A cabaret star and an opera star take the stage …
“This show has been in the works for 10 years,” said countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo recently.
He was talking about “Only an Octave Apart”, an indefinable event – A staged concert? A review, perhaps? – which he created with Justin Vivian Bond and which takes place at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn from Tuesday to October 3.
On paper, the two appear to be unlikely collaborators. Bond, 58, is a husky pioneer of the alternative cabaret scene, both as a solo artist and as one half of the duo Kiki and Herb. Costanzo, 39, is a classic star whose luminous voice takes him to opera houses and concert halls around the world. (In the spring, he will reprise his role as the main character in Philip Glass’s “Akhnaton” at the Metropolitan Opera.)
But Costanzo’s 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, “Orlando” by Olga Neuwirth, in Vienna in 2019.
So it’s not entirely implausible that they ended up together in St. Ann’s, where their set list ricochets dizzily from Gluck to Jobim to the Bangles, and the art crew includes director Zack Winokur (” The Black Clown “), fashion designer Jonathan Anderson and composer Nico Muhly on the arrangements.
Bond and Costanzo’s partnership is more organic than most ‘when worlds collide’ projects, which often make it seem like an enterprising impresario had pulled random names out of a hat and hastily pushed the unlucky artists out. scene.
“We saw each other because we were friends, not because we intended to collaborate,” said Bond, sitting with Costanzo after a recent rehearsal.
In 2011, Costanzo was in the audience at Joe’s Pub for one of Bond’s cabaret outings. When Bond mentioned from the stage that the guest artist for an upcoming performance had just dropped out and that there was no replacement, Costanzo leaned over a friend and whispered, “Me!”
The friend, photographer and director Matthew Placek, also knew Bond and made the introductions. Costanzo landed the guest seat and prepared a Handel tune, but he was also eager to join vocals on “Summertime”.
“You said no,” Costanzo reminded Bond in the interview. “Then just before the show started, I was practicing it and you were like, ‘Okay, okay, we’ll do it as a duo. “”
The combo was a success. “We sounded so good together,” Bond said. “Of course this song is problematic and we can’t sing it anymore, but it gave us the opportunity to see our chemistry on stage, which was really fun.”
So much so that they ask for more, even if the initial impetus was rather pedestrian: Costanzo did not quite know what to do for his record company. “I just didn’t want to do ‘Scarlatti Cantatas’ or anything like that,” he said. “I mean, they’re beautiful, but it’s done.”
Teaming up with Bond provided a creative solution. (And it won’t be their last partnership of the season. They will meet 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 TV special that Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills recorded at the Met in 1976. A Similar Encounter disparate influences and high and low culture (or at least what audiences associate with top and bottom), perfumed with vaudevillian touches, will now be played at St. Ann’s.
At first, even longtime Bond collaborator Thomas Bartlett – who is the show’s musical director and producer of the album version of “Octave,” which will be released in January – was skeptical.
“When the idea was presented to me, it looked a bit like a funny joke,” he said on a video call. “It didn’t occur to me that Anthony’s voice would make Viv’s voice rich and kind and wise in this way, and Viv would make Anthony even more ethereal.”
Bond, Costanzo and Bartlett offered a wide range of equipment. Some of the songs are duets, like “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Some are solos in conversation with each other, like when an aria from Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” connects to the early 20th century ditty “There are fairies at the bottom of our garden”. Some are classics from the cabaret repertoire, like “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”. And some are the kind of free pairing that Kiki and Herb specialize in, like a surprisingly effective blend of “Dido’s Lament” – also from Purcell – and “White Flag” from Dido.
Despite the mix of their musical worlds, the performers remain faithful to their respective styles. “We’re not crossing,” Bond said firmly. “We keep our own space, but we do it together. They don’t sing Purcell, for example, and Costanzo doesn’t imitate disco singer Sylvester’s famous falsetto when the duo cover their track “Stars”.
“I was like, how can I take an application of that voice and that sounding honest technique that sings the song?” Said Costanzo. “I listen to opera singers trying to sing pop and it’s so bad, because they inevitably end up trying to sing a classic arrangement over a pop song.”
In a recent rehearsal, Bond often left room for future improvisations. “I’m going to come out, they’re going to see me, I’m going to milk him for a moment,” Bond said at one point, describing an entry. Costanzo, on the other hand, is used to the precision of classical music, where every note and every step is carefully planned.
“Sometimes my frustration with opera is that all spontaneity dies in the pursuit of perfection,” he said. “I want to defend and cherish the tradition, but for it to feel alive, it needs to be in the moment and spontaneity.”
“But it’s a challenge because I’m always looking for structure and Viv always tells me, ‘Don’t box me because it won’t be as good,’ Costanzo said.
Still, Bond stressed that there is a safety net. “I obviously don’t want Anthony to feel uncomfortable, or be undermined in any way, or feel like he’s going to be seen in his best light. , so we’ve established points where things absolutely have to happen, ”Bond said.
Elaborating on the sound of a crow’s croak, the couple looked set to be in the spotlight – in this time of the most elegant comedy ever. “I’ve never laughed so much during rehearsals,” said Winokur, the director.
But if there are a lot of jokes in the show, the performers are aware of it.
“As a countertenor, every time I open my mouth, even at the Met, people say to me ‘Why is he singing like that?’” Said Costanzo. “I go to work with children and they laugh as soon as you start singing. What I like, I am delighted, but I am like a novelty in this sense, which I like to exploit.
“As a classical musician,” he added, “you can be gay or queer or whatever, and then you’re going to do your show. You don’t express yourself so much in that theatricality or your identity. You play a character. This project looks, for some reason, like this real theatrical expression of who I am. “
Bond suggested, “It’s expressing your artistry through a place of truth, as opposed to trying to make something artificial seem true.”
Costanzo laughed and said, “See? Viv is so good!