On November 8, singer Anthony Roth Costanzo will take center stage at the Metropolitan Opera, debuting as the star of a new production of Philip Glass' opera Akhnaten. It's a remarkable turn for a celebrated singer who nearly lost his voice to thyroid cancer.
Ten years ago, Costanzo needed surgery to excise cancerous tissue from the nerves that control vocal functioning — a task he was told was like "getting gum out of hair." His surgeon warned him that a vocal nerve may get nicked during the operation, which could damage his singing voice. Costanzo began to contemplate alternate career paths.
"I had to really think to myself, 'OK, well what is my identity?' " Costanzo says. "I'd spent my whole life singing and I realized that ... I like producing, and I could figure something out."
But after two surgeries, Costanzo was relieved to find he still had a voice. He began working with his vocal coach, beginning with just two minutes a day for six weeks. "We built up to singing an aria," he says "And the next year I won the Metropolitan Opera Competition and I had a career."
Costanzo, a countertenor, sings in a high range that's often associated with women's voices. Nevertheless, "I don't associate ... the pitch with gender," he says. "It feels very much me. And one thing my upbringing and all of my experiences have taught me is to just be myself."
On portraying Akhnaten, "the first trans icon"
"I was talking to all these Egyptologists as I was researching the role, and I went to Oxford where Richard Parkinson, a great Egyptologist, and his colleagues met with me, and I said, 'Was he really a hermaphrodite? Did he have both body parts?' And he said, 'Well he's always depicted with these very big hips and full lips and almost breasts. So that's why people think that.' But they posited this other theory, which is that he saw God as the unification of man and woman — not a man or a woman — and he wanted to be closer to God. ... I do think of him as the first trans icon, and very fluid, and that's really represented in our production."
On making his entrance in Akhnaten
"I enter completely stark naked — probably the first full-frontal male nudity at the Met. And it goes on for quite a while in slow motion — six minutes. So you see this very male figure emerge and then, over the course of the opera, I kind of transform into someone with these more feminine features. ... I wear these gauzy Egyptian linen pleated robes and underneath them the costume designer Kevin Pollard and the director Phelim McDermott have chosen this slip that has printed [on it] a woman's body, a kind of painted woman's body, but from far away — and even from 10 feet away — it looks like breasts and women's genitals. It's not graphic in any way, but it is rather very beautiful. And so you see this trajectory of Aknhaten's transformation of thought and also body."
Using mental imagery to activate his vocal muscles
"What's amazing about singing is that the muscles involved in it are involuntary. And so how do we control them? And the only answer is with imagery, really with the mind. And there's a great book by Thomas Hemsley, called Singing and Imagination, and he talks about how the mind fires a set of impulses, and they have an effect on the muscles and then you have to sort of follow the Pavlovian principles and you have to teach those muscles what you want them to do.
"So when I'm singing a high note, my great teacher, a teacher I've been with 21 years, might say in her very dramatic way, 'Anthony, imagine that a flower is opening when you hit that note.' And so I would imagine, in the voice of [my teacher] Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, 'You're now a rose, but opening.' And that teaches my muscles to do a particular thing, that image. And so when I go on stage, if I've taught my muscles well, all I have to do is picture that."
On the historical link between "castrati" and opera
"As opera is beginning in 1599, the first 'castrati' appear in history in the logs of the Vatican chapel choir book, and a castrato is — and forgive me everyone who's listening; it always makes the men cross their legs when I say this — a man who, before the age of puberty, has had their testicles usually crushed between two stones. And this was a practice that started in 1599 as far as we know, and what that did was to preserve the high voice as these men's bodies grew. And so they would have the resonating chamber of an adult but the vocal cords basically of a boy soprano.
"[The castrati] brought opera to the public. It became a public art form about 25 years later, in 1625 in Venice, because these castrated singers had made their way into the art form and the public loved them. ... These castrati became kind of the rock stars of their era, with women and men wearing little portraits of them on buckles and on belts and around their neck. ... Music was written for them by not only Handel, but Gluck and Mozart and Monteverdi and Vivaldi and all of these composers that you've heard of, were writing for castrated men. And these were the men who were who were leading the opera world. ... It's a kind of terrifying and fascinating thing that is at the root of opera's success."
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Andrew Flanagan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has a beautiful and unusual singing voice. Anthony Roth Costanzo is a countertenor, which means he sings on the range associated with women's voices. Some of his repertoire from the 16 and 1700s, music by composers like Handel and Monteverdi, was originally written for castrati, men who were castrated before puberty to prevent their voices from changing and deepening.
