Beethoven on speed

By Lawrence Toppman

Between 1996 and 2000, musicologist Jonathan Del Mar oversaw a new edition of Beethoven’s symphonies known as the Bärenreiter Urtext. It aimed to follow Beethoven’s original intentions, mainly via stricter adherence to his printed tempo markings.

Conductors John Eliot Gardiner and David Zinman quickly adopted this approach, and their complete series can be heard on the Deutsche Grammophon and Sony labels respectively. To my ears, these interpretations have all the depth, charm and beauty of a paper plate.

I came to know Beethoven via conductors who valued crisp execution (George Szell), high drama (Leonard Bernstein) and a clear musical arc that revealed the composer’s intentions (Andre Cluytens, whose series with the Berlin Philharmonic would be the complete set I’d grab in a fire). All sought Beethoven’s soul; none obsessed over his metronome markings.

I generally admire attempts at historical accuracy, whether from groups trying to reproduce the sounds Bach heard to orchestras that shrink or expand to replicate original performances from Mozart to Mahler. But exact fidelity to Beethoven’s markings, perversely, seems to deliver something the composer really didn’t want.

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel patented his wind-up metronome in the early 19th century, and Beethoven took it up by 1815. (Mälzel also made ear trumpets for Beethoven, at least two of which he seems to have used, and designed the noisy Panharmonicon Beethoven employed in his trashy battle symphony “Wellington’s Victory.”)

In 1817, Beethoven oversaw publication of his first eight symphonies with metronome markings. (He later approved insanely rapid ones for the Ninth Symphony, draining it of majesty if played that way.) Most speeds were faster than current performance practice, a few slower.

But he couldn’t hear his music by then, let alone judge the resonance in rooms where it was played, so he couldn’t adjust his ideas. Also, the general public found his symphonies long and difficult, so he may have been attempting to satisfy them with extra-brisk performances.

Jan Swafford’s excellent biography “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” tells us the composer wasn’t absolute in his demands. He quotes a manuscript note: “100 according to Mälzel, but … sentiment also has its tempo and cannot be completely expressed by this number.” Reports by contemporaries say he sped up or slowed down when conducting, according to his moods.

As a child, I owned a paint-by-number set. I scrupulously chose colors according to instructions and carefully painted inside every line printed on the sheet. The Gardiners and Zinmans of the world seem to me to take the same mechanical approach, producing art that’s just as sterile.

Ghostly Voices: 4 Eerie Art Songs for Halloween

Is that the wind rushing through the trees, or something far more sinister? Featuring terrifying creatures and otherworldly visions, these art songs and lieder set the perfect tone for your Halloween festivities.


1. “The Vampire’s Lullaby,” Geoffrey Allen

Vampires: they’re just like us! If you’re a classical music fan, you might think you’ve heard every kind of lullaby under the sun. British-Australian composer Geoffrey Allen’s “The Vampire’s Lullaby” is here to prove you wrong. Part of the set Songs that mother never taught me, the piece depicts a vampire mother coaxing her little one to sleep “till nightfall” with happy thoughts:

“And when the dark comes, we will take wing

And hunt for our victims, to whom we will cling.”

Video: Songs that mother never taught me, Op. 17: No. 3. The vampire’s lullaby

2. “Erlkönig,” Franz Schubert

A ride through the woods goes horribly wrong in Franz Schubert’s iconic art song “Erlkönig,” widely considered to be one of the greatest ballads ever written. During a late-night journey on horseback, a young boy tells his father that he is being chased by the Erl-King, a supernatural being with questionable intentions. The father doesn’t believe him – until disaster strikes. 

“My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully?

Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there?

The Erl-King with his crown and train?”

My son, it is a streak of mist.”

Video: Franz Schubert: Erlkönig

3. “The Wanderer,” Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn’s lied “The Wanderer” places the listener in a gloomy forest, a nice place to reflect on awful memories…. right? The singer is trapped in the past, lamenting that there is nothing to hope for and nothing to fear (despite the unsettling sights all around). 

“To wander alone when the moon, faintly beaming

With glimmering lustre, darts thro’ the dark shade,

Where owls seek for covert, and nightbirds complaining

Add sound to the horror that darkens the glade.”

