Anthony Roth Costanzo Talks Akhnaten and Being A Countertenor

Making his company debut this season in the title role of Akhnaten is one of today’s foremost countertenors: Anthony Roth Costanzo. Akhnaten was also the role of his English National Opera debut earlier this year, in the celebrated Phelim McDermott staging that now comes to Los Angeles.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten in a scene from Phelim McDermott's spring 2016 English National Opera presentation of Akhnaten, a co-production with LA Opera; Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten in a scene from Phelim McDermott’s spring 2016 English National Opera presentation of Akhnaten, a co-production with LA Opera; Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

 How did you discover that you were a countertenor?

I had been singing on Broadway and in theater for years as a boy soprano, but at 13 I reached a turning point: I was asked to sing Miles in The Turn of the Screw. I was immediately drawn to the depth of expression and the complexity of opera. Some of the opera crowd hanging around the production said, “your speaking voice seems to have changed and you have hair on your arm—maybe you’re a countertenor.” I had no idea what a countertenor was, but I soon found out and I’ve continued singing in the treble clef ever since.

Countertenors seem to spend their careers in two very distinct musical worlds: baroque/early music and contemporary music.

 I love occupying these two ends of the spectrum simultaneously. It’s amazing how well the technique and approach required for baroque music serve the contemporary repertoire I’ve done, and similarly the openness, creativity and daring required for contemporary pieces serve the baroque. I do often dream of singing the operatic repertoire of the 19th and early 20th century, and I have found opportunities to explore some of those composers in recital and concert. While I will likely never get to sing Wagner (in public), I can say that Akhnaten is a lot closer to singing Wagner than it is to singing Handel.

One of the hallmarks of the score for Akhnaten—like much of Philip Glass’s musicis a continuous repetition of musical motives and patterns. It’s so beautiful, but it sounds really tough to learn.

The patterns are incredibly difficult to learn because they do not repeat exactly, but rather one phrase will repeat twice, alter slightly, and then repeat three more times, alter slightly again….etc., etc. At first, I thought I would make charts with letters and numbers, and memorize those charts, but the charts looked like advanced calculus, and I soon decided they would be harder to memorize than the music itself.

I finally realized that the only way to keep it all in my head was good old practice. It had to become part of my muscle memory. It took me about four months to internalize the music, but now that I have, it is euphoric to perform—even addictive. I can get into a groove with it that is unlike any other music I have performed. As fun as that groove is, it also requires a tremendous amount of focus. If I let my mind wander for a split second, I could find myself far out of sync.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten in a scene from Phelim McDermott's spring 2016 English National Opera presentation of Akhnaten, a co-production with LA Opera; Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten in a scene from Phelim McDermott’s spring 2016 English National Opera presentation of Akhnaten, a co-production with LA Opera; Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

In this production, there’s a measured, deliberate quality to the characters’ movement, and Akhnaten himself doesn’t sing until 40 minutes into the opera, after 20 silent minutes onstage. What kind of challenges does that present for you?

My physical movement on stage is often extremely slow, and that does take a lot of control, but in this case slow is the very opposite of static. Phelim McDermott, our brilliant director, gives us the tools to tell a story with our bodies as well as our voices, and by employing his ingenious methods, we are able to generate a sort of inner radiance which mesmerizes with active engagement instead of trance-like stillness. Following from this, Akhnaten is one of the few roles in which I actually enjoy having time onstage before singing. Once I start singing, I barely stop, and so both the 20 minutes in my dressing room and then the 20 minutes onstage are a chance to enter this hypnotic universe gradually enough that I can then sustain it for hours to come.

Do you have a favorite moment in the opera?

While I’m tempted to say The Hymn—my expansive Act Two aria in which Tom Pye’s scenic design and Bruno Poet’s lighting combine to dazzling effect— it’s the penultimate scene that thrills me the most. The scene shows the fall of Akhnaten’s kingdom and though I don’t sing, I stand at the very center front of the stage with the entire cast, chorus and company of jugglers behind me. Their monumental sound and energy combine with many sonorous layers emerging from the orchestra and all the while I very, very slowly raise one hand towards the sun. It’s one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world.

Matthew Aucoin, who conducts Akhnaten, is LA Opera’s new Artist-in-Residence, and you have a long history of collaboration with him.

From the moment Matt and I met in the hallways of the Metropolitan Opera years ago, I felt we were kindred spirits. We immediately wanted to work together, and he has now written pieces for me, conducted me with orchestra, chamber ensemble, and even accompanied me on the piano. We have created programs together at unconventional venues like National Sawdust in New York, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, and it feels like our collaboration has only just begun because of all the projects we are dreaming up for the future. His fierce imagination and intellect are matched by his electrifying musicality, and I couldn’t be more excited for us to make our LAO debuts together.

What will you do in Los Angeles between performances?

I have been to L.A. a handful of times, but never for more than a few days and I can’t wait to really experience the city. I listen to KCRW’s “Good Food” podcast religiously, and I have a long list of Jonathan Gold’s restaurant recommendations to try. I’m crossing my fingers that I can get into the new Broad museum, and I’m excited that I’ve been invited by a great director and friend Peter Kazaras to do some teaching at UCLA. As you may know, I am naked in this show, and I would venture that no city has higher fitness standards than L.A. So when I’m not rehearsing, you’re likely to find me furiously running on a beach or lifting weights at the gym so I can look like a local.

Outside your own repertoire, what kind of music do you listen to?

I love old jazz, and I’ve recently made two exciting discoveries. Rose Murphy, a wacky, chirpy songstress from the 30s and 40s who tends to forget the words to what she’s singing and just replace them with “chi chi chi chi.” Remember Della Reese from Touched by an Angel? I had no idea she has a huge powerful voice and sang jazz like no other in the 50s and 60s. I generally get juiced up by people who can really tear into whatever they’re doing: the electronic duo Matmos, Beyoncé, Pink Martini, Cameron Carpenter, Patti LaBelle and so on.

Do you have a dream role?

In truth, Akhnaten is as much of a dream role as any. He’s endlessly fascinating as a character and a historical figure, and I’ve been obsessed with Philip Glass’s music since I can remember. Gluck’s Orfeo is also one of my favorite roles for the pathos and the incredible music, and almost all of Handel’s leading castrato roles are dreams for me: Cesare, Rinaldo, Bertarido, etc. Of course, I dream of singing many Verdi heroines, but sadly not all dreams can come true.

For more information about and to purchase tickets to Akhnaten, click here. Contains nudity; parental discretion advised.

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