Costanzo also sings contemporary music and is about to star in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Philip Glass' opera "Akhnaten," about the Egyptian pharaoh who was married to Nefertiti. Now some people think that because of Akhenaten's beliefs and because of how he was visually represented that he may have been gender fluid. On Saturday afternoon, November 23, the Met's production of "Akhnaten" will be broadcast live to select movie theaters around America and the world as part of the Met Live in HD series.
We'll hear Costanzo singing an excerpt from "Akhnaten" a little later. But let's start with an excerpt of Philip Glass' "Liquid Days." This is from Costanzo's album "ARC," which came out last year and features him singing music by Glass and Handel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIQUID DAYS")
ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO: (Vocalizing, singing) Love likes me. Love takes it shoes off and sits on the couch. Love has answer for everything. Love smiles gently and crosses its legs. Well, here we are. Well, here we are. Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep.
GROSS: Anthony Roth Costanzo, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're amazing. (Laughter) So...
COSTANZO: Thanks for having me, Terry. I'm thrilled.
GROSS: So let's just start with what does it mean to be a countertenor?
COSTANZO: So a countertenor is essentially a man who sings in a falsetto voice. And the falsetto voice is just particularly resonant and well-developed, and it's that simple.
GROSS: So what's the difference between what you do and, for instance, what Smokey Robinson does?
COSTANZO: (Laughter) Well, actually, we do the same thing physiologically. So every person has these two vocal chords, and they come together. I sort of liken it to blowing grass between your thumbs, if you've ever done that, and it makes a little buzzing sound. You blow air between these vocal chords, and they buzz like a kazoo would. And if we had no head, that's all it would sound like. But the kazoo sound travels up into our bone structure in our face and within our mouth, and it takes shape. It takes color. It takes volume bouncing around in there, and it comes out as sound.
And as opera singers, we learn to sort of use that air and those resonating spaces with the utmost finesse. There are also, of course, muscles involved. There are 60 muscles in the throat. So as a countertenor, we're bringing the vocal chords together. But we're only bringing a portion of them together, say two-thirds of them together, leaving a little space for some extra air to escape. So what that means is that most falsettos in most men are kind of airy because you hear the air escaping, whereas a countertenor learns really how to bring those chords to full approximation, as it's called, meaning fully together but leaving that little bit that doesn't vibrate and therefore making a very rich, very operatic sound.
GROSS: Can you sing in a kind of falsetto, like, you know, that a pop singer would use...
GROSS: ...And compare that to your operatic voice?
COSTANZO: Sure. Well, you know, Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake, those people who use falsettos, they generally do something like (vocalizing). You know, that's the feeling of it. And they're really close to the mike. So it might be like, (singing) you, baby. You know, and it has a little bit of that sound, whereas if I'm singing falsetto as a countertenor, it's going to be more something like this. This is the part where I guess I back up from the microphone.
GROSS: Yeah, I think you better do that.
COSTANZO: (Vocalizing) And, you see, even if I don't do it super loud, if I do it in a more refined, sensitive way, it's still a full, rich sound (vocalizing). So it has a different quality. And it's really just about conditioning, like anything, like going to the gym, learning how to make your body do something specific.
GROSS: Right. And I can hear. Like, there's no air in that sound. It's just all...
COSTANZO: Hopefully (laughter).
GROSS: It's just a full, bell-like sound. I can hear the difference in what you're doing. I get it (laughter).
COSTANZO: And I think the completeness of that sound is what allows it to carry unamplified in an opera house.
GROSS: Can you give us a sense of the range of your voice, how low you can go and how high you can go?
COSTANZO: Well, the thing about countertenors is we have our, quote, unquote, "male voice" or, you know, normal chest voice. So I can go all the way down into a baritone if I want. But on the high end, I go up to a high A or, you know, in my youth, I would go up to a high C, you know, things that are more in the Queen of the Night territory, if that's a reference people know. But I don't go quite that high. I'm not really a soprano. It's usually in the mezzo-soprano range. And so I spend a lot of my life in the treble clef in the middle of it.
GROSS: So can you demonstrate, like, the range that you have, going as low and as high as you can?
COSTANZO: Yeah, let me try. If I were to go all the way down in baritone, it would be like (vocalizing). Then there'll be a a switch, which that switch is the break between what we call the chest voice and the head voice. And the head voice is the falsetto. So I'll show you what that break sounds like if I were to crack, which would be...
