A Conversation with Superstar Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo 

For Anthony Roth Costanzo, every year is a milestone year in the extraordinarily broad scope of his artistic, educational, and civic work, and 2022 is especially significant. The New-York Historical Society recently announced that, at its Annual Gala on October 6, it will present the 2022 History Makers Award to Anthony for his activism, leadership, and achievements in culture and the arts. The multifaceted and socially engaged artist has also just received an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater, Manhattan School of Music, as well as a grant from the Mellon Foundation for his initiative, THE CREATIVE ARC, to assist him in expanding his innovative and collaborative work as creative producer. Currently, Anthony is regaling Metropolitan Opera audiences with his breathtaking performances as the title character of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, the recording of which won him a Grammy in the Best Opera Recording category this year. Glass’s revolutionary Pharaoh is a role he has been embodying to universal acclaim since 2016. For his dedication to historical research and the dispelling of stereotypes about ancient Egyptian culture, Oxford University has awarded Anthony an Egyptology Fellowship beginning this November. 

Anthony’s ability to unveil connections between past and present in artistic and human revelations that infuse the past with relevancy to our times continues to offer audiences compelling philosophical and educational opportunities of inquiry and wonder. At the same time, his visionary perspectives are forging new paths in culture and the arts. I am delighted and thankful that Anthony took the time between his Akhnaten performances to share some of his thoughts with our readers. For his detailed bio and additional information about his work, please click on the links at the end of this interview. 

Anthony Roth Costanzo as the title role in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten – Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

First of all, congratulations on receiving the New-York Historical Society’s 2022 History Makers Award. What does this wonderful recognition mean to you?

I’m so honored by it! If you look at the history of the people it’s been given to, it has a special significance. What it recognizes is my civic engagement, especially in the city of New York and that feels really emotional and meaningful to me. It puts in the foreground some of the work that’s really important to me and that doesn’t always get as much recognition as my singing or my performing. This work is how we can create points of access and engagement in the arts and through the arts that have an impact on our society. I think the New-York Historical Society is a place that does that beautifully, and so, to be recognized by them is a real honor.

You’re currently singing Akhnaten at the Met. Ever since you performed this role first in 2016 with English National Opera, you’ve probably been asked hundreds of questions about it. Your embodiment of the character is a masterpiece of vocality and motion in a mesmerizing production. In what ways do you think that your artistic, historical, and personal journey with this role has transformed you? 

It’s an excellent question. You know, there are very few times in your career when you find a project that takes all of the different skills and aspects of your life and combines them into one artistic product, and I think that’s what Akhnaten has done. I spent a lot of time at Princeton studying academic subjects and trying to figure out how to connect them interdisciplinarily to art, and Akhnaten is a wonderful example of that. I’m really excited to be going to Oxford to do the Egyptology Fellowship in the fall because I’ve spent so much time thinking about this subject and Akhnaten, about how to take history and make it feel vivid and emotional for an audience today. I think that’s something that scholars are particularly concerned with because they do a lot of work that audiences have no way to connect to, if that makes sense; they have no way to have a visceral experience of it. So, I love that we’ve been able to use the research, and then I’ve been able to find the physicality which I feel represents different aspects of the antiquity and the colors in my voice that illustrate different aspects of this great Pharaoh.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten with Philip Glass – L.A. Opera 2016 – Photo: courtesy of Anthony Roth Costanzo

Akhnaten, the human being (whose name we often see written as Akhenaten), reflects gender fluidity. The Pharaoh displayed male and female characteristics, and he fathered several children. What are your thoughts on Akhnaten as a very modern symbol, relevant to our times as we continue transcending traditional gender and sexuality boundaries and expressions?

