December 13, 2023

Famed Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo to Appear with Princeton Symphony Orchestra

By Anne Levin

Anthony Roth Costanzo
(Photo by Matthew Placek)

In a YouTube video from 2013 titled Opera in the Bronx, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings an aria to a roomful of middle school students to demonstrate how music can convey sadness. Some of the kids giggle at the first sound of Costanzo’s voice, which is comparable to a female contralto or mezzo soprano. But within a few minutes, they are rapt. Some tell him, afterward, that they were nearly moved to tears.

“I loved doing that,” said Costanzo, reminded of the video during a telephone interview in advance of his appearances January 13 and 14, at Richardson Auditorium, with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO). “The opportunity to create exciting points of access for audiences is something I’ve really committed to. How do we engage in this form, which can seem foreboding?”

Costanzo, 41, is an internationally acclaimed opera superstar. He is also a producer and curator. A list of his accomplishments, awards, and artistic achievements, both before and after he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University in 2004, is beyond impressive. Yet he seems as proud of his participation in the recent launch of the new purple M&M character as he is of his performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, Carnegie Hall, Versailles, and the Kennedy Center — to name just a few.

“I love the novelty factor,” Costanzo said about his voice. “I love when people hear me for the first time, and I can take them on that journey. I love the process. It gets people engaged in this form that can be boring at the outset. Having this lens can take you through the boredom and keep your mind engaged.”

With the PSO, Costanzo will perform an aria from the opera Arminio by George Frederic Handel, as well as Gregory Spears’ Love Story with words by Tracy K. Smith. The program, conducted by PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov, also includes Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, and Lumina by Princeton University Ph.D. candidate Nina Shekhar.

“Anthony is a unique artist with an amazing career and repertoire spanning from baroque music to collaborating with some of the greatest composers of our time,” said Milanov in an email. “His appearance with the PSO with a new work composed for him by Gregory Spears would be a great opportunity to hear his extraordinary voice and artistry.”

Costanzo has been performing since he was 11. Raised in Durham, N.C., he was introduced to singing by his piano teacher. He got into musical theater, which led to opera, recitals, concerts, film, and Broadway. It wasn’t always easy.

“I had plenty of failures early on,” he said. “I went to one cattle call with 500 other kids. But I moved to New York, and started to get different things.”

Costanzo didn’t know what a countertenor was when it was first suggested to him. He looked into it, pursued it, and made it his focus. He sang with the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and got to sing in the Merchant Ivory film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.

A lot of people are surprised by his distinctive voice, “even opera experts,” he said. “It’s not as common as you would think. I’m actually writing a book now, called Countertenor. The castrati were the most popular singers of their day for about 100 years. Most of the great composers wrote for them from about the mid-17th to mid-18th centuries. The reason opera exists is because of the castrati. They popularized the art form. So countertenors have a really important place in the history of music.”

Dance has played a major role in Costanzo’s career. “I’ve worked with a lot of choreographers and dancers,” he said. “I brought Karole Armitage to Princeton to work on my senior thesis with me and create a work. It was a really exciting project, and a documentary was made about it that went to Cannes and PBS. Karole introduced me to dance. That got me into a lot of different things, from ballet to contemporary. I was exposed to a lot of things, and I loved it. Since then, I have worked with a lot of choreographers. I’m working now with Pam Tanowitz, and I loved working with Justin Peck. What I’m most excited about is that I’ll work with Mark Morris in the spring on Orfeo, at the Met [Metropolitan Opera House].”

Costanzo has a fond connection to Princeton University, where he has taught as well as studied. “I had a fantastic time there,” he said. “I took courses in all different areas, as one does. I majored in music and got a certificate in Italian Studies. I worked with incredible people including Wendy Heller, whose specialty is all things baroque. I went back almost a decade ago and taught a course with her about the practical aspects of opera — how to market, program, and produce.”

As much as he loves to sing, Costanzo relishes the role of producer. “It’s kind of a nebulous term, but I get to raise money and bring projects together. I get to work with all different kinds of artists, on really exciting projects. That kind of work, to create new things, is very important to me.”

Spears’ Love Story, on the upcoming PSO program, dates back to Costanzo’s time at Princeton. “There was this graduate student in the music department who was always mysterious to us,” he said. “It was Greg Spears. We became friends. When I was artist-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic in 2022, I commissioned Greg and poet Tracy K. Smith to write this incredible piece, Love Story. It’s very personal, in a way, like having a suit tailor-made for you. And it’s exciting to get to do it with this orchestra.”

Visit for ticket information about the concerts on Saturday, January 13 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 14 at 4 p.m.