October is Baroque Month here at Bachtrack. Recent years have seen the unstoppable rise of the countertenor – they're everywhere! We thought it was about time we caught up with some of today's leading countertenors to find out more.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo began performing professionally at the age of 11 and has since appeared in opera, concert, recital, film, and on Broadway. This season, he returns to the English National Opera for the title role in Philip Glass' Akhnaten and appears in two world premieres: Jake Heggie’s Great Scott at both the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Diego Opera, and Jimmy Lopez’s Bel Canto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He also makes his debut at the Ojai Festival in the American premiere of Kaija Sariaaho's Only the Sound Remains.

How do you explain the explosion in popularity of countertenors?

As compared to 30 years ago, Baroque opera is a relative regularity and not an oddity even in larger houses around the world. Consequentially there are many more opportunities for countertenors. I posit that in addition to the musical virtues of Baroque opera, their plot exposition takes place mainly in the recit, with the arias being mostly pithy expressions of a single thought or emotion. This can give directors free rein to take the meaty parts of the operas into a dream land, or a new setting, making them more readily malleable vehicles for interpretation than say a verismo opera. In short — baroque opera, and its requisite countertenors, slot in well with the theatrically creative approaches valued by many opera companies today.

Though countertenors are singing everywhere these days, I think part of why we continue to excite audiences is our inherent novelty factor. There is rarely a room, hall, or theater I sing in where, when I ask, there aren’t a large portion of people who have never heard a countertenor before. Of course aficionados know the voice type well, but large swaths of most audiences are palpably shocked when we first open our mouths. And that’s GOOD. For someone new to opera, it gives them a foothold, something to be fascinated by in the course of coming to understand and hopefully love the art form. But even for someone experienced with countertenors, I think there is still a kind of fascination in experience the cognitive dissonance of those voices with their respective bodies.  

Which is your favourite opera role and why?

My favorite role seems to change from minute to minute, especially as I take on new roles each season. That said, Gluck’s Orfeo remains vocally, emotionally, and musically at the top of the heap. The simplicity of the story, the aching journey that he has to take, his simultaneous strength and vulnerability feel like a perfect conduit for song. What’s more, his music has ample opportunity for lush expanse, soaring above a full chorus or burgeoning orchestra, but also poignant moments of quiet contemplation, grief, and even determination. It is rife with many thrilling moments for a singing actor, and of course the sheer beauty of the music is astounding.

When did you discover your countertenor voice?

Having been on Broadway as a boy belter from 11 - 13 years old, I was first asked to participate in an opera at 13 when they needed Miles for Britten’s Turn of the Screw. It was my first encounter with opera, and I was instantly hooked. I found the potential for expression so deep and varied, even at that age. I sang the high-lying boy soprano lines all in head voice, and someone who had seen the production wondered whether I might be a young countertenor. I had no idea what a countertenor was, but I looked it up and it seemed like a great chance to keep singing high, which is in some sense what every successful boy soprano wants to do. It turned out my voice had in fact already changed by the time I was doing Miles, it had just happened gently and gradually. Thus I never tried baritone or tenor, but rather have always sung in the treble clef. 


What is your approach to da capo ornamentation? Is there a balance to be found between florid fireworks and good taste?!

Good taste doesn’t have to be boring! I work very carefully, and very slowly, on all my ornaments (often creating them along side my coach David Moody, and then refining them with my teacher Joan Patenaude-Yarnell). On average it takes me at least an hour to ornament one aria. And that’s not because of any dearth of ideas. On the contrary, there are so many options that occur to me, it’s about finding the right road to take. Of course you want ornaments that show you off, but I think it’s much more important that they also expose the character or articulate the text in a new and interesting way. It’s essential that there is dramatic intention behind any ornament. Anger can be redoubled by adding more notes, but equally despair can be amplified by taking away notes, or changing dynamics. I see color variations as ornaments too, not just changes to the vocal line. Once I have decided what I want to do, and vetted it with my team, my ideas then have to cut the mustard when it comes to a particular conductor, most of whom have their own ideas / agenda in trying to make a cast’s ornamentation sound somewhat unified in approach. Lastly, after all this machination, the most important part of singing an ornament is making it SOUND spontaneous. It can’t feel to the audience as if you’ve been over it a thousand times. I think this is the spark for those fireworks, the way in which we can use musicality to make an ornament feel as if it’s being sung for the first time. In that way we are using good taste in combination with musical instinct to (hopefully) set off an explosion of da capo variation. 

Anthony Roth Costanzo in <i>Partenope</i> © Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
Anthony Roth Costanzo in Partenope
© Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked to do on an operatic stage?

Recently in a San Francisco Opera’s production of Partenope, director Christopher Alden had me dangling from a ledge by my fingertips while singing the A section of an aria. Later in the opera, he had me actually tap dance during an aria — a complete vaudeville routine including a cane and top hat. In the final cadenza, I made it both a vocal and tap cadenza. I would sing one figure, and then tap out the same rhythm with my feet, and repeat as such until we reached a climax. Where that landed on the taste/firework spectrum I don’t know, but the audience seemed to love it. I have had to carry a fake donkey with two people inside it across a narrow gang plank that spanned an orchestra pit, stand in a bowl while singing an aria, wear 6 inch platform heels and a dress, eat rice paper cutouts of my kingdom’s subjects, take a selfie on stage, you name it. And I’m game. In my book, strange is wonderful, and there’s often a way to make it an engaging part of both the performer AND the audience’s experience.


Click here for Anthony Roth Costanzo's performer page.