Video: Haydn: The Wanderer

4. “Hexenlied,” Felix Mendelssohn

Equally infused with joy and horror, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hexenlied” (“Witches’ Song”) follows a coven of witches as they celebrate a special time of year. Ghastly visitors join them as they dance, leaving behind wonderful gifts (and scaring off the local humans).

“A fiery dragon flies round the roof

And brings us butter and eggs:

The neighbors catch sight of the flying sparks,

And cross themselves for fear of the fire.”


Video: Palais Lichtenau session • Hexenlied

Lenny and Ludwig

By Lawrence Toppman

Next week brings the 30th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s death. As I’ve listened to Beethoven recordings this year, I’ve been struck by the intimate connection between the most charismatic conductor of the 20th century and the most important composer of the 19th.

As a member of Tanglewood’s first class of conducting students in 1940, the 22-year-old Bernstein prepared Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and won the attention of Tanglewood founder Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein became the first American conductor to record a complete set of the symphonies with one orchestra. That version of the Third Symphony, still perhaps my favorite of the “Eroica,” came with a lecture entitled “How a Great Symphony was Written.” As a teenager, I heard this insightful teacher break down a masterpiece for the first time, analyzing the opening movement of history’s most revolutionary orchestral work.

Bernstein later recorded another complete set, rather less convincingly, with the Vienna Philharmonic. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he performed the Ninth Symphony in the German capital, changing the word “freude” in the climactic “Ode to Joy” to “freiheit,” or “freedom.” He augmented the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with musicians from nations involved in World War II: Germany, Russia, England, France and the United States.

Like Beethoven, he was a first-rate pianist. He recorded eight concertos but played only two composers who predated his lifetime, Beethoven and Mozart. Artur Rubinstein called Bernstein “the greatest pianist among conductors, the greatest conductor among composers, and the greatest composer among pianists.” Wouldn’t that description have fit Beethoven in his day?

And in 1990, two months before he died, Bernstein led the Boston Symphony again at Tanglewood for his 50th anniversary there. Though frail and exhausted, he chose Beethoven’s dramatic Seventh Symphony as the last piece he would ever conduct.

What gave him such a deep identification with Beethoven’s music? Bernstein liked big gestures as a conductor, and Beethoven’s work lends itself to those. Both men were musical polymaths who lived at a high emotional pitch and, as Bernstein’s recently collected letters reveal, remained proud of their accomplishments yet insecure about their impact on society.

Most importantly, each believed the arts have the power to inspire us, heal us and make us better than we ordinarily are. Beethoven grew up with the ideals of the Enlightenment; he wanted music not only to move people but to connect them to fundamental principles of the universe. Think of his exhortations to seek wisdom and fraternal harmony in the “Ode to Joy.” They pose an impossibly tall order for most human beings, but Bernstein shared those sentiments all his life.

Women Conductors Are The Rule, Not The Exception, At A New Classical Event

The world of orchestra conducting is still a mostly male-dominated field. In the United States, around 9% of major orchestras are directed by women. In Europe, it’s less than 6%.

Founders of La Maestra, a Paris-based organization, set out to change that by promoting the talent of budding female conductors in their very first competition, held in mid-September. Out of more than 200 applicants, 12 female conductors from across four continents competed for three top prizes, including cash, mentoring and a series of concerts conducting orchestras in France and abroad.

“People say, ‘Is it really necessary to have these opportunities for women? It seems discriminatory toward men,’ ” says Marin Alsop, a competition judge who leads both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “All I can say is that men have had hundreds of years to open the door to women and they chose not to. This isn’t really about competing. It’s about creating community and a support system for these women to grow and become great artists in their own right.”

Gladysmarli Vadel, a 25-year-old conductor from Venezuela who has played the violin since age 4, advanced to the semi-finals. Traveling to the competition marked her first time leaving the country and her first time on a plane.

“I love the violin in the orchestra — I adore it,” Vadel says. “But when I played, I felt an emptiness. Something was missing, until one day I was joking around with friends, telling them, ‘I’m going to imitate the conductor, and you will be my orchestra.’ I was just joking around back then, but who would have known that it would become my inspiration to become a conductor today?”

