One of the world’s most singular and celebrated young vocal artists, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo also has demonstrated an impresario’s bold instincts since his student days at Princeton University. A curator at National Sawdust from its inception, Costanzo fashioned one of the most striking presentations of the young organization’s inaugural season with Orphic Moments, a multi-sensory experience that combined myth-based works by Gluck and Matthew Aucoin, staged by director Doug Fitch, with a bespoke banquet prepared by Patrick Connolly.
The success of that undertaking emboldened National Sawdust to devote much of its second season to opera, mounting nine bold new productions. Now, Costanzo returns to offer a tenth: Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a seldom-encountered dramatic serenata from 1708. Jointly produced by Costanzo, Cath Brittan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and National Sawdust, the work is being staged by Christopher Alden, one of the opera world’s most insightful, inventive directors, incorporating electronic audio design and interactive video technology created by Mark Grey.
The production opens at National Sawdust on July 12, with additional performances July 13, 19, and 20. Over lunch during a recent long day of rehearsals uptown, Costanzo and Alden discussed how they had come together, what they found compelling about this particular piece, and what it is about Handel that makes his works so emotionally specific, yet dramatically universal.
THE LOG JOURNAL: Let’s just start at the beginning: How did this project come about?
ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO: I’ve been a curator at Sawdust since before it opened, and the first thing I did there was Orphic Moments, which was unexpectedly a sort of success – not only for us, but also for Sawdust. It seemed to open up the possibility of doing fully staged operas there. And because of that – at least, this is what they say – this season they’ve done nine operas. We’ll be the tenth.
That said, they said, “You should do another one,” and I thought, oh, god, what am I going to do? I spent a long, long, long time agonizing over what I wanted to do, and then also with whom I wanted to do it, which is very important to me. And Christopher was the first person I called. We had done a Handel opera together at San Francisco together, which I just thought was fantastic. We did Partenope, his famous production of that. And I said, hey, basically there’s going to be no money, there’s going to be nothing, but do you want to do this, and we’ll have a good time? And he said, sure.
I’d been rooting through cantatas and toying with the idea of doing new and old, but last time I’d done the Matt Aucoin piece with Gluck, and I didn’t want to do the same sort of half-and-half. But, it’s difficult to bring a straightforward Handel piece into Sawdust, even though Handel is in a lot of ways very forward-thinking in his own right. I came across Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, this serenata, which… I don’t think we can call it exactly rare, but let’s just say it’s been done maybe once in the U.S., once somewhere, staged. This is basically one of the first stagings ever done in this country.
CHRISTOPHER ALDEN: They did it at Lincoln Center a couple of years ago.
COSTANZO: They did a concert version.
ALDEN: What’s that festival… the White Light Festival.
CONSTANZO: They didn’t stage Aci…
ALDEN: No, no, but Emmanuelle Haïm…
COSTANZO: …did her thing with it. I mean, it goes around, but it’s not one of the more recognizable Handel pieces. And he wrote it for a wedding, and it seemed right for that environment. Then we came up with this idea of using Mark Grey, who’s a sound designer and composer, to sort of take and distort some of the recitative, and have technology be an instrument in the continuo. Because in Handel – and in every Baroque opera, really – the arias are not about moving the plot forward; they’re about expressing an emotion, so there’s more abstraction possible. So, to play with that in the recits and try to keep the arias somewhat intact, but also to use Christopher’s inspiration to get into a sound world and a visual world with the staging and the videos, to make it a new piece as well as an old piece.
I’m certain that I’m familiar with Mark Grey’s work. He collaborated with John Adams for the electronic elements of On the Transmigration of Souls, correct?
ALDEN: He’s done all the John Adams operas.
COSTANZO: All the John Adams, Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass – he’s done all those guys. And basically any opera house or any symphony that is doing anything like that, Mark Grey travels around…
ALDEN: Anything written with amplification in it.
COSTANZO: But also, La Monnaie commissioned him for an opera, and that will premiere in ’18 there – Frankenstein. So he’s a serious and cool composer, but this is the first time he’s ever done visual stuff. And the visual stuff is all based on this Xbox technology. We literally have an Xbox there that sends out invisible dots into the space, and can track your motion and your face, all of that stuff. And that’s reflected in the video, and then that can be mirrored by what’s happening in the sound world.
You’ve spoken a bit about the piece and its milieu: that it was written for a wedding, that it wasn’t strictly intended for the theater. Beyond those basics, what interested you about this particular Handel work?