COSTANZO: Right? And that (laughter) - that's where all the yodeling happens. So when you get people who yodel, they're switching - they're popping between the chest voice muscles and the head voice muscles, going (vocalizing). But I would try and smooth out that or find ways around it. And then I'm at the bottom of the head voice, and from there, we go (vocalizing). And then, if I were going to go up - I don't know how much I have this morning - but (vocalizing). So - and it could go, you know, even a little higher, probably after 11 a.m. (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. We're recording as it is now 10:15 in the morning (laughter) as we record this.
GROSS: You sing a lot of contemporary music and a lot of early music from the 17th and 18th century.
GROSS: So I want to play just a short passage of some Handel from your album of music by Handel and Philip Glass. And I'm choosing this because, like, you're singing some low notes as well as the high notes in this. So I thought it would be an interesting time to play this. This is from Handel's opera "Rodelinda," and this is the "Vivi Tiranno." Do - am I pronouncing that correctly?
GROSS: And what does it mean?
COSTANZO: It means, live, you tyrant.
GROSS: OK. And is there anything you want to say about what you're doing in this?
COSTANZO: Yes. So it's a great aria in the opera in which I save my captor, the bad guy, from an even worse bad guy. And I say to him - look; I saved you to show you that my heart is bigger than my fate. And to illustrate this great emotion, what Handel used to do is these very fast notes, which are almost impossible to sing. We call them coloratura. And so I have to sing, instead of a scale that slow like (singing major scale) ah, ha, ha, ha, ha (ph) - I have to go (singing coloratura run) ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha (ph). And it takes tremendous practice and control.
GROSS: And you agree you're going between some pretty deep notes for you as well the high notes.
COSTANZO: (Laughter) Yes. Yes. The opening phrase, I start up in my head voice, and then I switch down into the "male," quote, unquote, chest voice. And that's a great juxtaposition, which I think adds drama.
GROSS: Absolutely. OK. So let's hear it. This is Anthony Roth Costanzo.
(SOUNDBITE OF "VIVI, TIRANNO" FROM HANDEL'S "RODELINDA")
COSTANZO: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: That was Anthony Roth Costanzo singing music by Handel from his album of music by Glass and Handel. And he's about to star in the Metropolitan Opera production of "Akhnaten," the Philip Glass opera.
So tell us a little bit about how you do that coloratura, that very embroidered kind of singing. That seems so hard because you have to be precisely on the note, but it's happening so fast.
COSTANZO: Yeah. And you want it to be distinct - each note to be distinct, but you don't want it to be breathy. Like, you don't want it to sound like (singing) ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. You want it to sound like...
COSTANZO: ...One beautiful phrase (laughter) - not machinegun-like but more, you know, elegant.
COSTANZO: So it takes a lot of practice. And I start slowly. You can imagine. You know, I put a metronome on. It goes tick-tock, tick-tock. And I go di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di, di (ph). And then I would speed up that metronome. Little by little, you gain speed. It sort of goes into your muscle memory, and you figure out eventually how to do it full tilt.
GROSS: It must take such patience.
COSTANZO: It does take patience. It takes a lot of failing and frustration. But also, what's amazing about singing is that the muscles involved in it are involuntary. And so how do we control them? And the only answer is with imagery, really - with the mind. And you know, there's a great book by, I think, Thomas Hemsley called "Singing And Imagination." And he talks about how the mind fires a set of impulses, and they have an effect on the muscles. And then you have to sort of follow the Pavlovian principles, and you have to teach those muscles what you want them to do.
So when I'm singing a high note, my great teacher - a teacher I've been with 21 years might say in her very dramatic way - Anthony, imagine that a flower is opening when you hit that note. And so I would imagine, in the voice of Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, a rosebud opening. And that teaches my muscles to do a particular thing, that image. And so when I go onstage, if I've taught my muscles well, all I have to do is picture that.
GROSS: So at the same time that these muscles are involuntary so that you have to use imagery to get them to do what you'd like them to do, they are muscles, and they can be strengthened. So you have very strong muscles in your throat. I don't know if you can strengthen the vocal cords, per se, but you can strengthen the muscles.
So what exactly are you strengthening when you strengthen your voice? And do you do - are, like, scales and things like that exercises not only for, you know, learning precision and tone and all of that but also just to strengthen the muscles?
