Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo On Training, Technique and Radical Operatic Expression

The new director of Opera Philadelphia discusses innovating opera, finding his voice, and developing an instinct for exhilaration. 

A man shown from the waist up raises his arms in a black and white photo
Anthony Roth Costanzo. Matthew Placek

Over a busy three-decade career, Anthony Roth Costanzo moved from singing in Broadway shows as a boy soprano—and backup vocals for Michael Jackson—to a successful career in one of the most challenging voice parts that exists in opera. Recently, the countertenor was appointed general director and president of Opera Philadelphia (effective June 1) and performed in Phil Kline and Jim Jarmusch’s The Lives and Dreams of Nikola Tesla as Summoned by the Honorable Spirits of the Grand Gotham Hotel as part of the Works & Progress Series at the Guggenheim. He’s performing as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, opening at the Metropolitan Opera on May 16. 

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Outgoing and fast-talking, with a diary bursting with new projects, Costanzo is always on the go. Taking press interviews while commuting, the spritely 42-year-old doesn’t seem to have a stop button.

SEE ALSO: With Electrifying New Casts, the Met’s ‘Carmen’ and ‘Butterfly’ Are Worth a Second Look

Costanzo told Observer that performing on Broadway as a child gave him a “theatrical instinct for exhilaration.” Like the cheeky von Trapp children, Costanzo thrills audiences through exuberance and swiftness: a rarity among modern opera singers. I first came across Costanzo in the 2019 production of Akhnaten at the Met, his bright head voice filling the 3,800-seat theater, penetrating eardrums with ethereal violence that teased my mind out of thought. With his beaming falsetto tunneling the audience into a new dimension, I knew I had encountered a different kind of performer.

Countertenors, the highest male voice part, are exceptionally uncommon among opera singers. They can sing the same range as a mezzo-soprano; some even sing up into the soprano range. Countertenors are rare not only because of the natural rarity of the voice part, but also because the training is particularly challenging, and the trained singer then has a limited range of roles to choose from as a performer. A countertenor typically must sing roles initially intended for 17th- and 18th-century castrati (men who were castrated as boys so that their voices never broke) or in new music made in the last seventy-five years.

A group of performers dances on stage - the one in the center holds a guitar
Orfeo ed Euridice opens at the Met on May 16. Ken Howard / Met Opera

Where many countertenors train later in life, Costanzo was lucky to have had his voice discovered by a teacher at age thirteen, right after his voice had changed with adolescence. He described having to become conscious of how to use his voice as a countertenor after spending years as a boy soprano unconsciously using a combination of head and chest voice. “I had to work years, decades,” he said. “I’m still working on it, connecting those and learning the very delicate tightrope walk that is required for the countertenor register to be fully functional and also beautiful.”

A natural teacher with a mind for detail, Costanzo described singing in his register as being like “chiaroscuro.” This is a painting term describing the strong contrasts between light and dark characteristic of works of art in the Baroque period—the same era that coincidentally birthed the first European castrato. He told Observer he was taught to think of his body as a bow and arrow (a baroque metaphor if there ever was one), “you breathe in, you open the space like pulling back a bow, and then you send the sound and the words forward like an arrow.” He described his method of maintaining the solid core of his voice while leaping into a stratospheric descant as a careful balancing act between technique and expression: “Sometimes that’s by controlling the air in really complex and elegant ways, and sometimes it’s about the roundness of my mouth or the shape of my vowel, but ultimately it comes from a deep desire to sing and to communicate.”

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, known as a reformist opera, is an uncharacteristically short 18th-century opera, its plot and scoring far more streamlined than was common at the time. This opera seems an ideal vehicle for a singer like Costanzo, who brings a radical style to early music. He likened its theatrical style to French New Wave cinema, where the most violent moment in a story can remain off-camera, its impact expressed through its absence. He described Orfeo as being more modern in its storytelling method and musical style, with uncommonly little ornamentation for an opera of its period. “Instead of having a castrato, for whom Orfeo was written, sing in decorative fioritura and fast notes,” Costanzo said, “Gluck writes a piece that is about pathos and emotional communication through lyricism.”

A man in a suit sings on stage
Costanzo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Ken Howard / Met Opera

Having a voice that is a rarity among rarities is not always a boon. Costanzo, like all countertenors, is limited by his choices of traditional roles, so much of Costanzo’s time is spent creating spaces and projects for himself as a performer. One project especially dear to his heart is his collaboration with cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond. Taken to see one of their shows fifteen years ago, Costanzo told Observer, “I was immediately struck within thirty seconds that this was not only one of the greatest performers I had ever seen on stage, but also someone who was entirely themselves.” In their pandemic-era collaboration, Only An Octave Apart, they duet and sing mashups—some intentionally and hilariously silly—of songs in their particular voice parts: Bond’s baritone, Costanzo’s leaping countertenor. Costanzo called it a “meditation on identity,” adding that, “in art, we’re not always playing other people but we’re sometimes reinforcing who we are, especially when we’re using our voice.”

A career like Costanzo’s might not have been possible a generation ago, and his story shows that sometimes the most radical thing you can do is use your voice. Director Peter Sellers told the New York Times in 2017 that Costanzo, like the famous 18th-century castrato, “exists to transform the art form.” These castrato were wildly popular in their era, sought after for their artistry and seen, paradoxically, as sex symbols. Recently, as grand opera houses discover that innovation and diversity bring in new audiences, real change is afoot and spaces for new and rare voices are opening up. Costanzo is a boon to new opera fans everywhere because he has seized this historical moment and appears capable of dragging opera into a new century.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo On Training, Technique and Radical Operatic Expression