COSTANZO: The libretto is just, like, gory. It’s like a horror film, and the fact that it was written for a wedding we find very funny. But, you know, the other thing that’s interesting is that Acis was written for a soprano – the boy was written for a soprano – and Galatea for a mezzo. I found that to be somehow gender-fluid, because usually Handel writes the boy for a mezzo and the girl for a soprano. So I just thought, that’s kind of weird, isn’t it? And normally you wouldn’t have a man play Galatea, although in the day of the castrati, anything went. But, that said, there was this interest to me in approaching it: to have a male play Galatea, would that mean he would be in drag? Well, not in our case. Would that mean that Galatea was a man? Or was it something we wouldn’t deal with, and let it kind of be what it was? And then, what is a Cyclops? How would Christopher deal with that?
ALDEN: We were preparing this around the time of the election, so anything that anyone was doing at that time – and continuing to this moment – is totally so focused on all of that. It’s hard in any artistic endeavor one is working on to not somehow put it in relationship to the horrible time that we’re all going through now. And the piece seems to resonate, to me, very strongly in terms of what we’re all going through: this piece about this powerful, monstrous creature, the Cyclops, coming up against these two people in love with each other, and invading their relationship, and wanting to split them and assert his power, and pussy-grab one of the two people in that couple. Cyclops, Polyphemus, feels like this powerful image of male patriarchal dominance.
COSTANZO: Also in that the Cyclops has this limited vision, a kind of blinders-on feeling to it. The other thing I remember is that I’d seen your Don Giovanni at City Opera, with the blood [slaps hand on wall] that stays on the wall from the very beginning. In this piece, there’s an aria about the blood flowing out of Acis’s veins, and that the soul goes with that, and then the blood flows into the river. And Galatea says, as a water nymph: I’m embraced by your blood, and I’ll always live with you because your blood will become the river. I mean, it’s a ridiculously gruesome libretto in that way. I felt that we could really figure something out that was timely, and also [to Alden] your jam.
ALDEN: First I was thinking, Acis and Galatea, make them be contestants in the Miss Universe Pageant, and he comes into their dressing room and sexually harasses one or both of them. But then I moved somewhat beyond the literalness of that, and to the golden bathroom in Trump Tower. That’s floating around so many people’s imaginations now; in this recent Julius Caesar, Caesar was Trump, and there was a scene set in the golden bathroom.
We’ve moved somewhat away from that, but we’re still inspired by that idea: this guy who is the most powerful man in the world, up against these two people who have the least power in the world, but they have something that he will never have, this intense love for each other – which means that in their own way, they’re ultimately much more powerful and fulfilled than he will ever be. And all of the imagery in the piece is all water, blood – it’s supposed to be a sea nymph, etcetera, etcetera – and that was indeed an inspiration to just set it all in a bathroom with this powerful man, with the two servants that are preparing his bath, and the relationship plays out from there.
COSTANZO: One other thing we found when we started rehearsing this, I think, is that we had the feeling – and I don’t know that the audience would ever know this from anything we did – that the two workers are undocumented immigrants. The stakes are even higher, in that he can threaten them; if they stand up for themselves, they can sort of be sent home, so there’s an even greater disparity there.
What is it that you find in Handel that allows for such universality? There seems to be something about his work that makes it very nearly as timeless as the Shakespeare we just encountered in Central Park.
ALDEN: Absolutely, yeah. The great thing about Handel operas is that on one level they’re written very specifically – the psychology of the characters is beautifully composed by Handel, and he brings his characters to life in an amazing, three-dimensional way. But on the other hand, the settings of his pieces are really, in a funny way, not that important. The psychology of his characters, which is so specifically portrayed, still seems so close and so true to the psychology of the way people are in our time. So his pieces are very easy to pull out from the eras they’re based in and put them wherever you want. The characters are so alive and the situations are so potently portrayed that it’s very inspiring. It’s not hard to make them exciting and relevant to an audience in our own moment.
COSTANZO: Having just done a Vivaldi opera, which is all about the convoluted plot, Handel’s music is very much focused on emotion. He’s incredibly inventive, but I was talking once with somebody about the difference between singing Handel and Bach, who’s also very inventive: With Bach, you have to be two measures ahead of whatever you’re doing, and with Handel you can be completely in the measure, in that he lets you live emotionally through his harmony changes – as opposed to these cascading harmony changes that are coming a mile a minute, which are fascinating musically, but they don’t allow for dramatic expression in the same way.
In fact, if I sing Bach, some people might say, stop making it so dramatic! Clean it up, and sing the Bach. Whereas Handel, if you clean it up there’s really nothing there. What he does is he leaves space. Like, when I work with choreographers… I worked a lot with Karole Armitage. She would say, “I’m looking for music.” I would say, tell me something important about the music. And she would say, “It’s got to leave space for the choreography.” Handel knows how to leave space, for the performer and for the director and for the drama. He leaves that space, which is a kind of ineffable thing.
