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.

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