There was a time when the “rock stars” of the opera world were “castrati,” male singers with powerful, soaring soprano voices, the result of pre-pubescent castration. These singers were revered and many amassed great wealth and fame. Fortunately, tastes changed and the practice fell out of favor by the late 19th century.
Many of the roles traditionally composed with castrati in mind are now performed by countertenors like Anthony Roth Costanzo. The internationally-acclaimed singer is in Miami to sing the lead role in Gluck’s 1762 opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” with Florida Grand Opera.
“There’s an otherworldly or ethereal quality that can fascinate people. I try to make it feel very natural, even when it’s unnatural for a man to sing in a woman’s register. It can excite audiences and bring people into this art form,” explained Costanzo, who has performed with leading opera companies around the world. “I’ve been working non-stop as long as I can remember and have contracts for years to come.”
As one of the world’s leading countertenors, he is often called upon to sing roles in Baroque operas, such as Gluck’s “Orfeo,” conceived for castrati, or in a growing body of work by contemporary composers who wish to exploit the unique timbres of the countertenor voice.
“I split my time evenly, it’s important the way I’ve approached my career, in an entrepreneurial way,” he said. “I like to create opportunities, work with composers and reimagine Baroque operas.”
Gluck’s “Orfeo” is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, the legendary musician and poet with the ability to charm all creatures with his voice. Mourning the death of his wife Euridice, he journeys into the Underworld to retrieve her. Again utilizing his musical skills, he convinces the god of the Underworld to allow him to rescue her—with one condition, he not look back on the journey to the surface. Orfeo’s doubts get the best of him and he glances for her, only to lose his beloved forever.
“Orfeo” was Gluck’s first attempt at “reform opera,” with a simplified story and fewer characters and convoluted subplots that often ran amuck in Baroque operas of the period.
“He wanted to emphasize the emotional expression and make the opera more enjoyable for audiences,” explained Costanzo. “Even though people can be scared of Baroque opera and opera in general, this is a great place to start.”
Costanzo, who is also openly gay, has embraced his unique gift.
“I’ve been lucky, but I also tend to not approach it as if I’m doing something precious or ridiculous for a man to sing in a woman’s register. I’m straight forward about it and it doesn’t feel especially gay. In fact, that register has more cutting power (than a woman’s voice) and it can really surprise people.”
He’s also quick to point out that many of the biggest pop singers in more recent history—from Frankie Valli and Brian Wilson to Prince, Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake—have utilized falsetto to great artistic and commercial success. But, have they ever wooed the King of the Underworld? Only Costanzo can claim that victory.
Florida Grand Opera performs Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” March 17 – 24 at the Arsht Center in Miami and March 29 and 31 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. For more information and tickets, go to FGO.org.