Home on the Road: Anthony Roth Costanzo

Home on the Road is a series in which I interview opera professionals about how they survive their nomadic lives. You can find previous interviews here.

Photo by Matthu Placek
I'm so very pleased to present a new Home on the Road with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. I first worked with Anthony during his Met debut last season in Rodelinda, and it's no exaggeration to say that he is delightful in every way. Besides being immensely talented, he is a supportive and engaged colleague and one of those magical people who specialize in bringing people together.

Anthony started traveling for work when he was still a child, and he's been on the road for varying portions of time ever since. This past year he's been very happy to have work in New York, where he lives, but he was on the road for about 3 months total, shipping out to destinations such as Toronto, San Francisco, North Carolina, and Beijing (where he won 1st prize at Operalia!).

LMB: Do you have any stuff that you always bring with you when you travel to make your temporary home feel more like a real one? Or any special routines to help you acclimate quickly in a new place?

ARC: I remember when I had just turned 18, I went to visit a friend of mine who was making a movie in Paris. She had been making movies since she was a little girl and had developed a strategy to make the various apartments and hotel rooms feel like home. When I walked in the door, I saw that she had draped colorful scarves over all the lamp shades. Confronted with my quizzical gaze, she explained that she brought the scarves with her all over the world and draped them over lamps, chairs, and sometimes hotel art to make any room feel more like home. I thought to myself that if I ever had a career that took me around the world, I would develop a comparable routine. Alas, no decorative scarves have entered my routine. However, for years I have been bringing portable speakers with me on the road to play music from my iPod, phone, or computer. I find that after a long day of rehearsal, or on the night before a performance, I can create a familiar atmosphere by filling a room with Ella Fitzgerald or Terri Gross. 

I have also learned that it is very important to always unpack my suitcase. This sounds extremely basic, but when we pop from place to place, it can be tempting to leave things folded inside a suitcase and shut it in the closet. Who wants to take the time to unpack after a long day of travel anyway? But when I force myself to put underwear in a drawer or shirts on hangers before I go to bed, I wake up feeling much more acclimated. Similarly, whenever I arrive home, I always put every article in the suitcase in its proper place immediately. Even (and especially) if I'm just home for a few days, I find that it is psychologically very important to feel completely settled, as if I'd been home for many months. 

LMB: You once told me you have a great system for packing for a gig. Will you share it?

ARC: I think you may be referring to my absolutely ridiculous and lazy system for packing for a gig. I sometimes lay out all the shirts, jackets, suits, and pants I want to bring on my bed, each on their respective hanger. I fold the whole stack in thirds and shove the pile into a duffle bag, hangers and all. The hangers are of course heavy and take up a lot of space. However, the advantage of this system is that there is NO ACTUAL FOLDING involved. If I had to fold all of those things individually it would take me the better part of a day (I may or may not be an OCD folder). When I arrive at my destination, I unzip the suitcase, hook my finger into the curve of the hangers and with one fell swoop, I am unpacked. I also find creases resulting from a letter-fold of the whole pile are much easier to get rid of then the creases that result from a bunch of stacked, folded-up clothing that has been compressed for hours on end. 

LMB: You are amazing at meeting people and making friends. Any tips on how you do it when you're away from home and in unfamiliar surroundings?

ARC: While I think it's always fun to find kinship with colleagues, I often try to meet new and interesting people in other fields and walks of life as well. One of the joys of traveling for work so often is discovering the soul of many cities and towns and the characters that inhabit them. Once, I was singing in Turin, Italy, and as I walked home from rehearsal one night, I was humming an ornament to myself. An old, ragged-looking man stopped me to say how much he liked what I was humming. As a New Yorker, my instinct was to keep going and pay him no heed, but he seemed respectful and had a certain authenticity that made me stop and chat. He told me singing was his job as well—in fact, he demonstrated for me how he sang full-throated Italian folk “jingles” in order to sell his wares at the local market. His songs and way of singing them made him the most popular merchant in the square. In Beijing, I encountered a PhD student on the street who studied Chinese history, and who gave me a fascinating tour of the Forbidden City which culminated in meeting the only living descendant of the last emperor. 

