, so Goldman and Glass thought, “Well, it’s easier to say and easier to sing without that extra syllable, so we’ll just do the shorter version.”
KS: Akhnaten isn’t, of course, just music and poetry: Like all operas, it also has a huge production that goes along with it. Is there anything in particular we audience members should know going into it?
ARC: I think Phelim’s staging is, at its heart, about creating a sense of ritual and a sense of unlocking the spirits of the ancient world through our own concentration and attention. When this opera starts, and the music is very repetitive, and things are happening very slowly, I imagine people often think, “How am I going to make it through three hours of this?” But if you let yourself go there, if you take your mind away from swiping through apps on your phone or clicking through different tabs on your browser and let it slow down slightly to a different pace, the opera grabs you.