COSTANZO: It's - that's a great question. I think the muscles that we strengthen - it's not really a muscular thing, singing. So we're kind of refining muscles, you know? It would be the difference between bulking up and and defining or something like that. We want them to function in a very specific way.
But the muscles that are really important are the muscles involved in breathing, too. The diaphragm is an exhalation muscle, and so it controls how the air goes out. And that's really important because if the air goes out too fast, you can't sing a long phrase. And - (imitating breathlessness) you might sound like that. And if it goes out too slowly, it might not have enough volume or presence, so there's that muscle. But also, the vocal chords, to answer your question, very importantly, you can't strengthen. They are two little tiny flaps of skin, gristle in our throat, and we have so little control over them. When you see a video of the vocal cords vibrating, they do this kind of oscillation as they come together. They look sort of like a belly dancer...
COSTANZO: ...Two belly dancers touching bellies is the best way I can describe it. And therefore, you want them to remain very supple and kind of relaxed. what that means - that's why hydration is so important - because they're skin. So you want them to be hydrated. When you sleep well, they're more flexible. When you don't have alcohol, in my experience, they're a little more comfortable and flexible. When you don't, you know, eat things that gunk them up - be it peanut butter, chocolate or dairy - right before you sing, then you don't get little pieces of phlegm caught between them that then cause all kinds of problems.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Roth Costanzo. He's about to star in the Metropolitan Opera production of "Akhnaten," the Philip Glass opera. We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STUTTGART STATE OPERA ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS PERFORMANCE OF PHILIP GLASS' "AKHNATEN: ACT 1, PRELUDE: REFRAIN - VERSE 1 - VERSE 2")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining, us my guest is Anthony Roth Costanzo. He's a countertenor, which means he sings in the range associated with women - with women's voices, in a higher range. And he's about to star in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Akhnaten," the Philip Glass opera about the pharaoh Akhenaten in ancient Egypt. Before we get to "Akhnaten," let's talk a little bit more about the tradition of countertenors. It's a tradition that starts in the 1600s...
COSTANZO: ...Actually - so it begins not with countertenors, per se, but with this incredible and kind of horrific creature, the castrato. So as opera's beginning in 1599, the first castrati appear in history in the logs of the Vatican chapel choir book. And a castrato is - and forgive me, everyone who's listening. It always makes the men cross their legs when I say this...
COSTANZO: ...But a man (laughter) who, before the age of puberty, has had their testicles usually crushed between two stones. And this was a practice that started in 1599 so - as far as we know.
And what that did was to preserve the high voice as these men's bodies grew. And so they would have the resonating chamber of an adult but the vocal cords, basically, of a boy soprano. And these creatures - and I don't mean that in a derogatory way - but they were fascinating to the public. And they brought opera to the public. It became a public art form about 25 years later, in 1625, in Venice because these castrated singers had made their way into the art form. And the public loved them.
And why did the public love them? I think about this a lot. I studied it a lot at Princeton, where I did my undergrad. And I think it's both a grim fascination but also, there was such an excitement about the high voice being heard in public with that kind of volume. You know, it was a time when women weren't singing in church, which is where much of the music was happening. And so these men...
GROSS: Women weren't allowed to sing in church.
COSTANZO: Exactly. Women were forbidden to sing in church, and these men gave a new sound and a new excitement. But also, if I can be so bold, I mean, imagine a time when there's no birth control and you're in a marriage that you're not particularly happy with. And you can fantasize about this man who is sexually functional but not fertile. And you go see them onstage, and you imagine having an affair with them. I mean, these castrati became kind of the rock stars of their era, with women and men wearing little portraits of them on buckles and on belts and around their neck. And - I mean, it was the first kind of merchandising and celebrity culture.
And for a hundred years, these castrati were the best paid, most popular singers. Music was written for them by not only Handel but Gluck and Mozart and Monteverdi and Vivaldi. And all of these composers that you've heard of were writing for castrated men, and these were the men who were leading the opera world. And it was - it's a kind of terrifying and fascinating thing that is at the root of opera's success.
