Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Backstage at MIDSUMMER: A Chat with Oberon

Today, we hear from perhaps the most intriguing voice and character in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

JD: Anthony Roth Costanzo, you're still at the beginning of what's bound to be an exciting career. But you've been singing and performing for a long time already. Tell us about how you began singing and performing as a kid, and how you made the move from boy soprano to adult countertenor.

ARC: When I was 6 years old in North Carolina, I started taking piano lessons. I was good at playing by ear, but refused to read music. My teacher, Pei-Fen Liu, forced me to read music by singing the notes off the page before I played them. So I stopped playing piano right there, and decided that singing was what I loved to do. I convinced my parents (who are both psychologists at Duke University) to allow me to audition for some community theater. By the time I was 11, I had done more than a dozen musicals locally and at the state theater, and told my parents I wanted to try and make it in New York. They were incredibly supportive, but never pushed me, and helped me go audition in New York. From there I went on national tours with Broadway shows, and also performed in New York; I did musical theater professionally until I was about 13, when I was asked to audition for Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. I got the role of Miles, and fell in love with Britten's music, and opera more generally, and decided to go down that road. During the production, people began to wonder why I had hair on my arms, but seemingly no difficulty singing high. Perhaps my voice hadn't changed yet, or perhaps I was a countertenor. This was the first time I had heard of a countertenor, and it was in the mid 90s, just as David Daniels was coming into prominence. I began to study voice as a countertenor, and made a seamless transition from boy soprano to countertenor.

JD: For those of us who are new to your voice type, exactly how do you sing countertenor? Can anyone do it? What kind of voice do you have when you're not way up high?

ARC: Many people are mystified by the countertenor voice, and think it must be a physiological rarity. In fact, it is something that every man has the potential to do. I am really just singing in a well-developed head voice or falsetto. Every man has a falsetto, only most men have not worked to hone it into a classical instrument. We have a great history of pop singers who sing in that register, but are not called countertenors -- for example Prince, Michael Jackson, or David Bowie. Of course, there is a bit of nature involved as well as nurture -- that is to say that like any operatic voice, a certain amount of natural facility is required-- but in theory it is something that everyone can do. Working with my voice teacher, Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, we treat it like any other voice. We are aware of specific issues a countertenor might encounter, but fundamentally the principles are the same as any soprano or mezzo-soprano voice. Singing as a countertenor feels very natural to me, probably because I have always sung in that register. If I were to sing in my chest voice (where the male opera singer traditionally sings), I would be a baritone. I share many notes on the staff with tenors, the difference being that we are using slightly different mechanisms to produce those notes (i.e. I use head voice, and they use chest, or a mix of chest and head). I am always mystified by how tenors are able to bring their chest voices so high -- it is unimaginable to me!

JD: As a countertenor, you spend a lot of time singing music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. How is it different to sing music by Benjamin Britten, who wrote Midsummer in 1960?

ARC: Much of the music I sing was written for castrati (castrated male singers) in the Baroque period. Every so often I am aware of the fact that it was written for an instrument we do not fully understand today -- the castrato voice. For example, it is suspected that because the castrati did not develop normal levels of certain hormones in their body, their bones did not harden all the way, and instead remained slightly more cartilaginous. This means that when they took a breath, their rib cage was capable of expanding further, and thus they had an enormous breath capacity. Sometimes I look at a line of coloratura Handel has written and think, "How is that humanly possible?" Perhaps it isn't. Britten is, I believe, the first operatic composer ever to write specifically for the countertenor voice. He wrote the role of Oberon for the true pioneer of countertenoring, Alfred Deller. Deller had a very specific type of sound and approach, and Britten writes within its constraints. Today's countertenors, in general, have developed a more operatic timbre, and so it is an interesting exercise to use an expanded palette of colors to paint with the music Britten wrote for Deller. Ultimately, there is a recit-like, ethereal quality to Oberon's music which is not far from the feeling of Baroque music. Britten was enamored of Purcell, and there are many gestures in the music which harken in that direction.


I know a bank where the wild
thyme blows, where oxlips
and the nodding violet grows,
quite over-canopied
with luscious woodbine,
with sweet musk-roses
and with eglantine.

Photo by Rozarii Lynch

JD: Now, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, but the character of Oberon doesn't get a whole lot of laughs. Tell us a little about this guy, and his relationships with Tytania and Puck.

ARC: Oberon is a complex guy. At the beginning of the rehearsal process, I struggled with trying to figure out whether he was just a straight-forward bad guy, or whether he had more going on. Why is he so vindictive, and even sadistic at times? Is his aggression sexy? Does he have redeeming qualities? One key to my understanding of Oberon is the fact that he takes pity on Helena. He sees her unrequited love for Demetrius, and decides that he will make Demetrius love her by way of his potion. I think this is also somewhat of a projection of his own situation. I believe that ultimately, he loves Tytania, and is upset that she isn't giving him the time of day. In the end, he wants love for himself and others, and that is his most redeeming quality. He gets caught up along the way with his desire to feel powerful, and this is what I think brings out his darker sides. Oberon takes a liking to Puck because he is deferential enough to make him feel powerful, and thus he has no choice but to put up with his foibles. I have tried to make Oberon's evil moments enjoyable in the way John Malkovich's sinister characterizations are delectable. While Oberon doesn't get many of the laughs himself, he is an important component of good comedy -- the straight man. He is a foil to Puck's antics, and provides a healthy dose of seriousness which contrasts so markedly with the Rustics that they hopefully seem that much more uproarious.

JD: What's your favorite part of the show?

ARC: Of course, I truly love Oberon's aria in Act I. The vocal writing, the orchestration, and Shakespeare's masterful text provide a rare convergence that can take a performer (and hopefully an audience) to another world. In this production, I have to say that I also very much enjoy the Sarabande in Act III where I get to dance with Tytania. Though at first dancing while singing was like patting my head and rubbing my stomach, once we figured out how to do it, it became strangely liberating, seductive, and expressive.

JD: What's next for you? Do you have a website where your fans can track your activities?

ARC: I'm preparing for several upcoming performances including the title role in a new production of Handel's Tolomeo at Glimmerglass Opera in 2010 (a US premiere of this opera); I make my debut with the New York Philharmonic next season as Prince Go-Go in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (a New York Premiere of this opera); I will sing my first full Messiah with the Cleveland Orchestra later this year, and this summer I will sing the Sorceress in Jonathan Miller's production of Dido and Aeneas at Glimmerglass. People can definitely visit my website for more information and updates about me at

JD: Thanks for sharing so much of your life and work with us today!

Photo by Rozarii Lynch


  1. Here's a fun clip with Mr. Costanzo singing 'Voi che sapete' from the Merchant/Ivory film A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. This might be the only recorded performance of a boy actually singing this Mozart 'trouser' role.

  2. My favorite of all the YAP interviews so far!