To start its 2018 season, Opera Philadelphia presents British composer George Benjamin’s and librettist Martin Crimp’s “Written on Skin.” The modernist tale of lust, violence, purity and deceit features out countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the dual role of “First Angel” and “Boy.”
We chatted with Costanzo ahead of the show’s premiere.
PGN: The story is both a thrilling portrait of godliness and lust. Which side are you leaning upon most?
ARC: Interestingly, I think what weaves both the godliness and lust together in this story is the idea of control. Each of the three main characters shares in the desire to control the other two utterly and completely. These power plays unfurl in different ways throughout the opera, some of them psychological and some of them physical; some having to do with creation and some having to do with destruction.
PGN: What is the differing thought processes — or even vocal tones and characteristics — that you lend to “Boy” and “First Angel”?
ARC: I see the Boy and the Angel as the same being. In my mind, the boy dies and becomes the angel, and the angel in turn looks back and relives this story over and over. I think that distinguishing them vocally is actually the wrong approach because they keep overlapping and morphing into one another — even in the libretto. The boy refers to the future several times and at different moments, mentions parts of contemporary urban life, like concrete and shopping malls. The Angel is telling the whole tale with intimate knowledge, as if he’s lived it himself. So to answer your question, I try and keep them vocally on par. I studied the score and felt that there aren’t great distinctions that Benjamin makes between them musically so I tried to avoid any kind of vocal delineation.
PGN: You have been in Philadelphia for “Phaedra,” as Artemis. What did you see in Opera Philadelphia that made you believe that returning for “Written on Skin” would be a good experience?
ARC: I share the opinion of many that Opera Philadelphia is one of the most forward-thinking, innovative and high-caliber companies in the country, leading the charge on many fronts. On the first day of any opera rehearsal, there is what we call a design presentation, at which the director presents his concept for the show. Usually it’s just the singers and a few top administrators who are present. Here at OP, the entire staff was invited and they all attended — all the company’s employees from every department, at every level. This means that whomever answers the phones, sends an email or communicates with the outside world is connected to the art that this company is making. It sounds like an obvious move, but it is surprisingly rare. This is the kind of thing that sets Opera Philadelphia apart, and it all comes across in what they produce and how they engage with their community and the opera world, more generally. You’re very lucky to have them here! Corrado Rovaris, the music director, is one of the finest musicians I have ever worked with, and also one of the most spectacularly kind. David Devan generates ideas and enthusiasm that can transform our art form and bring it to a new audience and a new generation.
PGN: What scene from “Written on Skin” is most pivotal to you and the story?
ARC: In the very last scene, I sing a lugubrious and sinewy duet with the glass harmonica that I look forward to every time. Not only is its inherent beauty something I love to be a part of, but it means I’ve made it to the end of the opera, which in this particular case is no small task.
PGN: Has your journey as an out gay man in opera always been an easy one? A rocky road?
ARC: With pretty shrewd and proactive psychologist parents, it’s been an easy road. I was never self-conscious about it, and I feel I’m lucky that no one ever made an issue of it with me. If I’ve encountered any tricky situations, I’ve always found ways to diffuse the tension in order to alleviate any awkwardness. n
“Written on Skin” plays through Feb. 18 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://bit.ly/2E6yhuw.