NEW YORK, NY.-
This show has been 10 years in the making, the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo said recently.
He was talking about Only an Octave Apart, an undefinable event A staged concert? A revue, maybe? which he created with Justin Vivian Bond and which runs at St. Anns Warehouse in Brooklyn from Tuesday through Oct. 3.
On paper, the two seem to be unlikely collaborators. Bond, 58, is a throaty-toned pioneer of the alternative cabaret scene, both as a solo artist and as half of the duo Kiki and Herb. Costanzo, 39, is a classical star whose luminous voice takes him to opera houses and concert halls around the world. (In the spring, hell return to his body-waxed role as the titular character of Philip Glass Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera.)
But Costanzos voracious taste for collaboration has encompassed artists as disparate as painter George Condo, ballet dancer David Hallberg and fashion designer Raf Simons. And Bond recently appeared in an opera, Olga Neuwirths Orlando, in Vienna in 2019.
So its not entirely implausible that theyve ended up together at St. Anns, where their set list ricochets giddily from Gluck to Jobim to the Bangles, and the artistic team includes director Zack Winokur (The Black Clown), fashion designer Jonathan Anderson and composer Nico Muhly on arrangements.
Bond and Costanzos partnership is more organic than most when worlds collide projects, which often feel as if an enterprising impresario had pulled random names out of a hat and precipitately pushed the unlucky artists onstage.
We were seeing each other because we were friends, not because we were intending to collaborate, Bond said, sitting with Costanzo after a recent rehearsal.
Back in 2011, Costanzo was in the audience at Joes Pub for one of Bonds cabaret outings. When Bond mentioned from the stage that the guest artist for an upcoming performance had just dropped out and there wasnt a replacement, Costanzo leaned over to a friend and whispered, Me!
The friend, photographer and director Matthew Placek, also knew Bond and made the introductions. Costanzo nabbed the guest spot and prepared a Handel aria, but he was also keen to join voices on Summertime.
You said no, Costanzo recalled to Bond in the interview. Then right before the show started, I was practicing it and you were like, All right, all right, we will do it as a duet.
The combo was a success. We sounded so good together, Bond said. Of course, that songs problematic and we cant sing it anymore, but it gave us an opportunity to see our chemistry onstage, which was really fun.
So much so that they are back for more, although the initial impetus was rather pedestrian: Costanzo wasnt sure what to do next for his record company. I just didnt want to make Scarlatti Cantatas or something, he said. I mean, theyre beautiful, but its been done.
Teaming up with Bond provided a creative solution. (And this wont be their last partnership of the season. They will come together at the New York Philharmonic in January as part of the Authentic Selves festival that Costanzo is organizing.)
The inspiration for Only an Octave Apart, and the title number, came from a pop-culture footnote: a television special that Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills recorded at the Met in 1976. A similar encounter of disparate influences and high and low culture (or at least what audiences associate with high and low), flavored with vaudevillian touches, will now be played out at St. Anns.
At first, even longtime Bond collaborator Thomas Bartlett who is the shows music director and producer of the album version of Octave, which comes out in January was skeptical.
When the idea was pitched to me, it sounded a bit like a fun joke, he said in a video call. It didnt occur to me that Anthonys voice would make Vivs voice feel rich and kind and wise in this way, and that Viv would make Anthony sound even more ethereal.
Bond, Costanzo and Bartlett came up with a wide range of material. Some of the songs are duets, like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bushs Dont Give Up. Some are solos in conversation with each other, such as when an aria from Purcells The Fairy Queen segues into the early-20th-century ditty There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden. Some are classics from the cabaret repertoire, like Im Always Chasing Rainbows. And some are the kind of free associations in which Kiki and Herb used to specialize, like a surprisingly effective medley of Didos Lament also by Purcell and Didos White Flag.
Despite the mingling of their musical universes, the performers stay true to their respective styles. Were not crossing over, Bond said firmly. Were holding our own space, but were doing it together. They do not scat-sing Purcell, for example, and Costanzo does not imitate disco singer Sylvesters famous falsetto when the pair covers his track Stars.
I was like, how do I take an application of this voice and technique that feels honest and that sings the song? Costanzo said. I listen to opera singers try to sing pop and its so lame, because inevitably they wind up trying to sing some classical arrangement to a pop song.
During a recent rehearsal, Bond often left space for future improvisation. Im going to come out, theyre going to see me, Im going to milk it for a moment, Bond said at one point, describing an entrance. Costanzo, on the other hand, is used to the precision of classical music, where every note and step is carefully planned.
Sometimes my frustration with opera is that all spontaneity dies in pursuit of perfection, he said. I want to uphold and cherish the tradition, but in order to make it feel alive, it needs some kind of being in the moment and spontaneity.
But its challenging because I am always looking for structure and Viv is always like, Dont box me in because its not going to be as good, Costanzo said.
Still, Bond pointed out that there is a safety net. I obviously dont want Anthony to feel uncomfortable, or that hes going to be in any way undermined or not feel that hes going to be seen at his best, so weve been establishing points where things definitely have to happen, Bond said.
Working out the sound of a crows caw, the pair seemed ready for their spotlight at the most stylish comedy hour ever. Ive never laughed so hard in the rehearsal process, Winokur, the director, said.
But if there are many jokes in the show, the performers are in on them.
Being a countertenor, whenever I open my mouth, even at the Met, people go, Why is he singing like that? Costanzo said. I go work with kids and they laugh the minute you start singing. Which I love, I welcome it, but Im like a novelty in that way, which I enjoy exploiting.
As a classical musician, he added, you can be gay or queer or whatever, and then you go do your show. You are not expressing yourself as much in that theatricality or your identity. You are embodying a character. This project feels like, for whatever reason, this real theatrical expression of who I am.
Bond suggested, Its expressing your artistry through a place of truth, as opposed to trying to make something that is artificial seem true.
Costanzo laughed and said: See? Viv is so good!
This article originally appeared in The New York Times