This essay is one in a series of profiles showcasing artists who will be honored in the 2018 National Sawdust Gala, to be held on May 10 at the Alhambra Ballroom in New York City. For more information, see nationalsawdust.org/gala.
“There is a kind of penetration of the acoustic human voice into each and every audience member that I think is a very powerful thing. When you contextualize that with beautiful art and with really smart direction, you produce something which can wind up having an impact on you in unexpected ways.”
Anthony Roth Costanzo is a disruptor every time he opens his mouth. Born in Durham, North Carolina, and based in New York City since he was 11, he has emerged as the preeminent operatic countertenor of his time. That status has earned him a place on the world’s most illustrious stages, including those of the Metropolitan Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, English National Opera, and more.
Costanzo’s art challenges assumptions, beautifully and powerfully. His clarion voice and agile, subtle singing bring new possibilities to a style rooted in 18th Century Baroque fare – in particular the music of Handel, a brilliant composer and among the most uncanny theatrical artists of his day. He also has become a prominent advocate for the music of Philip Glass, a composer universally known yet still widely misunderstood, and one whose works Costanzo views as distinctly of our time.
“In an age where we’re on our smartphones and we’re switching from one app to another without sort of sustained focus, what Philip Glass does is reward people for staying with the repetition until it changes,” Costanzo explains. “And when it does change, it feels so exciting and so monumental, it’s almost better than the beat dropping in a disco.”
That he is a banner star for a progressive, gender-fluid age was proved resoundingly with the astonishing production of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo he presented with the director Christopher Alden at National Sawdust last summer, as well as the striking assumption of the title role in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten he delivered in London and Los Angeles, and will bring to the Met in 2019.
But rather than contenting himself with sublime work in an art form that some might view as elite and esoteric, Costanzo has worked tirelessly to show that opera is capable of reaching and touching anyone. As a founder of the recently formed American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), he is focused on developing not only new works, but also innovative ways to reach broader audiences.
That the possibility for meaningful connection exists was proved to Costanzo in a recent encounter with a stranger. “Somebody I didn’t know, who really didn’t know opera, said, ‘it seems to me that the beauty that you get from opera encourages understanding,’” he recalls. “And it struck me that that was a really interesting point. We’re in this time right now when it seems really hard for people to understand each other and the world around them. And there is something about getting a new audience to see opera, and having it awaken understanding. It allows you to step out of your own constructs of life and see them in a different way. There’s a strange way in which disruption leads to understanding, and understanding is the starting point for progress.”