· By Nicholas Stevens
Anthony Roth Costanzo on The Lord of Cries
When countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo strode onstage shackled at Santa Fe Opera in a 2021 world premiere, everyone knew that the chains would soon fall away. By this point, audience members had seen Costanzo, in character as a Greek god, shapeshift. His lordly physicality likewise makes him seem unconfinable—and amused by the attempt. Then there's the matter of him taking the form of Dracula, ever so hard to pin down.
Between 1991, when composer John Corigliano's first opera debuted, and 2021, when his second, The Lord of Cries, put Costanzo at center stage, society slipped some bonds of its own. Repressive norms around identity and sexuality fell, clanking, to history's stage floor. Librettist Mark Adamo still saw inhibition everywhere. The opera gets at this theme in a manner reminiscent, in flashes, of Handel's grandeur and Strauss's salaciousness.
Does Costanzo play a villain? Or is the real enemy a culture of paranoia and denial so ironclad that only gods and monsters can cut through? As PENTATONE prepared to release The Lord of Cries in an audiophile-quality world premiere recording, we invited Costanzo to unburden himself.
ArkivMusic: right away in The Lord of Cries, we hear you identify your character—“I, Dionysus, Son of Zeus!”—but then ask, who shall I be? It feels like a commentary on the way singing actors always find their way into roles. How did you figure out how to inhabit this character?
Anthony Roth Costanzo: In this ingenious fusion of Euripides' classic story and the eerie tale of Dracula, you have a protagonist who can shapeshift and time-travel. He has a kind of omnipotent power, so as I approached bringing him to life on the stage, I started to think about how you could convey that kind of power—vocally, physically, dramatically.
My first realization was that rather than a histrionic display of effort, it’s stillness and control that could command that sort of reverence. When you lay a groundwork of cool pianissimo, or focused incisive singing—when the outbursts eventually come, or when the orchestra explodes, the juxtaposition of extremes is so impactful. I applied this to physical aspects of my performance as well as the vocalization that you will hear on the CD.
AM: we hear John Corigliano reference some specific operas, but also operatic conventions here, such as your baroque-feeling harmonizing with Kathryn Henry as Lucy in Act II, Scene 2. Did you draw on any previously played roles in devising your take on this character?
ARC: John’s music is so incredibly rich and full of possibility that I had to bring to bear the full resources of my musical training! The role is almost Wagnerian in scale, so I had to use a technically solid groundwork to make it through.
As strange as it may sound, the vocal building blocks that enable a healthy approach to music this big are principles that I honed with baroque singing. In making sure that everything was well-hewn with that kind of precision, I also had to muster a kind of vocal mettle to slice through the amazing brass fanfares that often accompany my character. And of course, having performed dozens of contemporary operas and songs, I had to pay close attention to the intricacy of John’s rhythmic and tonal language, which are so carefully composed and therefore important to dig into in all ways.
AM: please tell us more about your working relationship with Corigliano and Mark Adamo – this was John's second-ever opera and first in three decades, and you created the title role!
ARC: believe it or not, I first met John and Mark when I was 16 years old. I was an adolescent countertenor and had been brought in to understudy a boy soprano who was in the premiere of John’s Dylan Thomas Trilogy at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. You couldn’t make this up, but on the morning of the premiere, John called my hotel room and woke me up: “the boy’s voice has changed – can you do it instead?” It was one of those do or die moments, and John, Mark, and I spent the rest of the day before the premiere at a piano going through all the music and getting it perfect. From that exhilarating experience, we were always friends and it was such an honor for me to bring his second opera to life. We worked on it together for many years—seven or more—before getting to actually premiere it. It is a remarkable score, a dream role, and I am so very pleased it has been so beautifully captured and recorded by Gil [Rose], BMOP and Pentatone.
AM: the countertenor voice in opera feels a bit like Dionysus as he's portrayed in this opera—forgotten too long and overdue for its revival! As a sort of standard-bearer for the voice-type in our time, are you encouraged by its rising visibility among the public and adoption by singers?
ARC: I love the otherness of the countertenor voice. It is always on the fringes of the operatic firmament, and yet there is a strange familiarity to almost everyone in the world because of all the great falsetto pop singers, from Prince to Michael Jackson and beyond. I have tried to find creative applications of the voice, and have become a producer of sorts, because I’ve created so many projects that I can string together into the kind of career I want to have, which places this particular and peculiar voice in the bullseye.
AM: you get to play not just a "villain," but rather a composite of two legendary, notorious figures in this opera. Yet Adamo has described his Dionysus/Dracula as representing a liberatory impulse as well, an urge to overcome repression. What does this character mean to you?
ARC: what Dionysus and Dracula both represent, and what Adamo renders so keenly in this opera, is the idea that repression, trying to deny what you want, results in chaos. And I think both Dionysus and Dracula represent a kind of id-like force of will and desire that are present in an authenticity of self. Conformity is at the other end of the spectrum and causes all kinds of problems both personally and societally. So in this case, the “villain” of the story brings with him an important lesson. The way that is woven through the opera, with musical and dramatic themes, is thrilling to experience.
AM: you've said that this character pursues violence because he knows what he wants but knows nothing of love. Do you think of this opera as offering lessons for living in a world where that sort of disconnect feels all too prevalent sometimes?
ARC: one of the recurring musical leitmotifs is accompanied by the lines “Deny him not his place”. In some spheres, there is a fearful sense that the outsider is evil, and this is something that we still see happening, shockingly, in our political climate and contemporary world. More than the outsider knowing nothing of love, the point is that there are obstructions to love, and the subtle point in the opera is that those are not the fault of the outsider, but rather their context which doesn’t recognize the authenticity of their personhood.
Shop Corigliano | Adamo: The Lord of Cries from PENTATONE