New York magazine
Anthony Roth Costanzo Image Credit: New York magazine
Anthony Roth Costanzo Image Credit: New York magazine

The Pharaoh We Need

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo brings the sexually ambiguous monarch of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten to the Met.

Justin Davidson

At the heart of Egypt’s ancient history is the 14th- century-BCE pharaoh Akhenaten, a leader depicted with full lips, a long nose, and evident breasts. At the heart of the visual cornucopia in Philip Glass’s 1983 opera Akhnaten is Anthony Roth Costanzo, a slender singer with full lips, a long nose, and a voice so high and clear it seems implausible coming from a man’s throat. There’s a lot of uncertainty around the historical figure, who is almost as famous for the woman he married (Nefertiti) as for his own accomplishments, which were considerable: He forced his nation to jettison the old gods and worship a single deity, making him the first great leader of monotheism; later rulers found his radicalism so extreme they all but obliterated him from the historical record. (Glass accentuates the mystery by having the libretto sung in ancient languages.) Costanzo, the countertenor who sings the role in the wandering production, which will make its way to the Metropolitan OperaHouse in November, calls his sexually ambiguous character “the first trans icon.” Costanzo initially appears onstage bald, naked, waxed, and then, as gradually as only Glass can command, he dons the robes of majesty.

Costanzo is a fast-talking enthusiast who has kept the engines of his career perpetually revved. Now 37, he made his debut at 11 as part of the touring company of the Broadway show Falsettos and two years later sang the role of Miles in Benjamin Britt


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