The six semi-finalists each got 50 minutes to conduct the Paris Mozart Orchestra in works by Beethoven, Schumann and a new piece written for the competition. That the competition was originally slated for March, but the pandemic caused a delay. The rescheduled event featured a reduced orchestra on stage and a spaced, masked audience. But Claire Gibault, one of the founders of La Maestra, says the conductors still faced challenges.

“Traveling was difficult and some of the contestants had not conducted for six months, because there were no events in the artistic world,” Gibault says. “So some of the women were a little fragile.”

To lead an orchestra, you have to exude a certain confidence, according to Vadel. “If the orchestra feels the conductor’s confidence, they will trust in you,” she says. “And they’ll be able to do everything you want to convey. It’s the most important thing.”

Fellow semi-finalist Stephanie Childress displayed a knowledge and authority well beyond her 21 years. The Franco-British conductor reminded the musicians that Schumann made corrections to his score just before entering an asylum.

“This is a tempestuous piece that he revised during very turbulent times,” Childress says. “And I think that’s a big part of being a conductor — you’ve got to not only have the technical aspect of things sorted, you have to be kind of mildly charismatic and also passionate about the music [so] you can instill that in the people around you.”

Childress, whose parents she describes as old rockers, grew up listening to Queen and Tina Turner. She attended her first classical concert at age 4, where she heard the genre-bending violinist Nigel Kennedy play Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons. “He was jumping around and having so much fun, having a whale of a time and, I thought, ‘Wow this seems quite interesting, this classical music business.'”

There has been some progress in putting women on the conductor’s podium. But Gibault, who was the first woman to lead Milan’s La Scala orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, says we can’t afford to wait 50 more years for things to get better.

“We sent out a call to the whole world with very demanding criteria,” she says. “We attracted 220 candidates from 51 nations. They were all excellent, and it was really hard to choose.”

The jury awarded Stephanie Childress second place, and Gladysmarli Vadel got the orchestra prize. All entrants will continue to receive support and advice from La Maestra, in a push to give more visibility to talented female conductors.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

5 Classical Artists to Add to Your Playlist this Hispanic Heritage Month

by Mary Lathem

Traditionally known as Hispanic Heritage Month, the period between September 15 and October 15 is a time to celebrate the rich historical and cultural contributions of the Hispanic and Latinx communities. We picked 5 of the countless Hispanic and Latinx artists who have made their mark on the classical music world to add to your listening queue, but don’t stop here! Listen to Concierto – WDAV’s weekly program spotlighting music by Latin American and Spanish composers and musicians – to learn about more influential artists, Sundays at 6 PM. Concierto is presented in both Spanish and English. 

Are “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “Latinx” synonymous? Not quite – though they’re sometimes used interchangeably in the United States, there are important differences between the three terms. “Hispanic” refers to those who descend from primarily Spanish-speaking countries (including Spain), and “Latino” refers to those who descend from Latin American countries, regardless of Spanish-speaking heritage. “Latinx” was introduced around 2004 as a gender-inclusive term for people of Latin American cultural or ethnic identity. At the end of the day, identity is personal to each individual!

1. Martina Arroyo

American soprano Martina Arroyo’s remarkable talent was discovered when she began to study voice as a hobby in college. Martina continued her voice training after graduation while working as an English teacher and a social worker, embarking on a legendary career after winning the Metropolitan Opera’s Audition of the Air competition in 1957. Though she built a significant following in Europe, Martina held especially close ties to the Metropolitan Opera, where she was a principal soprano for over a decade. Particularly well known for her portrayal of Verdi heroines, Martina is considered a pioneer for performers of African and Puerto Rican descent and continues to pass on her legacy through teaching and masterclasses.

Video: Martina Arroyo, Oralia Dominguez: “Recordare” – Requiem (Verdi) – 1969
2. Alondra de la Parra

Award-winning Mexican American conductor Alondra de la Parra, known for her “spellbinding and vibrant” conducting style, shows a particular commitment to the work of Latin American conductors. She was named Music Director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 2017, making her the first female principal conductor of an Australian symphony orchestra, and left the post earlier this year. Alondra currently serves as an official Cultural Ambassador of Mexico. 