GROSS: My guest is Anthony Roth Costanzo. He's about to star in the Metropolitan Opera's production of the Philip Glass opera "Akhnaten." We'll talk about "Akhnaten" after a break and about how Costanzo had been in danger of losing his voice a few years ago as a result of cancer. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STUTTGART STATE OPERA ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS PERFORMANCE OF PHILIP GLASS' "AKHNATEN: ACT 1, SCENE 1: FUNERAL OF AMENHOTEP III")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Anthony Roth Costanzo. He's a countertenor, which means he sings in the range associated with women's voices. Some of his repertoire from the 16- and 1700s, music by composers like Handel and Monteverdi, was originally written for castrati, men who were castrated before puberty to prevent their voices from deepening. Costanzo also sings contemporary music and is about to star in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Philip Glass's opera "Akhnaten," about the Egyptian pharaoh who was married to Nefertiti. When we left off, we were talking about the history of the castrati and how some were the rock stars of their day.
I keep wondering, what happened to the castrati who didn't make it as the greatest singers in the world, and they were just left with being castrati but not being rock stars, not being as talented as the best, not be on the stage singing opera?
COSTANZO: This is the great sadness. Ninety percent of boys who were castrated didn't make it to have a big career. So you can imagine living life as a monk or as a church singer and not fulfilling this promise to your family and also having to go through this traumatic experience and then spend all of your childhood - if you were castrated, you were sent off to a conservatory, away from your family. There were four in Italy. And 4,000 boys a year were being castrated in the height of this...
COSTANZO: ...Castration. And, you know, I would often think about - why would a parent let their child be castrated? But I guess one rationale is, you have six children, and the priest in the church choir says, listen - this kid is really good. I think he's got a shot. It's kind of like "American Idol," right? (Laughter). You know, fame and fortune is at your doorstep - castrate him. He's a good singer, and you know, maybe he's going to have this great career. There's a 1 in 10 chance he's going to bring fortune and fame to our town, our family. You know, so I guess it was a tradition. It was exciting. It was - it brought prestige to families who might not have had another way to climb a social ladder.
GROSS: Did the castrati who did not become stars become outcasts?
COSTANZO: Absolutely. And I think the castrati even who were stars were seen as freaks. There's a wonderful sketch from the time in London when Farinelli, probably the most famous castrato, was up against Senesino, who was Handel's favorite castrato, and it shows the two of them as these kind of giant figures. Sometimes castrati, because of the hormonal changes, their bones would continue growing, and they would become taller or more barrel-chested because their bones were often more cartilaginous, softer bones. And so it depicts these castratos (ph) like monsters, like towering giants, over the soprano. They were kind of freaks. They were outcasts. And they had this special skill which put them in a different category.
But I think it's fascinating that in modern opera countertenors often, up until today, portray outsiders, but in baroque times, they were always the hero. They were Orpheus. They were Julius Caesar. They were roles that were heroic, even though today, if I said to you, oh, we're doing an opera; how should we cast Julius Caesar? What should his voice sound like? You'd say, oh, we want the bass. We want the deep baritone for the strong general. But in those days, gender and pitch had a different relationship, which I find fascinating. They said, well, the strong voices, the castrato voice, that's the trumpet. That's the sound of a general. So I think the relationship to gender and pitch was different.
GROSS: I feel like you are, as a countertenor, making some of your performance and some of your approach about gender and gender fluidity. Are there women's roles you'd like to sing?
COSTANZO: There's - Terry, there are so many women's roles I'd like to sing.
COSTANZO: All of them. I mean - boy, my childhood was singing a lot of "Tosca" and, you know, Ella Fitzgerald, songs of Gershwin and - I mean, you know, yes. Yes, yes. But is it a part of the opera world? No. Could it be? Well, I think it's important to uphold the traditions which have made opera great, while simultaneously trying to think outside of the box about how we communicate this art form to people. So if I were working with a really smart director or a really cool composer, where it wasn't necessarily a drag act - although I do love a drag act - but if it were a different way to communicate something feminine through this voice and there was an interesting take on it, I think it could be fascinating.
GROSS: So since you're about to star as Akhenaten in the Philip Glass opera "Akhnaten," about the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, let's start with who Akhenaten was and what he represents in the history of ancient Egypt.
COSTANZO: Akhenaten is fascinating and also really complex. He was a Pharaoh, who in 1375 BC or so - think 200 years before Moses, so a long time ago - became Pharaoh at 17. And a few years later, he has this idea that instead of hundreds of gods in Egypt that had been there for most of their history, we should narrow it down, they should narrow it down, and there should be one god, and that should be the sun - Ra, the sun god. And that was because the sun gave life to grass, and grass gave life to the cattle, and the cattle gave life to us. And not only was that revolutionary, but he united Upper and Lower Egypt. He created a new city in no time flat - I mean, really, really fast.
