Classical, Main Stage, Vocalist

Shock and Awe: Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Celebrity Series Debut and My Introduction to Opera

By Angela Hyde

I’ve always considered myself a modernist, preferring modern fiction and poetry to classical, modern art to renaissance, et cetera. Before this month, I considered my musical tastes strictly modern as well, though I could certainly appreciate classical compositions, as someone who grew up reading music and playing sporadically in local orchestras. But I never considered classical styles of music to be interesting enough to listen to during my day to day life.

And yet, these past few weeks, the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and his album ARC, have become the soundtrack to my daily life. Whether I’m cooking, commuting, or sitting at my desk – the album is playing in my ear. It’s engaging enough to listen to intently, but it could just as easily be the background soundtrack to my life, as it has become. As an introduction to operatic music, I could ask for no better.

This dark Wednesday night, I sit in Pickman Hall at the Longy School of Music of Bard College and admire the music hall. It’s my first time here, and I can’t help but compare it to the space I was in last weekend, for Celebrity Series’ presentation of the Afro-Colombian dance company Sankofa Danzafro at NEC’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre. That theater is a bit smaller and feels more intense, while Pickman feels both minimalistically modern and classic. A 1970 addition to the historic Edwin Abbot House, the Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall at Longy School of Music of Bard College is a prime example of how old and new can be juxtaposed. There is no more perfect place I could imagine to have witnessed a performance by the 2019 Musical America Vocalist of the Year.

Costanzo walks out with his pianist, David Moody, smiling and just as excited as the audience is. The pianist switches his glasses, shuffles his music, and the concert begins.

The first song, “One Charming Night,” from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, is a joyous introduction, and I’m immediately swept up in the power of Costanzo’s voice. The lyrics “one charming night / gives more delight / than a hundred lucky days,” is a playfully coy start to our charmed night with the singer.

The evening has the feeling of a soiree; a gathering around Costanzo as he tells us the historical context of each song, like an excited professor of music in love with his scholarly content. It makes me and the rest of his audience excited and interested, hanging on every word.

During the first half of the show, I watch Costanzo meld Britten and Purcell, singing songs such as “Corpus Christi Carol” and “Sweeter than roses”, among others. Each different from the other, they range from renaissance romances, playful and light, and what Costanzo calls the “inherent sexiness” that is Benjamin Britten. I furiously write notes in my program book alongside the lyrics and translations. I’m thankful for them, though Costanzo has excellent diction and a clarity in his singing. Whenever you think Costanzo couldn’t sing any more powerfully, raise his voice another octave, or surprise you, he immediately proves you wrong, and he does. It’s a magical experience, truly.

Next, we’re transported with song immediately to France. “Voyage à Paris,” composed by Francis Poulenc, is a prime example, bringing to mind the beautiful city in the springtime sunlight. After being treated to this French vacation, we’re let go for a quick intermission, a break for the singers’ voice and a moment for us to think on the first half of the show.

Kicking off the second half of our night, an Italian song I didn’t expect to recognize, but did, was “Rompo i lacci” from Handel’s Flavio. It felt like I had listened to it in a movie sometime in my life, or an adapted version in some other song. Regardless of where, the nostalgia and the quintessence of Italian opera mixed together into a beautiful experience, to hear it live.

Costanzo moves to two more English songs, both more contemporary. They both bring me to tears. First, “Liquid Days,” adapted by Philip Glass and written by David Byrne from the band The Talking Heads. It’s a beautiful love song that, as Costanzo says, “anthropomorphizes love.” It’s a tribute to a modern lover, and it pulls at the heartstrings.

The second is an adaptation of the poem “In the Arc of your Mallet” by Rumi, and Costanzo picks out a few lines as his favorite: “the way the night knows itself with the moon, / be that with me. Be the rose.” These end up being my favorite as well, appealing to my poetic and romantic tendencies. This is ultimately my favorite song of the night.

The closing song is actually composed of one wordless vocalization: ‘ah.’ The song “Encounter” from 1000 Airplanes on the Roof is vibrant, upbeat, and as unique as the singer himself. It ends the show alongside the encore, “Summertime” by George Gershwin. While very different, both signify how significant this concert truly it: it is a unique experience that some, like myself, have never had the pleasure of coming close to before. It melts my heart and truly solidifies not only my admiration for Costanzo as a powerful performer, but for opera itself.

The next morning, I have the pleasure of observing Costanzo’s masterclass with graduate students at Longy. All ranges, both male and female, and all gleeful in their opportunity. As a teacher, he is brilliant and commanding, but not haughty. He speaks of “sound and color,” and the “richness and fullness” with which the students sing, and his goal seems to be making the students feel what he’s asking them to change in their performances, rather than just saying words at them. Costanzo allows the student to sing their piece fully before interjecting with instruction, then he graciously asks the student their history in music, about the song they’re singing, their state of mind as they sing it. He is not haughty or unapproachable – he wants the students to explore the song and what their voice can do. I don’t entirely understand how he does it, but Costanzo brings out in the students something subtly yet remarkably different from the sound they produced when they walked onto the stage.

Time goes by quickly, far more quickly than I had anticipated, much like the recital had the night before. The masterclass is over, sadly, and I walk out of Longy into the autumn sun. Though I’ve never heard opera before this week, I could sit and watch Costanzo teach or sing for hours, and it would feel like minutes. Thankfully, I will always have this memory, and I look forward to the next time I have the opportunity to have my mind changed by music.