It keeps taking on different relevancies each time we do it. The gender fluidity is certainly something that has really drawn me to it, as a part of the queer community and as I embarked upon the project I did with Justin Vivian Bond. You know, having that way of connecting to this Pharaoh, whether or not Akhnaten saw himself as non-binary or any of the words we might use today, it seems clear that at the time there was a lack of definition of gender in the conventional way, which was really progressive, to use another contemporary word. But also, Akhnaten makes us think about power and about good and evil. Through the years of Trump or through this moment with such violence happening, we think about what Akhnaten was teaching and what he was doing, and where those two things intersect. For example, he had to take away the old order priests in order to establish his new religion, and there’s an idea that it must have been done with violence. The power that he had and how he used it, there are ways to idealize that and there are ways to think about that in a very sinister sense. Those dichotomies are really interesting, and I think about them on stage when I’m portraying him. In the context of any of the current events happening today, Akhnaten really represents and can represent a tremendous amount.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Dionysus in John Corigliano’s Lord of Cries world premiere at Santa Fe Opera, July 2021 – Photo: Curtis Brown

What are you most excited to do during your time at Oxford?

With the Ashmolean Museum and the Egyptologist Richard Parkinson, I’m excited to have incredible access to materials and archives in Egyptology, to look through them and then figure out how to create performances, both micro and macro, in ways that make aspects of those archives and primary materials more legible to anyone. It’s a very exciting thing to be tasked with and it provides an opportunity for collaboration, again with a different genre—this time, Egyptology—and incorporating that into my practice and my artistic process.

It would be so interesting to see you as Akhnaten after your time at Oxford and observe how it has informed your interpretation of the role.

Luckily, I return to Akhnaten very soon after, in London, at the English National Opera in March 2023.

Your work in outreach and education is immense. What does it mean to you to see the amazement on kids’ faces when you let out that glorious countertenor sound that they probably don’t expect?

I love it! I love the surprise that kids and other people feel. Kids need something to draw them out of their phones, out of the computers, out of their contemporary lives and into this seemingly obscure and foreboding world of classical music. It’s not something people in general have an interest in necessarily. I think that’s the advantage of the kind of shock and surprise of the countertenor voice: when I sing for them, it takes them off guard and I see them laugh or want to make fun of me at first or they think it’s too loud. But then it engages them immediately. So, I welcome all of those reactions and I love them. And then I start to refer to pop singers they like, like Justin Bieber or even Michael Jackson, who use that register in different ways.

For those who do not know, the countertenor voice usually lies within the contralto/mezzo-soprano range…

Exactly.

How does a countertenor produce such a volume of sound from falsetto which seems more fragile and yet can have such power? What happens to the vocal cords when you sing as a countertenor? Do you engage them in a different way? 

Well, there are ways in which I feel anyone can be a countertenor. Of course, there’s a kind of natural facility that helps, but we’re using two things: breath and resonance. Resonance has to do with the shape of the bones in your face and in your head, and with how you use those shapes so you can change the vowel for the sound in your mouth to create more of that resonance. And then the breath, in how you send it up through your vocal cords, will control how full or how complete the sound is. A lot of falsettos we hear sound kind of airy, and that’s because the vocal cords aren’t coming all the way together. But if you use your breath very intelligently you can compensate for the way the vocal cords come together so that you have a more complete sound. So, yes, there’s a different way that you bring the vocal cords together, and even a different set of muscles, in order to make this sound. Like going to the gym or training for something, it’s about getting used to that, and figuring out how to do it in the most efficient and effective way. Once you learn how to do those things, then that’s really all it is: a reinforced well-executed falsetto.

Anthony Roth Costanzo in recital, Harriman Jewell Series in Kansas City, December 2021 – Photo: Andrew Schwartz (Veritography)

You’ve had a terrible scare when you were diagnosed with thyroid cancer more than ten years ago. It was so close to your vocal cords, to the nerves around your singing apparatus that the slightest error in surgery could have ended your career. And after two successful surgeries, you had the incredible patience to sing for only two minutes a day for six weeks until you could sing an aria again. What kept you strong throughout that entire ordeal?