3. Ricardo Kanji

Brazilian recorder player, flutist, conductor, and luthier Ricardo Kanji, a founding member of both the Orchestra of the 18th Century and the choir and orchestra Vox Brasiliensis, has specialized in Baroque and Classical interpretation for the majority of his career. Recently, his work reflects a special interest in preserving the music of Brazil’s colonial period. 

Video: Bach – Concerto in D major with Ricardo Kanji
4. Gabriela Lena Frank

Listed as one of the 35 most significant women composers in history by the Washington Post, composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s music “often reflects not only her own personal experience as a multi-racial Latina, but also refract her studies of Latin American cultures, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own” (from Gabriela’s personal bio). Among numerous achievements and awards, Gabriela is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a USA Artist Fellowship, and a Latin Grammy award. Outside of composition, Gabriela is a virtuosic pianist who specializes in contemporary repertoire. 

Video: Gabriela Lena Frank on the future of classical music
5. Ricardo Iznaola

Cuban American guitarist, composer, teacher, and author Ricardo Iznaola is one of the preeminent classical guitarists of his generation. Over a career spanning four decades, Ricardo has won 9 international prizes, published over 50 musical scores and 4 books, and served as Professor of Guitar at the University of Denver for 32 years. Ricardo was inducted into the Guitar Foundation of America’s Hall of Fame in 2016 and received the foundation’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award.

Video: “Milongueo del Ayer” Ricardo Iznaola, Gregory (Grisha) Nisnevich-guitars
Spotify Playlist
  1. Ganymed (Ganymede), Op. 19, No. 3, D544 (Franz Schubert) – Martina Arroyo
  2. Aida: Act III, “Qui Ramadès verrà… O cieli azzurri…” (Giuseppe Verdi) – Martina Arroyo
  3. “Sobre las Olas” – Juventino Rosas, Alondra de la Parra
  4. Concerto para Violão e Orquestra: II. Ibéria – Francis Hime, Alondra de la Parra
  5. “Landum” (Anonymous) – Ricardo Kanji
  6. “Matais de Incêndios” (Anonymous) – Ricardo Kanji
  7. Danza de los Muñecos – Gabriela Lena Frank
  8. Sonata Andina: IV. Finale Saqsampillo – Gabriela Lena Frank
  9. Ten Etudes-Homages: 8. Homage to Rachmaninoff – Ricardo Iznaola
  10. Valse Op. 64, No. 1 – Ricardo Iznaola

Classically Trained: Rayna Gellert

Pictured: Rayna Gellert, by Filberthockey at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

By Marisa Mecke

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


NAME: Rayna Gellert

PROFESSION: Folk musician

FUN FACT: Rayna has made several videos of fiddle tunes played at different speeds available at her website as a resource for beginners and “fiddle geeks.”

A Musical Upbringing

Asheville-based fiddler and singer Rayna Gellert grew up surrounded by rural string music, gospel songs, and old-time ballads. Born into a musical family in Elkhart, Indiana, Rayna was particularly influenced by her father, multi-instrumentalist and old-time music legend Dan Gellert. 

Rayna called on inspiration from her upbringing for her 2012 album Old Light: Songs from My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, a mixture of original tunes and songs she listened to her parents sing throughout her childhood – but not without hesitation. “My reverence for the music and my complicated relationship with it, being so deeply tied to family and childhood and lots of emotion, made me skittish,” Rayna explained in a Huffington post interview, “Part of my process in recent years has been recognizing that creating a new or different version of a song isn’t disrespectful or dismissive of any other version of that song… My singing a song isn’t me saying ‘My way is best.’ It’s just me saying, ‘I want you to hear this song.’” 

Originally trained as a classical violinist, Rayna picked up fiddling in 1994 when she moved to North Carolina to attend Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. Through participating in countless jam sessions and square dances, Rayna sharpened her fiddle skills – and soon enough, she began to tour the world. 

Audio: Playlist of “Old-Time Music Favorites” curated by Rayna Gellert

Ensemble and Collaborative Work

In January of 2000, Rayna joined the old-time string band Freight Hoppers and later became a member of the all-female old-time band Uncle Earl, a group that aims to introduce new audiences to the “beauty and limitless potential” of old-time American music while “inspiring the explorations of the next generation of root musicians.” During her time with Uncle Earl, the group released their first EP, Going to the Western Slope, soon followed by a second EP (Raise a Ruckus) and two full-length albums (She Waits for Night and Waterloo, Tennessee). 