As a College for Social Innovation Fellow in the Fall of 2018, Angela Hyde is an intern with the Advancement Department at Celebrity Series of Boston. She is a senior at Wheaton College MA, pursuing a Writing Degree, with a minor in Journalism Studies.

Sankofa Intergenerational Workshop from Celebrity Series Videos on Vimeo.

Arts for All, Dance, Neighborhood Arts

Sankofa Danzafro’s “City of Others” Is an Inspirational Powerhouse of Dance

By Angela Hyde

As I walk in on the chilly Friday morning, members of Sankofa Danzafro are already in the classroom of the Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s only public high school focused on the visual and performing arts. I question whether or not it’s customary for someone who is not dancing to still take off their shoes. The tall and lanky dancers are smiling and speaking with one another in Spanish, a language I have sadly never learned, but enjoy listening to, like a song. I take my seat in the corner after saying hello to my colleagues and watch as the first class of BAA sophomores file into the room.

Sankofa Danzafro company founder and director Rafael Palacios instructs the class and his three dancers through stretches and warm-ups, with the sound of hand-drums leading their way, played by Jorge Arce, a Boston-based Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean musician who also collaborates with Celebrity Series’ Neighborhood Arts program. That deep sound reverberates off the walls of the small dance studio, invading my bones as though I’m at a live concert – I can only imagine how the dancers feel. They look pulled by the music, though their dancing and the music work in tandem, and are equally important to their movement. These drums crescendo as the warm-ups get more intense, backs bending and arms at times languid, at times purposefully straightened.

Today’s master classes are part of Artist Connections, in which performers that Celebrity Series brings to Boston from around the world interact directly with students and community members.  At times intense, with hard kicks or jutting elbows, and at others with smooth hip sways accompanied by languidly reaching arms, the Sankofa dancers take the students through Colombian-inspired dances as well as examples of salsa choque, a Colombian-born dance style that infuses salsa with hip-hop. It truly shows the range of the dancers and the style they perform.

During the class of younger students, so concentrated and determined, one young woman makes a mistake in turning the wrong direction. Rather than being frustrated or despondent, she laughs with the Sankofa dancer in front of her. They take a mistake and morph it into a positive moment, as it means she can learn from it. This is a prime example of what Artist Connections is about; joy in both mistakes and successes, as long as we’re learning from both.

Two classes were held that Friday morning, for both younger and older Boston Arts Academy dancers, and no one left without a smile. These intensive masterclasses were a look into a style that has been developed through ancestral roots and contemporary movement.

Like these classes, the performance I saw on Sunday, November 4th, presented by Celebrity Series as one in a series of intimate performances of dance with live music, at NEC’s new Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, was an incredibly powerful example of Afro-Colombian and Afro-contemporary dance, with the percussive rhythms again filling my chest with music, and voices singing in languages I don’t understand. The debut performance with Celebrity Series was intense, emotionally raw, and fascinating for me, an outsider not only of Afro-Colombian culture but of dance in general. It was mesmerizing.

The show, City of Others, or “La Ciudad de los Otros, is a showcase of styles both traditional and modern, and a protest against the lack of opportunities for minority communities and others marginalized by income, gender, sexual orientation, and more. The anger and hostility felt are present in many parts of the performance, in the performers yelling at one another, in the shuffle of peoples, and in the literal holding back of individualism. There is a moment in the show where all the dancers move as one, like a sea of fish, until one breaks off and begins a solo dance. At different intervals, the larger group attempts to hold him back, to stop him from dancing differently, individually. It’s a stark reimagining of how individualism often creates a vulnerability – you can’t blend in if you’re a group of one.

 

Near the end of the show, three planks of wood are brought out, and lights shine on them to create the shape of coffins. Three dancers start dancing beats after one another, the same dance but at different intervals. Perhaps this segmentation is a representation of individuality across time being persecuted. Perhaps, as the three wooden panels move to create a sort of cubicle and dancers take turns wildly dancing within it, this small space is meant to represent the way marginalized individuals live in a sort of solitude, even in a grand city. I may never know the true meaning of these symbols because I come from a different place in the world. It’s a glimpse into another life, a struggle and an anger that is powerful while simultaneously beautiful.

The show receives a standing ovation, as is well-deserved. Chests heaving with the labor of their performance, the dancers take their bows with smiles. It’s an achievement, one to take pride in, and when I leave for the bus, I am thankful for the opportunity and grateful that these individuals have taken it upon themselves to share their stories – stories people like me might never get to hear unless sought out.

After the show, members of Sankofa Danzafro and their director Rafael Palacios travel to the Veronica Robles Cultural Center in East Boston, and it is a wonderful confluence of Celebrity Series performers, both local and international. Just last month, Veronica Robles and her all-female mariachi ensemble performed for Celebrity Series in a Neighborhood Arts Day of the Dead concert in the South End, and now her center hosts this intergenerational workshop. Twenty-five individuals attend, ranging from young children to senior women, with Jorge Arce returning to play the drums, and it is a lovely mixture of Sankofa’s Afro-Colombian dancing and the Latinx community of East Boston. The mix of cultures is celebrated, uplifted, and this after-show event solidifies the fact that the African roots of this Colombian company cannot be separated from the Latin.


As a College for Social Innovation Fellow in the Fall of 2018, Angela Hyde is an intern with the Advancement Department at Celebrity Series of Boston. She is a senior at Wheaton College MA, pursuing a Writing Degree, with a minor in Journalism Studies.

All photos by Robert Torres.

Video of Sankofa Danzafro’s Workshop at the Veronica Robles Cultural Center by Kristín Otharsson.