It’s also incredibly malleable. This is another obvious thing to say, but the continuo and the recits, what we’re playing with is what they were playing with. There’s just a sketch of a bass note on the page. It’s like, you fill this in for whatever you think it should be. The same is true, of course, of ornamentation. I try never to sing da capos as a repeat, which is technically what they are, but rather as a journey forward. If I’m on the phone telling my mother something, that’s the A section, and then in the B section she says, no, no, that’s a stupid way of thinking about it. But that probably won’t change what I’m thinking; I’ll just return to it, and I’ll think of it in a new light with her feedback. It’s very human: we always circle back, and then we hash things and come to a new place with them. So I always see them as moving forward, psychologically, and that is why the ornaments occur. They don’t just occur as a musical decoration, but rather as a manifestation of the psychology.
There’s such a paradox in Handel leaving so much space for interpretation and personalization, but also having this unerring ability to still cast a story that has resonance throughout the ages. Is that because everybody gets to embody it in their own way?
COSTANZO: Yeah. I sing a lot of stuff before 1750 and a lot of stuff after 1950, and those two things are much closer than everything that came in between. The other thing, of course, is that harmony and musical tropes were not quite as fixed in stone. Especially in 1708, things weren’t as ossified. So it’s not quite as weird as Monteverdi, but it retains that contemporary feeling of harmonic disorientation and sometimes rhythmic disorientation, but it is somehow more codified in a sort of “oh, that’s a tune I can recognize” kind of way.
ALDEN: From a theatrical standpoint, I always feel much closer to the sensibility of Handel pieces, and pieces from that era, in a lot of ways than I do to 19th century music. The cool, urban, somewhat literary-based work and rationally based work is much more appealing to me, in a lot of ways, than the 19th-century heavier Romantic heart-on-sleeve aspect of opera. It feels closer to our kind of cool, ironic, postmodern sensibilities in many ways than doing a Verdi opera.
What are the specific challenges, and perhaps the specific delights, of mounting this production in the National Sawdust space?
ALDEN: I always think opera is more interesting anywhere other than in opera houses. If you put it in a space that it can resonate up against, then that, to me, is always more interesting. Also, without a barrier between the audience and performers – the orchestra pit, for example.
And the weight of expectation that that audience brings?
ALDEN: Yeah, exactly. You got it. And that seems in a way now to be the direction opera seems to maybe be traveling, away from those bigger venues with big orchestra pits, and into places where audiences have a different kind of relationship with the performers. If there’s anything that’s turning a younger audience on to opera, it seems to be those kinds of venues where it’s happening.
COSTANZO: One thing I feel, if I can say this the right way, is unique about what we’re trying to do at Sawdust is, Christopher Alden is someone who’s worked at all of the best houses in the world. There are also young and interesting people involved in our production, but we want to do something that is at that level, but in a space that you wouldn’t get to see the way that he directs people, and actually see that up close in that way, and be conscious of that. I think when you can experience a performance at the highest level with that kind of intimacy, even if you’ve never seen a Handel opera, it can draw you into it – because you aren’t so removed from it that you can tune out. I don’t think anybody will be able to tune out of this, just because there’s a lot happening.
Are you surrounding the audience in any way? Or will it be the traditional one group of people facing one way and one group facing the other way?
ALDEN: It is, because we’re doing all of this video, this state-of-the-art interactive video stuff. In order to do that, you need people to be facing it.
COSTANZO: But I also think with Sawdust, the challenge of it is that it’s small to do opera – to get instruments and singers and a set and all of those things in there.
So you are actually using something of a set, then.
COSTANZO: A lot of a set. A whole set. And the limitations of that, like you were saying, are challenging. But once we figured it out, I think the advantage is now it’s something that could be done in a lot of different places. It could be done in a concert hall or an opera house, but also, the stage itself is six feet deep. It’s pretty small, so you could do it anywhere. I think having something like that, if it works, that it can be mobile and be seen in different places and be performed in different places is exciting. So Sawdust is a great incubator for something like that.
That’s a very good point. As Christopher just suggested, the future of the art form doesn’t necessarily reside in convincing young people to subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera. It’s more dependent upon bringing opera to where they are, to where they’re used to being.
COSTANZO: Well, and also – and this has happened to me a lot – if people come to something like Orphic Moments or this, then they go, “Well, okay, opera – that’s something.” And then when there’s something that comes along at the Met, or they have to go on a date on Saturday night and don’t know what to do, that opens up as an option. So I think that they work in tandem. It’s possible that we get some of the patrons from the Upper East Side to come out to Sawdust because we have really good singers and a really good creative team. And it’s also possible that some of the people from Brooklyn might make their way to the Met next season, because they see something they didn’t expect in the art form.
Interview was condensed and edited. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo opens at National Sawdust on July 12; www.nationalsawdust.org
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On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.