For ‘Akhnaten’s’ Soaring Countertenor, Being Nude Onstage Is Liberating
Anthony Roth Constanzo on his latest role, how he became a countertenor, and why he feels a little bit like an "alien."
3:51 PM EDT on May 20, 2022
King Tut isn’t the only Egyptian pharaoh lighting up the internet this spring.
Philip Glass’s astonishing opera 'Akhnaten' returned to the Metropolitan Opera Thursday for a month-long run. Its story explores the myths of a little-known Egyptian leader who lived 3,300 years ago, loved Nefertiti, and likely created the world’s first religion that worshipped a single supreme deity, before he was violently overthrown in a palace coup (scholars believe Tutankhamun is Akhnetan’s son, and he makes a brief appearance at the end of Act III).
Glass wrote the three-act work in 1983 as the third part of his "portrait trilogy," which included biographical operas about Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. The work is bracing and intense, and represents the epitome of Glass’s ambient repetitive style (he hates using the word "minimalism").
The production stars Anthony Roth Costanzo, a rising star in classical music who wowed audiences when Akhnaten premiered at the Met in 2019. Costanzo is a countertenor, the highest male vocal range that is equivalent to a female contra-alto or mezzo soprano. Countertenors were popular during the Baroque era but fell out of fashion for a 200-year period until contemporary composers started writing parts into their scores, so there aren’t many singers with that vocal range in most opera companies.
When live events began to return as the pandemic eased last fall, Costanzo collaborated with cabaret legend Justin Vivan Bond for a concert, "Only an Octave Apart," which they performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse and with the New York Philharmonic. He also won a Grammy for best opera recording this year and will receive the New-York Historical Society’s "History Makers Award" in October. Hell Gate chatted with Constanzo about his latest role, how he became a countertenor, and getting nude on stage.
This article has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Aaron Short: How did you know you had a voice for opera?
Anthony Roth Costanzo: I began taking piano lessons and my teacher got me into singing when I wasn’t very good at piano. I started in musical theater and did local theater in North Carolina where I grew up. By the time I was 11, I told my parents I wanted to move to New York [Ed: Anthony performed on Broadway and on tours of "A Christmas Carol" and "The Sound of Music"].
Somebody asked me to do a Benjamin Britten opera, "Turn of the Screw," which is complicated music and complicated telling. I loved it. The complexity of expression was really extraordinary, even at the age of 13, and I was hooked on that emotional catharsis.
Then people told me maybe I was a countertenor. I was a boy soprano, I decided to keep singing high as long as it worked, and that’s what I still do today. That led me down this path of understanding opera and getting into opera. I got into it as much for the music as the way I thought it could move people and express authenticity.
Why did you take on countertenor roles as opposed to a tenor?
I was a boy soprano or so I thought. My voice never really changed that much so I sang through as a boy soprano.
Any male has a chest voice and a head voice—even as kids. You can sing in your speaking voice, which is your chest voice, or you can sing in your head voice, which for men is a falsetto, and that’s something pop singers use. Whoever recorded the voice of Mickey Mouse is singing in a falsetto. When that is reinforced and there’s technique and practice behind it, that can become a full-throated sound.
There aren’t a lot of countertenor roles in classical opera. Do you miss playing characters like Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly or Rodolfo in La Boheme?
I would like to play all the female characters rather than the male ones, like Madame Butterfly. That’s where I’ve spent more of my life. I love being a countertenor and the repertoire that comes with it is generally before 1750 and after 1950. Part of what’s been really interesting is people who like opera tend to like opera between those date ranges. I don’t get to sing that repertoire.
I have to be really creative in producing, performing, and crafting my career in general. That’s led me to think a lot about how the art form would communicate, how I can create a community through music, as well as relying on titles or great roles that appeal to people. I have the advantage of having some solutions that can help even though the standard fare isn’t selling or connecting to new audiences in the way we want it to.
How did you land the part in Philip Glass’s "Akhnaten"?
It’s something I’ve had my eye on. I’ve loved Philip Glass. I saw "Einstein On The Beach" at an early age, in my 20s. While I was auditioning for English National Opera, they mentioned they were doing a production of it, and I was excited about the opportunity to play the title role.
What is Philip Glass like?
I did get to meet him. He came to London, and I met him subsequently every time whether it was the revival in London or when we did it in Los Angeles or at the Met this time. He is such a seminal figure and his music plays a part in my life. He is one of the few living classical composers whose music has made its way into the zeitgeist.
Does he ever give you feedback?
