How Anthony Roth Costanzo is Shaking Up Opera (With a Little Help From Tilda Swinton)

Matthu Placek
Anthony Roth Costanzo

Opera is the original performance art — and 36-year-old singer Anthony Roth Costanzo is dragging the grand dame, kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century. Costanzo is a countertenor, an operatic voice type that centers around a male singer’s uppermost range (think those notes Prince hits in “Kiss”) and a sound that’s both ecstatic and slightly alien.

A frequent visitor to the most important international opera stages, Costanzo released his first album, ARC, on Decca Gold in September, merging his uncommonly beautiful sound with audacious repertoire: arias by the seventeenth-century Baroque master George Frideric Handel (standard fare for countertenors) with selections by pioneering American minimalist composer Philip Glass.

Tonight (Nov. 27), Costanzo, along with producer Cath Brittan and fashion/art collective Visionaire, presents Glass Handel, an elaborate live concert/art installation based on the album’s offerings at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (starting Dec. 11, he'll also appear in Handel's Messiah with the New York Philharmonic). He’ll don costumes by Raf Simons for Calvin Klein; ballet stars David Hallberg and Patricia Delgado will dance choreography by Tony Award-winner Justin Peck; American artist George Condo will create a real-time painting on an enormous canvas; and nine music videos — created by artists and directors including Tilda Swinton, James Ivory and Mark Romanek, and available on Decca Gold and Apple Music as part of a visual album — will be screened during the performance for audience members whose seats will be wheeled around by an army of “people-movers.”

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During rehearsals for Glass Handel’s Manhattan run, Costanzo chatted about the inception of the groundbreaking project and how he forged a career that went beyond “singing Bach in churches all the time.”

How did you conceive of this project?

It all began with the album. When you’re an opera singer and a major label offers you your debut album, you think, "This is awesome, but what do I do?" I knew I wanted something different. With my voice type, it’s often a lot of Baroque music. So I wanted something non-traditional that mixed contemporary and Baroque repertoire and I landed on this combination of Glass and Handel. But I also understood that it’s very hard to have an impact with a classical record in today’s world. You have to create points of access to this music that go beyond just a physical CD or something that you click on a Spotify playlist.

It really started with the cover of the CD. I didn’t want a glamour portrait, so I asked the American artist George Condo to paint me. To my surprise, he agreed, and then we began talking and I began thinking about art and installations, and decided it would be great to have a performance of the album that was not in the concert hall. And one of the ideas for the installation was projecting nine music videos. That’s certainly been done in classical music. But with opera, where you have these long held notes, to mouth the words in a music video looks silly. I wanted to avoid that. So I rallied people that I knew through incredible collaborations between all of the art forms I love — film, dance, fashion and visual art -- and we made these nine art films.

Many opera singers identify exclusively as singers. You’re a multi-hyphenate performer, producer, impresario. Is that necessarily a result of being a countertenor, which is a bit of an outlier voice type?

It’s not necessarily a result, but I feel like it’s certainly why I arrived there. There are plenty of countertenors who have a different career path. But I felt very distinctly that I don’t necessarily want to go around singing Bach in churches all of the time. I do enjoy that, but I wanted to forge a new path. I had to do create my own opportunities if I wanted to have a career.

How did you select the directors for the tracks?

We really carefully chose artists who we thought would be interested and good at this. Then we got them to participate, without having millions of dollars in budgets to give them, by saying, “Hey, here’s a track that we’re going to give to you.” In most cases we chose the track, then we’d tell them to do whatever you want with it. They had complete artistic freedom to interpret the music as they felt it. That’s what makes some of these videos so exciting, because they are not a slave to how I feel classical music should be represented. Even if I had an outside-the-box idea, I would never have gotten as far as some of these people have gone.

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Mark Romanek’s video for“Liquid Days” is an amazing complement to Philip Glass’s music.

Mark called me up and just said he wanted to do a street dancer [Ron Myles] under a highway in Los Angeles. I thought to myself, “Oh God — is that going to be any good?” But for me it’s the perfect case study of how classical music can reach everyone and anyone. If you have a point of access, whatever it is, it can get inside of you and you can have the complete understanding of it without having any context.

How did Tilda Swinton’s video come about?

She just said, “I think I’m going to shoot my Springer Spaniels on the beach.” My first thought was, “Ugh. I don’t think that’s going to make a great music video.” But I said, “Okay! If you say so!” [Sometimes] you have to relinquish control in order to move forward, especially in an art form as traditional as opera. What I love about it is, we’re not in any way changing the tradition, we’re not making it crossover by watering down the actual material. It’s classical music — we’re just finding a new lens through which to experience it.

James Ivory’s video for “Stile Amare” — an aria from Handel’s Tolomeo —is the only one in which you appear.

That aria is very dear to me. I’ve known James Ivory for twenty years, and he directed me in the 1998 film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. I asked if he’d be willing to make a music video with our mutual friend, Pix Talarico, and together they came up with this concept which they would not tell me about until the day of the shoot. They just said, “Go get fitted for a wetsuit and for armor.” They came up with the whole scenario themselves, and then we spent two twelve-hour days, shooting this epic story, which is open to many different interpretations but distinctly combines their two sensibilities.

With all of these moving pieces, particularly during the live concert, how do you keep the focus on the music?

All of these incredible artists made their contributions to the art directly from the music. Raf Simons listened to the CD over and over and over again, and every choice he made was inspired by the music — he dressed the entire orchestra and chose outfits for them based on the movements that the oboe player or the violin player had to make. Justin Peck made his choreography after really studying the music. George Condo paints to the music and even incorporates the lyrics into the pictures that are emerging. Even though it exists in each artist’s artistic universe, the music is at the base of everything to come out of this show. It’s the one thread that ties it all together.