I'm as shy as anyone so I have to sometimes force myself to leave the hotel, find an interesting film screening, poetry slam, dessert tasting, antique store, etc. Once I arrive somewhere new I always make an effort to engage strangers about their town and their lives. It takes a good mix of intuition and perseverance to meet the interesting people (I have about a one in ten ratio), but if I stick to the task, I have been known to find some fascinating new friends who can show me the best a city has to offer. 

LMB: You started out performing and traveling for work when you were very young. Are there things you learned early on that have stuck with you and help you in your career today?

ARC: When I was 11 I went on my first Broadway National tour, and I remember that I always used to look forward to “Travel Mondays.” Traveling with a company frequently made flying seem fun, and the occasional bus trip (sometimes in a thirteen-bunk sleeper bus with Marie Osmond and her family), a blast. I have tried to maintain that boyish zeal for the often grueling process of travel. When I was on the road as a kid, it used to take us forever to get through ticketing and security because we traveled in such large groups. One upside of this, which I try to replicate even today, is walking slowly. While this sounds crazy, I find that the faster I have to run to the gate, track, bus, or taxi, the more wiped out I am when I arrive at my destination. I also try to make the process of traveling as fun as it was when I was young by thinking of it as a mini-vacation. Instead of working on a plane, I take that time to read or watch movies. If I had 8 hours to sit at home, I would spend 6 of them accomplishing things, but during travel I can just loaf, which often relaxes me enough to counteract any other negative effects travel may have. 

LMB: In order to have the career that you have, you have to be willing to be away from home a lot of the time. How have you made peace with that? What makes it worthwhile for you?

ARC: More than anything, I truly love the work I'm doing and most of the time it makes leaving home feel like a privilege rather than a chore. I remember hearing mentors at conservatory telling the students, “If you don't have to be an opera singer, don't be one because it's a lot of hassle.” I found that I have to be an opera singer, and thus any discomfort seems secondary. I love the feeling of returning home, rediscovering my house (I find my bedroom looks alternately bigger or smaller depending on how long I've been away), reconnecting with my friends, and trading the stimulation of new experience for the comfort of familiarity. Yet I've also come to enjoy the constant yo-yo between stretching myself to acclimate to new environments and challenges, and being grounded in the atmosphere where I know myself best. 

It can get lonely on the road, and so I have started encouraging friends to come visit me. Often, I save money with weeks of free housing or per diem, and I will often set a little bit of this aside as an import budget. I have been known to buy family and friends who otherwise wouldn't be able to come visit me a plane or bus ticket, and this can completely change my experience of a city. Finally, with each show I do, I find I know more and more colleagues. I have a feeling that the deeper I go into this career, the smaller the circle gets, and before too long, I will have old friends everywhere I go. 

LMB: Any other advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out? Or advice that you did get that has been helpful to you?

ARC: Perhaps this doesn't exactly pertain to the subject at hand, but there is an important piece of advice I got at a crucial juncture: “say something.” As singers, we can get so fixated on our voice, on our physical condition, on whether or not we know our cadenza, on the fact that the conductor has taken an extremely fast tempo, on the doorknob that has just fallen off the door you are supposed to open in front of 4,000 people. But the seeming importance of these things in the moment is dwarfed by the larger responsibility to communicate with the audience, to make them feel something if only for an instant. Traveling around the world diversifies our experience in a very unique way that can often translate into an enriched capacity for expression. When I arrive in a new city, I often have to find myself all over again, and sometimes this means stepping outside my comfort zone. Taking these risks in my life spurs me on to take risks on the stage and create more layered and complex portrayals of characters that frequently are unfathomable to begin with. The challenges, successes, and failures of of this career can only help give us something to say. 

Thank you so much, Anthony! You can find out more about him on his website: www.anthonyrothcostanzo.com. You can also read about him in Opera Newshe was featured on the cover last month!

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