Rayna has toured extensively with her Uncle Earl bandmate Abigail Washburn and songwriter Scott Miller, whose paths collided when they were booked as part of the same Mountain Stage show in 2010. Adding to her extensive discography, Rayna and Scott released an EP entitled Codependents in 2012. A frequent collaborator, Rayna has worked with a host of musicians from different backgrounds throughout her career, including Jamie Dick, Jon Estes, Robyn Hitchcock, Sara Watkins, and her “favorite musician on the planet” – her father, who is featured on a handful of Old Light tracks. 

Audio: Listen to Rayna Gellert and Scott Miller Live on West Virginia Public broadcasting and NPR Music on Mountain Stage 

Collaboration with Kieran Kane

Through his work with the O’Kanes and Kane Welch Kaplin – and co-founding the independent label Dead Reckoning Records – contemporary Americana musician Kieran Kane has had a massive impact on the genre. In 2017, Kieran joined forces with Rayna after the two met at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and the pair began to release collaborative work soon after: Kieran appeared on and co-produced Rayna’s 2017 album Workin’s Too Hard, followed by two duo albums: The Ledges (2018) and When the Sun Goes Down (2019). 

Though Kieran and Rayna’s collaboration is ongoing, their scheduled 2020 tour of Australia was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a newsletter to their followers, Gellert expressed her disappointment, but shared her hope of finding online avenues to connect with the music community. 

Video: Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert Folk Alley Sessions 
Solo Work and Accolades

Outside of her work in ensembles and collaborations, Rayna has regularly performed and recorded as a solo act. In 2003, Gellert was a featured performer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual exposition of “living cultural heritage” on the National Mall in DC, and has been a finalist several times at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. 

Though her work is inspired by the music of decades and centuries before her time, Rayna’s music never fails to strike a clean balance between tradition and revolution. Until 2012, Rayna’s singing experience was mostly limited to backup harmonies – but since the release of her Old Light album, which prominently features her singing and songwriting prowess, Rayna’s voice has been a signature component of her work. Her second solo album, Workin’s Too Hard (2017), continues the tradition she solidified in her first solo album – masterfully mixing the old and new – and paves the way forward for American folk music. 

Video: The Stars- Rayna Gellert 
Spotify Playlist   
  1. “Workin’s Too Hard” – Rayna Gellert
  2. “Nothing” – Rayna Gellert
  3. “Swannanoa Waltz” – Rayna Gellert
  4. “What Would You Do” – Kieran Kane, Rayna Gellert
  5. “Shoulda Been Done” – Kieran Kane, Rayna Gellert
  6. “Grey Bird” – Rayna Gellert
  7. “The Stars” – Rayna Gellert
  8. “Last Train” – Abigail Washburn
  9. “Coll Mackenzie (Archie Fisher)” – Nathan Salsburg
  10.  “Ships” – Tyler Ramsey
Sources and Further Reading

About: Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert (official website)

Images: Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert (official website)

Rayna Gellert: From Violin to Fiddle (Musika Kaleidoskopia)

Freight Hoppers (Harmony Ridge Music)

Uncle Earl (official website)

The Memory Project: Rayna Gellert (Our State Magazine)

Rayna Gellert: Workin’s Too Hard (Folk Radio)


The Curse of 9

By Lawrence Toppman

If you know pop music history, you’ve heard of the 27 Club. That’s the age at which an extraordinary number of musicians have died: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Kurt Cobain, Pete Ham of Badfinger, Amy Winehouse and many others, going back to bluesman Robert Johnson in 1938.

Yet classical music has its own fateful legend: For 129 years, no major composer after Beethoven finished a 10th symphony.

Haydn published 104, Mozart 41, and both men sketched out many others. But once Beethoven premiered his Ninth Symphony in 1824, everyone stopped there or gave up before that point. (I love that piece so much I own more recordings of it than any other – nine, in fact.)