And he changed the way culture existed. He changed how writing was done. He changed how art was made and how people were represented. He wanted Egyptians represented not as stick figures in hieroglyphs but as these curvy, realistic depictions of humans with their kids on their laps, looking into - a man looking into a woman's eyes and expressing love. He wanted all of these things to be represented that way. And then 17 years after he'd made this new kingdom and new way of existing, he disappears, and we don't know how. It's reasonable to think that he was killed because after he disappears, every representation of him in art and stone is destroyed. And everything that he has changed is reversed. All of the progressive things, to use a contemporary word, that he put forth were turned back.
And so he becomes a kind of cult figure later on when he's discovered for a lot of different people, and the history is cloudy, of course, because it's so old. But what's as interesting as the history is its interpretation throughout the past few hundred years.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Roth Costanzo. He's a countertenor, and he's about to star in the Metropolitan Opera's production of the Philip Glass opera "Akhnaten." We're going to talk about that after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAATSORCHESTER STUTTGART PERFORMANCE OF GLASS' "FUNERAL OF AMENHOTEP III")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. Countertenor means he sings in a very high voice. He sings classical music, early classical music and opera in a range that we would consider a women's range, and he is about to star in the Metropolitan Opera production of the Philip Glass opera "Akhnaten."
I think a lot of people now think that Akhenaten might have been trans, and I think he believed that divinity was a combination of the male and female, which, in some ways, is not an unusual thought. But why do people think in retrospect that he might have been trans?
COSTANZO: Well, you know, it's so interesting. When I first was studying Akhenaten, everyone in texts referred to him as a hermaphrodite. And so I was talking to all these Egyptologists as I was researching the role, and I went to Oxford, where Richard Parkinson, a great Egyptologist, and his colleagues met with me. And I said, was he really a hermaphrodite? Did he have both body parts? And they said, well, he's always depicted with these very big hips and full lips and and almost breasts, so that's why people think that.
But they posited this other theory, which is that he saw God as the unification of man and woman, not a man or a woman. And he wanted to be closer to God, and the ancient Egyptians, you know, invented waxing and all kinds of other distortions of the body. So could he not have changed himself, either in a surface way or perhaps more profoundly, to be between man and woman?
And I thought that was so interesting. Of course, what we call that today and what feels very clear to us as trans - we don't know how they thought about it, but I do think of him as the first trans icon and very fluid. And that's really represented in our production of "Akhnaten" at the Met, where I enter completely stark naked, probably the first full-frontal male nudity at the Met. And it goes on for quite a while in slow motion - six minutes. So you see this very male figure emerge, and then over the course of the opera, I kind of transform into someone with these more feminine features.
GROSS: And more feminine costumes?
COSTANZO: Yes, more feminine costumes. But also, I wear these kind of gauzy Egyptian linen pleated robes, and underneath them, the costume designer Kevin Pollard and the director Phelim McDermott have chosen this kind of slip that has printed a woman's body, a kind of painted woman's body. But from far away, and even from 10 feet away, it looks like breasts and women's genitals, sort of. And it's not graphic in any way, but it is rather very beautiful. And so you see this trajectory of Akhenaten's transformation of thought and also body.
GROSS: Just tell us a little bit about entering naked. You've done this. You've done other productions of "Akhnaten," and you've made your entrance naked before. What is that experience like, and are you wearing any body makeup or anything?
COSTANZO: Not very much. There's a little, I think, oil and occasionally a little bit of shading to just help the working out I've been doing furiously for the past three months preparing for it. But no. When the director asked me to be naked, I said, well, why? And he said, you know, it's going to create this magical effect. And in fact, we don't do it in a way that's sensational in that I don't kind of run on stage with everything flapping all over the place, but rather, I'm revealed, and I walk with such slow intensity. And keep in mind, I shave my head entirely - like, you know, with a Bic razor - and wax my entire body because the Egyptians thought hair was disorderly.
So we go full method on this, and I'm this shiny, completely smooth, alien-looking creature who's totally naked. And it takes me about three full minutes, which is actually a long time, to walk down 12 steps, and I walk down this staircase facing the audience. And I've learned that if there's any tension in my body - it doesn't work if I'm nervous about it.
But if I stare at the audience with great focus, with great conviction and completely released, they can't move. They feel - they can't even breathe. I can see it happen. And from that moment on, we have their focus and their attention in a way that lasts the next three hours.
