Anthony Roth Costanzo is an American counter-tenor. He has performed in numerous major opera houses around the globe including the Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Metropolitan Opera, and many more. Before becoming an opera singer, he performed in several Broadway musicals. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University and then attended the Manhattan School of Music. In 2009 he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and in 2012 he won first place at Operalia.
Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis
June 22, 2020
When someone thinks ‘counter-tenor’, they immediately think of you. You have a sort of monopoly here! What goes into perfecting such a unique voice type?
It's a specific voice type and a specific repertoire, but the way we sing is actually almost the way every singer sings even though it's so unique. Physiologically, we are singing on the edge of our vocal cords, stretching them out to make the sound go higher. Really, the only thing you have to be very attentive to is the way you use your breath because a little bit of air is escaping through the gap that allows it to be higher.
It's about discipline; one of my best skills, or natural talents, is discipline [Laughs]. If I practice an aria every day, I get comfortable to the point where it feels natural and I can express the person underneath it.
You have performed at many theaters around the world including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro Real Madrid, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, where you recently performed the title role in Phillip Glass’s contemporary opera, Akhnaten, to superb reviews. You have also sung many baroque roles by composers like Handel. Does your technique or general style change depending on the role? If so, how?
My technique always stays the same; that's a good question because you'd think that with Phillip Glass or with Handel, you know, it might be a very different technique. Actually, the old-school bel canto, 'beautiful' style that I learned from my teacher Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, is the foundation for everything. The style, of course, is very different, but we can use the technical principle for every style of singing to make choices of color, choices of style; if we need to straight-tone something as an effect, we can do that, but we have to do it in a healthy technical way; I try to never, even in these pandemic times when we're making a lot of videos and recordings with our phones or whatever, I try to never change the fundamental technique, but to use it to make any artistic choices that I want, that determine the style.
Let’s go back a bit. What sparked your interest in music and theater?
When I was about 8 years old, I was taking piano lessons and I loved it, but I was bad at reading sheet music. My piano teacher told me, then, to sing the notes. That's what got me singing and I loved singing! I wound up auditioning for a play that had singing in it, and from there until I was 11 I did a lot of things in North Carolina, where I was born, until, when I was 11, I went to New York and got to perform on Broadway and be on Broadway national tours. That's what got me interested. When I was 13, I was asked to do an opera and I didn't know anything about it, but I found it such a cathartic experience. I was able to express so many emotions through the music. That's what got me hooked, and I've been doing opera in the 25 years since then!
As you said, as a teenager, you performed in several Broadway shows. How did your experience with musicals contribute to your eventual operatic career?
Well, opera before it was called 'opera' was referred to by this Italian term dramma per musica, which means 'drama through music'. That's essentially what a musical is, but it often focuses on the theatrical element of performance more than you do when you're beginning as an opera singer. Musical theater helped me develop a sense of character, instincts for dramatic performance that have served me very well as an opera singer, where, sometimes, I think people focus a bit too much on sound.
Following your success at Princeton University as well as at the Manhattan School of Music, your career was threatened by throat surgeries. Tell me about that.
I found out that I had thyroid cancer when I was in grad school at the Manhattan School of Music, and that meant that they had to take the thyroid, a little gland in your throat, out. That puts your vocal nerves and vocal tract in danger a little bit, so I didn't know exactly if I would able to sing. Of course, singing counter-tenor is a bit of a tightrope walk anyway, so I didn't know if I'd be able to sing counter-tenor again. I had to reconcile myself with that going into surgery; I'd spent my life making art in this particular way but I might have to find a different way to create art. That has been helpful as I approach the art form, even though I was able to sing and I went on to win the Met Opera competition the next year, it's been helpful to have this sense of always keeping another perspective, a different way to create in your toolbox, and not to fall into just the well-worn path that classical music is on. We have to innovate, always.
After recovering, you won the Met Opera National Council Auditions and soon thereafter sang at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. How did participating and winning first place in Operalia advance your career?
I never expected [to win], as a counter-tenor especially, at a competition like Operalia where you have a lot of people singing Verdi and Puccini, and where there are judges from around the world, not just from America, who might be, some of them, more interested in standard core repertoire. I really didn't expect to win first place, but what I learned while I was doing it was that the authentic presentation of a human being was not fireworks and unbelievably skillful singing that everyone did, but connecting to people emotionally. That, in and of itself, is a special skill, and that is what makes opera so special. An audience member who is not a judge doesn't understand all the technical finesse and all of that. They could be impressed by it, but they will come back to the opera if they're moved, and I realized that I had to move those judges. That was my best shot. Thinking about how to do that in a genuine way was what, I think, allowed me to have that surprise victory. Now, when I go on stage, I'm always trying, for every second of every minute that I'm on stage, to move at least one person in the audience. If that's your goal, you move toward better performance.
Let me just say that, in Akhnaten, you certainly succeeded at that! Many great singers, including Plácido Domingo himself, become conductors later in their careers. Do you see yourself ever becoming a conductor?
I won't become a conductor because I'm not that good, still, like when I was 8 years old, at reading complex rhythms and harmonies; I would much sooner become a director. As my career has gone on, I've become a producer, and people always ask 'well, what's a producer in the field of opera?'. What I've done is raise money, conceive projects, curate projects, start collaborations with artists, and those have produced some really spectacular results, like my project Glass Handel, that you can read about, that accompanied the release of my album. I've produced shows all over the world: in Salzburg, San Fransisco, you name it; and, of course, here in New York! The future lies in creating new paths and new iterations of opera from the standpoint of a producer.
Finally, what tips or suggestions do you have to get more young people interested in opera?
Young people are our future, and I think that there's often a sense that opera is not good for young people: 'it's too complicated', 'it's in another language'. I think that, in every experience I've had, the music and the emotion connect to those young people and they visualize their own stories. Now, of course, there are many ways to provide points of access, but, too often, I think, the explaining of everything, 'the 'let me give you the translation', 'let me tell you the story', does not interest the kids. The kids are interested in some instant connection. So how can we, in the same way that I did in Operalia, how can we give them that connection? Akhnaten is actually an interesting example because so many kids from 7 years old on up loved this show, and I keep thinking why? There were no supertitles for most of it, no subtitles; they were given free rein to see the images, to interpret the story the way they wanted, and to connect to the sound of the music and the emotion through something that was rather abstract. La Boheme is not always the best thing to connect young audiences to opera! It's more about what will provide them with a point of access that is already present in their lives, and in my experience, the easiest one is emotion.
Sir, thank you for speaking with me. You’re an inspiration not only for your comeback from cancer but for your talent and skill.
Alkis Karmpaliotis is a 15-year-old opera enthusiast living in New York. He founded Appreciate Opera in 2019. You can support him by subscribing to AO and reading through some of his articles and interviews.