The list of composers who quit arbitrarily at nine symphonies or died soon thereafter includes Franz Schubert, Antonín Dvořák, Louis Spohr (beloved during the 19th century), Malcolm Arnold and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Alexander Glazunov and Alfred Schnittke died before finishing their ninth symphonies. Anton Bruckner disavowed two youthful symphonies, started counting officially and died writing his ninth.

Gustav Mahler had such a strong superstition about this “curse” that, though four of his first eight symphonies had vocal parts, he refused to call “Das Lied von der Erde” a symphony. He followed it with an orchestral No. 9 and, sure enough, died writing No. 10. Said Arnold Schoenberg, “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”

Dmitri Shostakovich dispelled this nonsense in 1953 with his 10th symphony and went on to publish 15. The floodgates opened for the likes of Nikolai Miaskovsky (27), Alan Hovhaness (67) and Finland’s Leif Segerstam (339 as of this June, many in a single, 20-minute movement in the style of Sibelius’ Seventh).

The real curse may have been fear of walking in Beethoven’s footsteps. Schumann waited until he was 31, the age at which Schubert had died, to finish a symphony. Franz Liszt premiered his first, a take on the Faust legend, at 45. Brahms, the natural inheritor of Beethoven’s symphonic mantle, made false starts over 20 years and didn’t sign off on a symphony until he was 43.

Conductor Hans von Bülow dubbed that one “Beethoven’s Tenth,” noting a resemblance between the main theme of Brahms’ finale and the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. “Any ass can see that,” replied Brahms, who considered it not a rip-off but a long overdue homage to his greatest symphonic predecessor.

Classically Trained: Anthony Roth Costanzo

Pictured: Anthony Roth Costanzo by Asdielman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


NAME: Anthony Roth Costanzo

PROFESSION: Countertenor

Video: Anthony Roth Costanzo NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
Broadway Beginnings

Hailed as “vocally brilliant and dramatically fearless,” countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is a consummate artist among the greatest talents of his generation. Growing up in Durham, North Carolina, Anthony’s musical path began at the piano. He struggled to read sheet music as a young student, leading his teacher to try a unique approach: rather than sight reading on the piano, Anthony was instructed to sing from the music instead. The exercise worked – and a passion for singing was born. 

Anthony quickly discovered an affinity for musical theatre. By the age of 11, he had appeared in 20 productions in his home state and began to set his sights higher. After convincing his parents that he should give the New York City theatre scene a try, Anthony found rapid success on Broadway and performing in Broadway national tours. He recalls his time in musical theatre in an episode of the video series Living the Classical Life: “It was amazing… I had this breadth of experience which was really illuminating in terms of my understanding of the dramatic arts.”

Video: Anthony Roth Costanzo sings Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”
Making a Splash

Anthony’s first brush with opera arrived when he was cast in a production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, making a lasting impression on music director and conductor Michael Pratt. “He was thoroughly professional, completely prepared, and had excellent musicianship,” Michael later remarked, “It was like working with a pro when I first met him at age 13.” While preparing for the opera, someone pointed out that Anthony had retained a high natural singing voice despite having gone through puberty – the first sign that he might be a countertenor. 

In his teens, Anthony’s career flourished on and off the stage; notably, he earned the chance to perform alongside Luciano Pavarotti in the Opera Extravaganza at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. During a “detour into the world of film,” he also received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his role in the 1998 film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.

While pursuing a Bachelor’s degree at Princeton University, Anthony embarked on an ambitious senior thesis project: co-writing and starring in the avant-garde performance piece The Double Life of Zefirino, a fictional account of an 18th-century castrato opera singer. The piece – and its creation – became the subject of the documentary Zefirino: The Voice of a Castrato, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and won a Director’s Choice Award at the Black Maria International Film Festival in 2007. Anthony later earned a Master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he received the Hugh Ross Award for singers of exceptional promise. 

Early Accolades and Achievement

A standout among his peers, Anthony’s post-grad years are marked by accomplishment after accomplishment. In 2008, Anthony received the top award at both the Opera Index Vocal Competition and the Sullivan Foundation Auditions. The following year was even better: Anthony won a Richard F. Gold Career Grant, took first place at both the Jensen Foundation Competition and National Opera Association Vocal Competition (Artist Division), and became a 2009 Grand Finals Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Among other awards, Anthony cinched first place at the international opera competition Operalia in 2012. 

