Meet the Jewish opera singer taking the role of a Pharaoh

Counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo takes on the title role of "visionary" Pharaoh Akhnaten at the ENO


The sound of a counter-tenor is extraordinary at the best of times: high, pure, somewhat unearthly. Even so, Anthony Roth Costanzo takes its impact to remarkable levels. His tone cuts and soars, with a real ‘ping’ to its precision, powered by an open-hearted depth of feeling. Now this celebrated Jewish American singer is returning to English National Opera to star as the eponymous Egyptian pharaoh in a revival of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten.

Costanzo bounds out of a rehearsal, a slight, lithe figure with a megawatt presence. He is 36, but this is, astonishingly, his 25th year on stage; he has sung professionally since the age of 11. First he appeared in Broadway shows, but at 13 he sang the role of Miles in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and was enchanted with the opera’s complexity. Moreover, despite having passed puberty he could still sing in a high register; some of the cast, he recounts, suggested he might be a counter-tenor. He never looked back.

He was born in North Carolina, the son of two psychology professors: his mother was Hungarian Jewish and his father Italian Catholic (“Lots of food and lots of guilt!” he jokes). “I’m not a particularly religious person, but there’s a certain ritual and daily discipline to performing that somehow connects to the rituals of Judaism for me, in an abstract way,” he says. “We all have our own version of spirituality and for me this ritual creates a sense of comfort and meaning.”

The somewhat niche repertoire for counter-tenor has helped to make him into more than “just a singer for hire,” he reflects. “I realised I had to generate some of the projects I wanted to do, bringing together artists from different disciplines and expanding beyond the world of classical music. I grew up doing film and Broadway, and when I was studying at Princeton University cross-discipline and cross-pollination was critical to my development. I’ve always looked for ways to expand opera outwards and bring other disciplines into ours.

“I started to understand that perhaps we could reach people who were primed to like music because they like beautiful things, be it fashion or art or dance. If we could collaborate with people in their world who meant something to them, we could introduce them to this kind of music. That means getting the people together, getting the project together and raising a lot of money.” His collaborators have included an eclectic range of artists: dancers David Hallberg and Patricia Delgado, filmmaker James Ivory, the multimedia fashion and art company Visionaire, composers Matthew Aucoin and John Corigliano, and many more. One recent ambitious project was a live multimedia, multiarts installation based on Costanzo’s solo album Glass Handel, bringing together songs and arias by two composers who are pillars of his repertoire.

Phelim McDermott’s much-lauded production of Glass’s Akhnaten was first seen three years ago, it tells the story of the pharoah who ruled for 17 years and moved from polytheism to worshipping one deity, identified with the sun. Now Costanzo finds new relevance in the story. “A lot has happened — Brexit, Trump, very challenging things. To portray a leader who had a very clear idea of what he wanted, but had to destroy certain established things in order to execute his idea, that was a fraught and different context in which to make this show.” Does that mean he identifies Akhnaten’s character with — gasp! — Donald Trump? “Not at all!” Costanzo insists. “But in 2019, to portray someone with so much power is complicated.

“I always have asked the question — and I don’t have the answer yet — whether Akhnaten is good or bad. He’s part of Glass’s trilogy of operas about great thinkers, Einstein being the first and Ghandi the second. He was a visionary who changed the course of history, as the first monotheist who generated all western religion. You could see him as an incredibly spiritual ecologist who was concerned with nature and the sun — or you could see him as a cult leader. Of course I feel sympathetic towards him because I play him: I think he was an idealist and was trying to make life better for people. But of course there are many ways to interpret the narrative.”

Perhaps there’s irony in a nice Jewish boy playing an Egyptian pharoah. “Some people suggest that slaves descended from this period made their way to Israel and brought with them the idea of monotheism that may have informed Moses,” Costanzo says. “That’s somewhat creative. But also there’s a suggestion that the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, was actually Akhnaten and Nefertiti. Maybe this is a starting point.”

Costanzo, an enthusiastic New Yorker, has been enjoying his time in London. “It’s thrilling to be back, recreating this production with ENO, which is really the ‘house of Glass’,” he says. “This is my third role for the company, and thanks to them I feel at home here. I love biking around the city and experiencing different aspects of it. Now I know where I’m going.”

So, one suspects, does his audience: up to the stratospheres.


Akhnaten opens at English National Opera on 11 February.


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