GROSS: That takes confidence.
COSTANZO: Yeah. You know, it takes community, actually, is what I've discovered. When I first did it, I thought, well, maybe I shouldn't go naked till the final dress rehearsal, you know, before we open. Then I thought, no, that's crazy. I'll be so nervous.
So I said to my castmates, OK, when you're all in costume - you know, and there are a lot of people. There's the chorus and the orchestra and the - you know, it's 100 people or more. And I said, I'm just going to be naked from the first time we're in costume on stage. And they said, OK.
And Terry, I was standing in this little thing I'm revealed in, and my heart was beating so fast because, you know, you've been in a room with these people for six weeks. They know you. You've become friends. And now they're going to look at you naked. And I did the walk, you know, the four-minute walk down the stairs. And we had to stop 'cause a light didn't work or something. And I covered myself. And they all applauded, and we all laughed.
And from that moment on, I knew I had this community of people. And that community - it's not only the performers but the directors and the stage managers and everyone involved. That's what makes a piece of art. And that's the chemistry that you feel come onstage. And that's what allows me to do it. It sort of carries me through. And I feel I'm a part of something larger. It's not just about, you know, 4,000 people staring at my penis.
GROSS: Well, let's hear you sing something from "Akhnaten." And there's no recordings yet from the Met to play, but you did an album of songs and arias by Handel and Philip Glass. And the last track on this is from "Akhnaten." It's "Hymn To The Sun." So tell us where this fits in musically and thematically in the opera.
COSTANZO: Most of the operas in ancient Egyptian and Aramaic and languages like that - and this is the one...
GROSS: Which you'll have a lot of use for when this is over.
COSTANZO: Well, it's been fascinating to learn them. But what's great about the way we do it is we don't actually project supertitles or translations. So you don't have to worry about it. It is a ritual that happens in front of you. And it's like unlocking these spirits of ancient Egypt. And I kind of love that. And I guarantee you will understand everything that's happening, even though you don't get the words.
But this hymn is the only thing in English. And it's in English because I think it's inside Akhenaten's head. And Philip Glass actually specified that it should be sung in the language of the audience who's in the theater. And that's because it's kind of a prayer and a private moment between Akhenaten and his god. And in our production, a huge sun that's the size of the entire stage - it's actually an inflated ball - most people don't know that - lit from the inside - bigger than you can imagine. It's the size of a room. It envelops the whole stage, and I'm there dwarfed by it, singing about nature and about what this sun means.
GROSS: OK, so let's hear Anthony Roth Costanzo from his album "ARC," featuring music by Handel and Philip Glass. And he's gonna be singing "Hymn To The Sun" from the Glass opera "Akhnaten."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AKHNATEN: HYMN TO THE SUN")
COSTANZO: (Singing) All the beasts are satisfied with their pasture. Trees and plants are verdant. Birds fly from their nest, wings spread. Flocks skip with their feet. All that fly and alight live when thou hast arisen. How manifold is that which thou hast made? Thou sole God, there is no other like thee. Thou didst create the Earth according to thy will. Being alone - everything on Earth which walks and flies on high.
GROSS: That's my guest, Anthony Roth Costanzo, singing "Hymn To The Sun" from the Philip Glass opera "Akhnaten." He's about to star in that opera starting November 8 at the Metropolitan Opera. And on Saturday November 23, the opera will be broadcast live to movie theaters around the world. So if you're interested in seeing him and hearing him and seeing the whole opera, that would be a great opportunity 'cause there's theaters around the country, as well as all over the world, that participate in this. We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Roth Costanzo. He's a countertenor, which means he sings in a high range - the kind of range you associate with women's voices. He's about to star in the Metropolitan Opera production of "Akhnaten," the Philip Glass opera about the pharaoh Akhenaten in ancient Egypt. Your voice is remarkable. And you've been very generous in demonstrating some of the things you can do with your voice and how your voice works. What makes it all even more remarkable is that you were diagnosed with thyroid cancer in your late 20s. How long ago was that?
COSTANZO: Ten years ago. And it was kind of amazing, Terry. I mean, you know, in the moment, it might feel like a crisis. But looking back on it, it's fascinating because I was in a voice lesson with my teacher Joan Patenaude-Yarnell. She's this kind of, you know, fun, eccentric diva. And she said, Anthony, ask your throat doctor why you're turning your head to the left. Might it be your thyroid? And I'm thinking to myself, she - a thyroid? She's not a doctor. She doesn't know what she's talking about.