 Video: 2012 Operalia Competition – Anthony Roth Costanzo – Tolomeo (HD)

As Anthony notes in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times, countertenor roles are largely limited to “two ends of the spectrum: before 1750 and after 1950.” Equally versed in both extremes, Anthony made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Unulfo in Handel’s Rodelinda in 2011 and sang in the world premieres of two major American operas in 2015: Jimmy López’s Bel Canto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Jake Heggie’s Great Scott at the Dallas Opera (opposite mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato). Anthony and Joyce appear together on the original cast recording of Great Scott, released in 2018. 

Performer, Producer, Curator, Collaborator

Now nearly three decades into a life on the professional stage at 38, Anthony has never been satisfied to take the most obvious route. As a performer, he has held engagements with many of the world’s leading opera houses (to name a few, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the English National Opera), but his boundless creativity has led to numerous projects outside an opera singer’s typical comfort zone.

Anthony became the first American opera singer to appear in a Kabuki play, a traditional Japanese drama form, in Kyoto in 2014 after forming a friendship with writer Toyoshige Imai. The play, a new adaptation of the 11th century classic The Tale of Genji, melded the Kabuki and Western opera forms to create something “palpably new” – and all 26 performances sold out. 

In 2018, Anthony teamed up with Visionaire to create the multimedia installation Glass Handel to coincide with the release of his studio album ARC, which features the works of Philip Glass and G.F. Handel. A jaw-dropping melding of music, fashion, live painting, dance, and film, the project brought together many of Anthony’s former colleagues to create an interactive experience intended to introduce new audiences to opera. A set of highly original music videos, filmed to sync with Anthony’s singing during the performance, are available to view on YouTube. ARC would later receive a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album in 2019. 

As curator and producer, Anthony has worked with National Sawdust to create a new production of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and the compilation piece Orphic Moments. “Interdisciplinary collaboration, growing audiences, and creating interesting art, whether I’m producing it, or curating it, or just making introductions among opera companies and directors, are all important to me,” Anthony explains in an interview, “As an opera singer in today’s world, you can’t just sing your roles well; you have to be a creative spirit and a driving force.”

A Career 

In 2016, Anthony took on his most challenging engagement to date: the title role in a new production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. In Anthony’s words, his role in the opera – a physically and vocally demanding spectacle of over three hours – “goes beyond athletic to Olympic.” He premiered the production with the English National Opera and has since performed the role at the Los Angeles Opera and the Metropolitan Opera (opposite mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges). 

Video: How an Opera Gets Made

Recently named Musical America’s 2019 Vocalist of the Year, Anthony continuously makes strides as a champion of opera’s place in the present and future. “This is something that can connect to all different kinds of people,” he explained in an interview with NPR. “I feel like the emotional sweep of opera is what we need to give us some perspective on our lives, on this time we’re living in, on all of that. We need that kind of catharsis.” Though any one of Anthony’s accomplishments could be the pinnacle of a life in the arts, the sense emerges that his career is just beginning – and what comes next will surprise, delight, and inspire. 

Spotify Playlist
  1. Dixit Dominus, HWV 232: 1. Soli & Chorus “Dixit Dominus” – G.F. Handel
  2. Heggie: Great Scott, Act I: Break – Jake Heggie
  3. ARC, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof: The Encounter – Philip Glass
  4. ARC, Liquid Days – David Byrne, Philip Glass
  5. ARC, Rinaldo, HWV 7: “Lascia ch’io pianga”
Sources and Further Reading

Video: “Perfection is deeply boring.” – Anthony Roth Costanzo, Living the Classical Life

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Official Website)

A life in opera” (Princeton Alumni Weekly)

Four Singers Win $15,000 Prizes in Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 National Council Auditions” (Opera News)

Vocalist of the Year: Anthony Roth Costanzo” (Musical America)

Road Show – Anthony Roth Costanzo in Kyoto” (Opera News)

Visionaire presents GLASS HANDEL” (Visionaire)

The falsetto pharaoh: The story behind the powerfully high voice in L.A. Opera’s ‘Akhnaten’” (Los Angeles Times)

Anthony Roth Costanzo: A Countertenor For The 21st Century” (NPR)