One of the world’s most singular and celebrated young vocal artists, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo also has demonstrated an impresario’s bold instincts since his student days at Princeton University. A curator at National Sawdust from its inception, Costanzo fashioned one of the most striking presentations of the young organization’s inaugural season with Orphic Moments, a multi-sensory experience that combined myth-based works by Gluck and Matthew Aucoin, staged by director Doug Fitch, with a bespoke banquet prepared by Patrick Connolly.
The success of that undertaking emboldened National Sawdust to devote much of its second season to opera, mounting nine bold new productions. Now, Costanzo returns to offer a tenth: Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a seldom-encountered dramatic serenata from 1708. Jointly produced by Costanzo, Cath Brittan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and National Sawdust, the work is being staged by Christopher Alden, one of the opera world’s most insightful, inventive directors, incorporating electronic audio design and interactive video technology created by Mark Grey.
The production opens at National Sawdust on July 12, with additional performances July 13, 19, and 20. Over lunch during a recent long day of rehearsals uptown, Costanzo and Alden discussed how they had come together, what they found compelling about this particular piece, and what it is about Handel that makes his works so emotionally specific, yet dramatically universal.
THE LOG JOURNAL: Let’s just start at the beginning: How did this project come about?
ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO: I’ve been a curator at Sawdust since before it opened, and the first thing I did there was Orphic Moments, which was unexpectedly a sort of success – not only for us, but also for Sawdust. It seemed to open up the possibility of doing fully staged operas there. And because of that – at least, this is what they say – this season they’ve done nine operas. We’ll be the tenth.
That said, they said, “You should do another one,” and I thought, oh, god, what am I going to do? I spent a long, long, long time agonizing over what I wanted to do, and then also with whom I wanted to do it, which is very important to me. And Christopher was the first person I called. We had done a Handel opera together at San Francisco together, which I just thought was fantastic. We did Partenope, his famous production of that. And I said, hey, basically there’s going to be no money, there’s going to be nothing, but do you want to do this, and we’ll have a good time? And he said, sure.
I’d been rooting through cantatas and toying with the idea of doing new and old, but last time I’d done the Matt Aucoin piece with Gluck, and I didn’t want to do the same sort of half-and-half. But, it’s difficult to bring a straightforward Handel piece into Sawdust, even though Handel is in a lot of ways very forward-thinking in his own right. I came across Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, this serenata, which… I don’t think we can call it exactly rare, but let’s just say it’s been done maybe once in the U.S., once somewhere, staged. This is basically one of the first stagings ever done in this country.
CHRISTOPHER ALDEN: They did it at Lincoln Center a couple of years ago.
COSTANZO: They did a concert version.
ALDEN: What’s that festival… the White Light Festival.
CONSTANZO: They didn’t stage Aci…
ALDEN: No, no, but Emmanuelle Haïm…
COSTANZO: …did her thing with it. I mean, it goes around, but it’s not one of the more recognizable Handel pieces. And he wrote it for a wedding, and it seemed right for that environment. Then we came up with this idea of using Mark Grey, who’s a sound designer and composer, to sort of take and distort some of the recitative, and have technology be an instrument in the continuo. Because in Handel – and in every Baroque opera, really – the arias are not about moving the plot forward; they’re about expressing an emotion, so there’s more abstraction possible. So, to play with that in the recits and try to keep the arias somewhat intact, but also to use Christopher’s inspiration to get into a sound world and a visual world with the staging and the videos, to make it a new piece as well as an old piece.
I’m certain that I’m familiar with Mark Grey’s work. He collaborated with John Adams for the electronic elements of On the Transmigration of Souls, correct?
ALDEN: He’s done all the John Adams operas.
COSTANZO: All the John Adams, Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass – he’s done all those guys. And basically any opera house or any symphony that is doing anything like that, Mark Grey travels around…
ALDEN: Anything written with amplification in it.
COSTANZO: But also, La Monnaie commissioned him for an opera, and that will premiere in ’18 there – Frankenstein. So he’s a serious and cool composer, but this is the first time he’s ever done visual stuff. And the visual stuff is all based on this Xbox technology. We literally have an Xbox there that sends out invisible dots into the space, and can track your motion and your face, all of that stuff. And that’s reflected in the video, and then that can be mirrored by what’s happening in the sound world.