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Anthony Roth Costanzo Exists to Transform Opera

Before 1750 is the focus this week, as Mr. Costanzo stars in a tech-savvy reboot of Handel’s “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo” at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from Wednesday through July 20. But he has also pushed beyond the old-music limitations of traditional countertenors, performing new works written for him by composers including Nico Muhly, Jake Heggie, Suzanne Farrin, Steven Mackey and Matthew Aucoin.

“The countertenor voice was the ultimate experimental tool for composers in the 18th century,” said the flutist and new-music maven Claire Chase, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Costanzo. “And I think what Anthony is doing is making that tool, with its range and its versatility, viable for composers in the 21st century.”

Baroque music, long the primary source of employment for countertenors — men who sing in the vocal register typically associated with mezzo-sopranos or altos — remains a major part of Mr. Costanzo’s career. New York audiences accustomed to seeing him in Metropolitan Opera productions of Handel’s “Rodelinda” and the Baroque pastiche “The Enchanted Island” will get a more intimate Handel in “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.”

Written for a wedding in 1708, this serenata — a form somewhere between a sonata and an opera — is about two servants who fall prey to their master, the malevolent Polifemo. The National Sawdust production, directed by Christopher Alden, features an electronic device that enables projections to respond to visual and musical cues in real time.

“Handel presents directors with a lot of challenges because da capo arias can be seen as repetitious — no plot, all emotion,” Mr. Costanzo said. “So it becomes that much more important to find different colors along the way.”

National Sawdust, where Mr. Costanzo presented the similarly old-meets-new “Orphic Moments” last year, is also a more ideal space than the massive Met to experience what the director Peter Sellars describes as one of this singer’s best qualities. “He has this super pianissimo that just stops traffic,” Mr. Sellars said.


Mr. Costanzo will have the title role in Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” having its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2019.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Mr. Costanzo’s other major venture this summer — recording his first album for Decca Gold — offers yet another collapsing of eras. “I didn’t want to do the usual countertenor debut of, like, Scarlatti arias,” he said.

So the set list for the album, for release in fall 2018, will be split evenly between Handel and Philip Glass, whose “Akhnaten” will have its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2019, with Mr. Costanzo in the title role.

The Met’s production of “Akhnaten,” staged by Phelim McDermott and previously seen with Mr. Costanzo at the English National Opera in London and the Los Angeles Opera, has involved far more drastic depilatory measures than the post-“Farnace” shedding of his Aleppo beard. “Full-l-l-l-l body wax,” said Mr. Costanzo, describing the three-hour procedure to become a pharaoh who bares all.”

With the exception of one miserable year of high school in his hometown, Durham, N.C., Mr. Costanzo has been in New York since he was 11. Along the way came backup singing gigs, Broadway tours and even a Merchant Ivory film.

Perhaps because he started his career as a countertenor and never had to recalibrate a “standard” male voice upward, Mr. Costanzo brings a ringing force to his tone. (He joked that critics for The New York Times have referred to his voice as “penetrating” on four occasions, exaggerating the actual number by one.) Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, described Mr. Costanzo’s sound as “focused and beautiful and large enough to fill the Met house easily, which is often not the case with countertenors.”

Mr. Costanzo, who frequently performs with the multihyphenate performance artist Justin Vivian Bond, agrees that he is fortunate to have come of age in an era when the binary conception of gender has loosened. Still, no amount of open-mindedness can fully prepare the listener for the moment when, as Ms. Chase put it, “you see this tiny, fierce body and then you hear this voluminous, voluptuous, massive sound.”

Mr. Costanzo said: “I don’t think the gender fluidity of today has taken away the shock. The thrill of it and novelty of it will never go away, nor should it.”

The increased presence of Baroque operas on the international scene in the past few decades has benefited Mr. Costanzo and his peers; countertenors are now actively sought by major opera companies worldwide. But as someone who cajoled Princeton University into letting him expand his undergraduate thesis into a multimedia extravaganza with a six-figure budget, he has never been content merely to take on the projects offered to him.

“Magic seems to follow Anthony,” said the star mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, another frequent collaborator, “but that’s only because he is working nonstop to create it.”

There’s a coming Nico Muhly concert in the Works and Process series at the Guggenheim Museum. And the new American Music Opera Company he is working on with Mr. Aucoin, a noted conductor as well as a rising composer. And the monthly Opera Party salons for the radio station WQXR. And, just to make sure the pre-1750 material doesn’t become rusty, he’s doing Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at Houston Grand Opera in October and Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in November.

Mr. Sellars, who has directed Mr. Costanzo in works that included Purcell and Ligeti, said this entrepreneurial mania is a throwback to a period we think of now as decorous and staid.

“In the great age of countertenors, the idea of opera was being reset every two weeks, and they were at the absolute center of these innovations,” Mr. Sellars said. “Anthony is in some ways a reincarnation of this. He exists to transform the art form.”

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