And you know that experience. You go to the doctor. And you think to yourself, should I ask about that thing, or should I not? And so I asked. And the doctor said, nah, I don't think it's anything. But you know, go get an ultrasound. I got an ultrasound. There was a cyst. They said don't worry about it; everybody gets cysts on their thyroid. But you know, get a biopsy if you want. I got a biopsy, and it was thyroid cancer. And boy, I was glad to have psychologist parents again because we were very nose to the grindstone. We said, OK. What do we have to do? And they said, you've got to take the thyroid out.
Now, the thyroid is this gland that controls your metabolic function, and it sits on top of the recurrent and superior laryngeal nerves, which control most all of your vocal function. And they have to kind of cut the thyroid off those nerves. And that is like getting gum out of hair. You know, it's not a clean cut. And so what they said - and I had a wonderful doctor at Duke University, Ray Esclamado - and he said, listen. You know, we might nick the nerve because we got to get as much of this tissue out. And if we nick the nerve, it's going to affect the way that you sing.
And I had to really think to myself - OK, well what is my identity? You know, I'd spent my whole life singing. And I realized that, you know, I'd gone to college; I liked making creative things. I liked producing, and I could figure something out.
And so we went to through the surgery. It took two surgeries, actually. They had to do it in two parts. And we took it out. And every time I'd wake up from surgery. And I'd go, hello. And then I'd think, oh, OK, I still have a voice. This is a - it's a good start. Then my teacher worked with me about two minutes a day for six weeks, and we built up to singing an aria. And the next year, I won the Metropolitan Opera Competition, and I had a career.
GROSS: That's amazing. Did the doctors who operated on you know that you were a singer and how important your voice was?
COSTANZO: They did. And I think the surgeon said that he had never been so nervous to operate before, in part because I think I gave him a CD of something I'd recorded. And I said, you know, don't mess it up, essentially.
COSTANZO: And early on, I made a list. And I would go in to the doctor with these lists. I'd say, well, if this were to happen, would I be able to do this? And in terms of the function of the pharynx or - you know, I knew all of the physiology of the voice at this point. So I asked him these very specific questions, and he would answer them graciously. But at a certain point, he said, listen. The bottom line is I can take this out and you can risk not being able to sing, or you're going to have cancer, which means eventually you'll die. So you got to make that choice. And that made it very clear for me.
GROSS: Yeah. So we talked about gender fluidity in your music and how countertenors were preceded by castrati, about how Akhenaten was considered to be - in retrospect is now considered to perhaps have been trans. I wonder if you feel like you express gender fluidity in your own life, outside of the music.
COSTANZO: Well, I'm gay. So in that sense, I feel like I'm a part of the queer community. But I feel very much a man in my own body. And what's interesting is I don't actually feel feminine when I sing in that woman's register because it's actually very powerful. And I don't mean to associate power with masculinity in that conventional way, but it feels very much me. And one thing my upbringing and all of my experiences have taught me is to just be myself. So I ascribe this male gender to it, and it feels male to me when I sing that way. It doesn't - I don't associate, I guess you would say, the pitch with gender. So I have a lot of friends and am a part of a incredibly beautiful community who are very fluid, and that brings me great joy.
GROSS: Anthony Roth Costanzo, it's just been a delight to talk with you. Thank you for your generosity in singing for us and showing us some of the things that your voice can do. I wish you just great good luck. I hope I can say that. And I know there's so many stage superstitions. But...
COSTANZO: (Laughter). That's perfect.
GROSS: ...I'm so looking forward to seeing you in "Akhnaten." And I just hope it's a wonderful experience for you.
COSTANZO: Terry, it's been the thrill of a lifetime to talk to you. And thank you.
GROSS: Anthony Roth Costanzo will star in the Metropolitan Opera's production of the Philip Glass opera "Akhnaten" with the first performance November 8. A matinee performance will be broadcast live to movie theaters on Saturday, November 23, as part of "The Met: Live In HD" series. Costanzo's album of music by Handel and Glass is called "ARC."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Christopher Wylie, the former research director at Cambridge Analytica who became a whistleblower, exposing the company's role in America's 2016 presidential election, from targeting people on Facebook susceptible to disinformation to helping the Trump campaign build a narrative that appeal to potential followers. Wiley has written a new book. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS' "AKHNATEN: EPILOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.