A singer brings his authentic identity to the Philharmonie

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Anthony Roth Costanzo was never going to just get on stage and sing.

Instead, as the New York Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence, this countertenor is planning a series of events — starting Thursday and continuing through the spring — that add to the self-portrait of a musician who, among other things, is also a charismatic impresario, interdisciplinary connector and community organizer.

His party, “Authentic Me: Inner Beautystretches from Lincoln Center to the Lower East Side, Bronx and Queens; includes premieres as well as classic repertoire revamps; and brings the queer joy of “Only an Octave Apart,” her show with cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond, to the concert hall.

It’s the product of a restless personality that believes there are too many hours in the day to be alone a countertenor.

“I sleep eight hours every night,” said Costanzo, who turns 40 in May and speaks with unflappable excitement. “So I have another 16 hours. Singing for more than two hours is not a good idea because you will only kill your voice. I can probably handle two more hours of learning – making ornaments, something musical. That then leaves me another 12 hours. If I wanted four of them to live one life, I’ve got a full day’s work left.

It seems like a long time, he added, but the schedule is certainly daunting. He’s also releasing the album version of “Only an Octave Apart” this week, preparing a cover of Handel’s Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera and returning there later this spring to repeat his star turn in “Akhnaton” by Philip Glass.

You can see why he hasn’t taken a vacation in a decade.

Costanzo didn’t even take much of a break when the pandemic halted live performances in March 2020. Less than a week after the first lockdown, he was writing an essay for Opera News about the effect mass cancellations might have on the industry. . Then, over Zoom cocktails with Philharmonic Orchestra Executive Director Deborah Borda, he began shaping an idea that became Bandwagon: pop-up gigs from a van that doubled as community engagement programs. and, prior to the presidential election, a voter registration program. to drive.

Rest, such as it is, comes whenever Costanzo rides a bike or cooks a meal, which he often does. (Among those who know him, he’s famous as a host.) “I can’t have my phone or check my email,” he said. “I have to focus on just that.”

Life has more or less always been like this for Costanzo, a former child actor. James Ivory, the director of movies like “Howards End” and “A Room With a View,” recalled in an interview the courage of a young Costanzo handing him a tape recording of his singing after an audition.

“The next day I was driving and playing music,” Ivory said. “It was music that I love very much – Bach and Handel – and he sang it so well.”

Costanzo got the role, and the two have been friends ever since; Ivory even participated in Costanzo’s undergraduate thesis project at Princeton University. There, instead of writing the typical paper, the young singer brought together a team of high-profile artists, including dancer Karole Armitage, to create a film imagining the life of an 18th-century castrato. Costanzo raised $35,000 from various university departments and eventually persuaded Princeton to provide around $100,000 more to produce a documentary about the project.

After graduating, in 2004 Armitage asked Costanzo to be the executive director of his company, Armitage Gone! Dance, where he raised around $3 million, planned a gala and continued to compete for celebrity endorsements – like Christopher Walken, who filmed a commercial for the squad. His “pretty gigantic network,” as director Zack Winokur described it, has since been deployed in projects like “Glass Handel,” an interdisciplinary concert that incorporated choreography by Justin Peck, the live art creation of painter George Condo. and costumes by Raf Simons.

Bond joked that after leaving the stage at the end of ‘Only an Octave Apart’, Costanzo could text 20 people and make a dinner reservation in the time it took Bond to walk out. a single hairpin. But Costanzo, a member of the enterprising collective American Modern Opera Company and the recent recipient of a $150,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to support cross-disciplinary collaboration, said he does not network for fun.

“I’m not interested in any artist because of their fame,” he said. “My relationships go beyond that. Unless there’s a sense of community, you can’t accomplish anything; without that, it’s so boring.

Borda, the Philharmonic Orchestra’s conductor, said he “develops a relationship with everyone and has the ability to relate to the guy who’s driving the truck.” and the Met’s superstar divas.

In late summer 2020, Costanzo was at the entrance to Brooklyn Bridge Park, explaining what a countertenor is from the bed of the Bandwagon van. About a year later he was just down the street at St. Ann’s Warehouse performing “Only an Octave Apart” with Bond.

This St. Ann show, and the new album it’s based on, were inspired by Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills’ 1970s special of the same name, blending Bond’s gritty pop with Costanzo’s classic repertoire.

“The dreaded word ‘crossover’ never even crossed my mind because that’s not how I see this project,” Costanzo said. “Each thing amplifies the other and makes it more than what it is.”

Winokur directed the show, which featured arrangements by Nico Muhly, musical direction by Thomas Bartlett, and (sometimes blinding) costumes by Jonathan Anderson. It had the characteristic Bond political fervor disguised as frivolity and giggles galore, but also, opening as the performances cautiously returned inside, a touch of melancholy.

“It’s tied us to ourselves throughout the pandemic,” Bond said, adding that with two performers, one transgender and the other a countertenor, whose voices routinely challenge expectations based on appearances, “it was one of the most deeply queer projects I’ve ever been involved with.

Costanzo, accustomed to the rigor and precision of classical music, became accustomed to a looser style. Bond, usually needing no more than a bare stage and a small band, developed an appreciation for the interlocking parts of a great production. Now they plan to take the project as far as possible.

“What we’re saying is we should try to EGOT with this,” Costanzo said, referring to the rare Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-winning artist.

At the very least, ‘Only an Octave Apart’ will make its way to the Philharmonie – where excerpts, arranged for orchestra by Muhly, close out this week’s programme. “I’m very aware of how strange it is in this space,” said Winokur, who returns to lead the concert presentation. “But he doesn’t really have a choice to be otherwise.”

Bond said there will always be jokes and gags: “I’m not just going to stand up and be quiet. It’s not my way. »

“Authentic Selves” also includes creations by Joel Thompson and Gregory Spears, two stagings of texts commissioned by poet Tracy K. Smith; an unconventional version of Berlioz’s “Nuits d’Été”, which is hardly ever sung by a countertenor; the Philharmonic’s first performances of works by the posthumously rediscovered composer Julius Eastman; and a series of conferences and community events.

“I’m an artist first,” Costanzo said, “but my brain exists in a world of engagement, marketing, education, press, leadership, fundraising, collaboration, curation — all these things.”

He often looks like an aspiring administrator. Opera singers, like ballet dancers and professional athletes, all face expiration dates. Borda said that, while Costanzo should stay on stage as long as it’s comfortable, “when I see such talent, he should lead an opera company or an orchestra”.

Bond said it was just a matter of what he wanted to do: “He might limit himself to something as small as running the Met, but I can see him doing more than that.”

The future, Costanzo said, is “always” on his mind.

“I feel like my identity is and always will be as a singer, but what interests me most is knowing where I can have an impact,” he added. “So far it’s been a combination of being a singer and sometimes being a producer, creator and leader. If at any point the impact seems to go in the direction of not singing, I don’t mind. really.

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