I’m very lucky to have two parents who are both psychologists and also both wonderful people. So that combination was great, and they kept me very grounded and focused. Also, I’m an eternal optimist, which brings me a lot of willpower to do what I need to do, to be disciplined in my approach to things like recuperation. My psychological approach was to not let the despair or anxiety that could accompany something like that increase my debilitation, but rather have the motivation and the excitement for new possibility drive me to want to recreate my instrument. 

As difficult as something like that feels in the moment, it can be a wonderful opportunity. It  changes your life forever in that you have a different perspective, you have a different understanding of what’s meaningful in life, and that, ultimately, has fed my art and has fed who I am as a human. So, you don’t always know whether, when something bad happens, it is actually producing a kind of positive attribute for the future that could be extremely valuable, which was what happened in my case.

Anthony Roth Costanzo with conductor Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic in January 2022 – Photo: Chris Lee

During the 2021-22 season, you were artist-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic where you performed and curated programming to reflect on questions of identity. Please tell us more about your mission for your work there. 

As a countertenor I think a lot about the fact that I look different from the way I sound. So, there’s a gap between expression and perception. One of the questions I wanted to ask with this artist-in-residence series was: what is the authentic self?  Is it the way we look? Is it the way we sound? Is it some vacillation or hybrid between the two? I wanted to represent a multitude of voices, not only my own, through music, and see how music can reflect and tell the stories of many voices not just one. Also, I wanted to explore how the personal perspective and the approach conceived from my personal experience can connect me to the experience of others and different communities around the city and even broader than that. So, we did a bunch of programming not only with the orchestra, but I went to the Bronx to work with students. We just had an event in collaboration with our partners from Bandwagon, an initiative I created with the Philharmonic over the pandemic to bring music to all of the New York City boroughs. We’ve done a lot of different things with my artist residency, and it’s been a total joy.

Anthony Roth Costanzo with Justin Vivian Bond in the Only an Octave Apart show at St. Ann’s Warehouse, September 2021 – Photo: Nina Westervelt

What is coming up for you that you’d like to share with us?

I’m really excited about the album I released and the show of that album, Only an Octave Apart, which is a collaboration with Justin Vivian Bond and speaks to some of these issues of authenticity. In fact, Vivian participated in my residency with the New York Philharmonic. That show will be taking its next journey and we’ll continue to perform it. It started at St. Ann’s Warehouse, went to the New York Philharmonic, and now it’s going above and beyond to its next level. And I’m thrilled about a show I conceived, created, and sing in called “Glass/Handel” which is a combination of music by Philip Glass and Handel in a collaboration with artists from the painter George Condo to Raf Simmons, the fashion designer, and the choreographer Justin Peck, filmmakers James Ivory, Tilda Swinton, and Mickalene Thomas, and many others. That project will go to the BBC Proms in September.

You live in New York. What does this amazing city mean to you? 

That’s a great question because I love New York City! I can never live anywhere else; I’ll always live in New York. What I love about living in this city is that I don’t have to be inspired by myself. I can walk outside the door and be inspired by the people I see, the places I go to, the culture that’s around me. It is full of so much richness and humanity, and so much diversity of experience. I find that so beautiful that it feels like it makes life worth living. I love to be able to connect to the city and to grow my connections to different audiences. You know, when we were doing an Akhnaten engagement project working in different boroughs including at the Bay Plaza Mall in the Bronx where I had never been before, I got to connect with new audiences, and that’s thrilling to me. I feel like I want to sing for every single person in New York before I’m done singing!

Do you have any special message for your countless fans here?

I’m thrilled that they continue to come to Akhnaten over and over as well as to everything else, and I’m excited to find new projects to tell their stories and to engage with them on.

Discover more:

Anthony Roth Costanzo’s website

See Anthony Roth Costanzo in Akhnaten at the Met through June 10

Akhnaten costume design competition

Anthony Roth Costanzo speaks and sings to 6th graders in the Bronx

About Maria-Cristina Necula (139 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina is the recipient of a 2022 New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.