He’s a very low-key guy. He tends to give me approval for the most part. I remember one time he came into my dressing room during "Akhnaten," and said, "Do you practice a lot for this? I’m wondering about your practice techniques and I have to play the piano for the first time in a long time and I haven’t played in a while." He wanted tips from me. He’s not the type to give criticism or feedback. I certainly know how happy he’s been.
What kind of preparation goes into the role each night?
This role is particular in several ways. Vocally, it takes months of preparing to get your stamina up. It’s very hard to sing but also to get your brain there, do repeated phrases and understand small shifts. Sometimes you’re singing on one vowel for a long period of time and sometimes you’re singing in ancient Egyptian.
Physically, I’m doing a lot of slow movements. Imagine if someone said, "Kneel to the ground on a count of 30," that’s a long time to get to the ground. I also walk slowly up and down staircases and I appear naked. It takes a long time to get my body to be at ease while I am singing.
Lastly, it’s important for me to get into the character. That requires a lot of research. I have spent the last six years going deeper and deeper into Egyptology and the myths created by Freud, Oedipus, and Akhnaten, all the ways people take inspiration from them. I got a fellowship at Oxford in Egyptology and will be there next fall. That’s been really fun.
What do you do during intermissions?
I love to eat to keep my stamina up and make sure my voice is where it needs to be. Each break is a little different and depends on what I’m doing in the next act. Before I sing my big aria in the difficult Act II, I have a little bit of fruit and healthy carbohydrates. I might have a bite of an apple. The texture of the apple helps drag any phlegm down with it and the pH of the apple juice is about the same as saliva.
I also drink a lot of water basically. I like to drink hot water before I go on. Tea is great but certainly not necessary.
Do you get stage fright about having to appear nude on stage?
It’s scary each time, but it’s also liberating—and you’re channeling your power. It’s actually a very powerful thing. It focuses the audience and creates an intense connection with the audience almost instantaneously. For the next three hours of singing I feel we’re linking together and we create an instant intimacy.
What happens when you make a mistake on stage? How do you work through it?
I think that’s part of the excitement and spontaneity of live performance. You have to use your mistake. Our director has a saying: whatever happened is the only thing that could have happened. If you approach it that way—like improv—the mistakes become a new and exciting way to breathe into performance. Rather than seizing up and disrupting the performance, if you make it seem more intentional to the audience, then it can be an exciting variation.
Does anyone ever notice?
Sometimes. It depends, I don’t know whether the audience would notice, but the conductor certainly would. The prompter or the orchestra might if they aren’t too busy.
There’s a lot of juggling in Akhnaten. It’s not the Cirque du Soleil-type of juggling; it’s linked to the music, but they often drop balls. Instead of quickly picking up the ball, they take a moment, kneel down and worship the dropped ball, the same way that when a vase breaks in Japan they repair the crack in gold.
We want to honor the mistake in the production. The audience thinks to themselves, "Oh wait, maybe that’s part of the drama. They’re doing something." We create ways of incorporating any eventuality into our productions.
Do you have a favorite scene in the opera?
I really love the big hymn at the end of Act II—the way I climb the stairs toward the sun. But I love the sense when Akhnaten dies—being on the stage where hundreds of people in the choir are singing in the pit and making music together. It’s so thrilling to act though an abstract version of a death.
Are you going to stay in character over the next month?
It’s hard not to in some ways because I’m bald and my body has been waxed, so I feel a little like an alien. There’s no way to stay in character beyond the physical limitation. I prepare in the way an athlete would before a marathon concerning what am I eating, how am I sleeping, and practicing in certain ways. I keep my body at the ready.
What were the Grammy Awards like?
It was totally thrilling and surreal and see what a big production it is and be a part of that world. It means a lot to win something that is recognized and so recognizable. You realize there are so many records that are out there and get nominated. I like to think about sharing a celebration.
Did you meet any musical heroes?
I got to meet Lil Nas X which was very exciting to me. He’s definitely a hero. And I was in the same room as Joni Mitchell and my date, Justin Vivian Bond.
What advice do you have for an audience attending the show who may not know what the opera is about?
People have fear they won’t understand the language or won’t understand the meaning. This opera is in ancient Egyptian and we don’t even provide subtitles anyway. You have nothing to worry about without taking it in.
If you read a synopsis or article beforehand, take a few keys in. The best advice is don’t be afraid of being bored for the first 10 minutes because you will be. That’s a product of the age in which we live, where people are checking their phones, checking tabs and switching apps. It’s hard for the brain to settle down for a long experience, but if and when it does, that’s when we can connect to something meaningful.
Anthony Roth Costanzo appears in Philip Glass’s "Akhnaten" through June 5 at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Dates and times vary. Get tickets here.
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