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Anthony Roth Costanzo on Glass, Handel and “putting it together.”

Opera singers aren’t brought up to be as enterprising as Anthony Roth Costanzo. But few have his resume: He’s a child Broadway star-turned Princeton student-turned countertenor.

My first meeting with him immediately told me an extremely distinctive spirit was behind that voice. It was in a Manhattan rehearsal for Wolf-in-Skins, a mythology-stepped, still-in-progress dance opera staged by Christopher Williams where wolves and men morph into each other. Costanzo immediately stuck out his hand – in what was more than a meet-and-greet but the start of a professional relationship. Even when you don’t love what he does onstage – Prince Orlofsky in Fledermaus wasn’t one of his big successes – you’re still rooting for him because, as a true performer, he’s rooting for himself, and for your benefit.

Operatic niches expanding for countertenors with the revival of baroque opera and modern operas written for the voice type. But maybe not enough. And many of them are occupied by Iestyn Davies. It was during a Philadelphia run of Written on Skin that Costanzo pitched Opera Philadelphia on fully staged pieces that he has produced himself, based on music by Handel and Gluck that are suited to his voice and (considerable) theatricality. Opera Philadelphia went for the production he hadn’t yet created.

His debut solo album on the Decca Gold label was in the works, one that juxtaposes arias by Philip Glass and George Frederic Handel, titled Glass & Handel: Arias.  From that grew a staged version titled Glass Handel with videos by the likes of James Ivory, costumes by Calvin Klein and overall look created in part by the fashion/art company Visionaire. It’s currently wrapping up a sold-out run at the Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O18 before migrating to New York. There, Brooklyn’s cutting edge National Sawdust venue presents four shows at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Nov. 26 and 27.

Was Stephen Sondheim’s great networking song, “Putting it Together” playing in the background during Costanzo’s Q&A a few weeks ago prior to his Philadelphia appearances? No, but it should’ve been.

Q: With so many components that go beyond the actual music, do you ever worry about the packaging overwhelming the substance?

A; Everyone has told me don’t lose track of what this is actually about…The point of departure has always been the music. I’m not trying to wrap the music into a package so you can swallow it more easily. I”m trying to create art, and have it created by people who don’t normally create stuff from classical music. The center of everything, the thing that ties it all together is my voice and the repertoire. Everything is meant to take you further into the music rather than distract from it.

Q: Many singers are so protective of their voices – attending to the proper rest, maintaining technique – that they can’t or won’t fit in the kind of executive producer activities you’ve needed to make this show happen.

A: When I was in Japan, I would perform until 7:30 or 9 at night – just as NYC began waking up. Then I was on the phone, sending emails, taking a two hour nap….that’s how I was able to manage things. There had to be other hours in the day if you decide that you have to make this kind of show. We have to be our own CEOs. But it’s not that I”m thinking the way an executive does. It’s all begins with an artistic impulse. As a countertenor, I’m not going to be singing standard roles in big houses. I either have to go a very specialized route or to forge my own path.

Q: I’m impressed with the anthology aspect of the album – on the Philip Glass end. We’re used to Handel anthologies, but similar to Handel, you had a huge output of Glass operatic music to sift through – and in works that have been somewhat forgotten, such as 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and Fall of the House of Usher. And some were clearly adapted for a more traditional orchestra, allowing them to sit more easily next to Handel….

A: It took about a year. If something was in my range I’d ask if I could make those changes. It was all terrifying. And having never heard these works before these orchestrations, the whole thing was miraculous in the way that it worked out, and better than I thought.

Q: I loved the unexpected ways that Glass’ minimalism repetition joined hands with Handel’s sequential repetition.

A: And Handel will take two lines from libretto and repeat them throughout several sections. They both use an expressive harmonic arc to shape their pieces. Somehow, it does work. And it’s interesting to see what the function of repetition is. That’s part of what we’re doing with the installation. The music is not verismo. It’s not like music that moves a plot forward. It’s like we have a thought and we obsess about it. It comes back over and over.

Q: Now, what about the visual element that’s attached to the recording?

A: I was thinking, okay, we’ve got this record and it’s way better than I thought it would be. What do people do with albums? They do concert tours. But me being me and with my background, that’s not enough. Records aren’t having the impact that they once did. So what could I do? The first thing I thought about was the cover. I knew that I didn’t want a traditional glamour shot of me. So we started thinking about a painting. Maybe George Condo. I wondered if he would ever do this. And he said ‘yes.’ So we have this unbelievable painting of me. It’s super weird, unexpected and bizarre – and everything I wanted.

Then I thought, what if instead of doing the album in a concert hall, what if we made it an art installation. It took me months and months to flesh it out. I went to David Byrne. I kept thinking about music videos and certain ways we could do something way different. I love the idea of…connecting famous artists, painters, film makers, choreographers at the top of their field. I had to raise a ridiculous amount of money. But all of these unbelievably crazy things have fallen into place. It’s like some wild fever dream. Justin Peck is creating ten minutes of movement. There will be dances by three different people during the 60 minute show.

Q: May I ask how much had to be raised?

A: About $400,000.

Q: And that’s not much considered the size of the undertaking. How did you do that?

A: Some of these artists command huge sums. Some of the videos should cost $400,000 each. They had to make it for nothing, essentially. We paid them an honorarium. It’s really a generous showing of good well on the part of these artists to try to do something different with classical music.

Here’s an excerpt from a forthcoming segment of the syndicated show Articulate with Jim Cotter.

an ArtsJournal blog