“Only an Octave Apart” brings together Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo
The atmosphere at St. Ann’s Warehouse on a Friday evening in September was dizzying. It had been 18 months since the Performing Arts Hall on Brooklyn’s waterfront had been filled with a suitable audience and the energy of the first day of school, although the seats were filled with a mix ranging twenties to drag. 80-something in the Brooks Brothers blazers – was palpable.
The eclectic crowd was there to attend the opening night of an equally dichotomous performance: Only an octave apart, featuring downtown cabaret legend Justin Vivian Bond and opera countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. The show, which runs in St. Ann’s through October 3, has been described as impossible to categorize. Is it a cabaret? A variety show? An experimental concert? As soon as the duo appeared on stage, both dressed in custom-designed velor sheaths designed by Jonathan Anderson (the first in a series of four coordinating costume sets), it became clear that any attempt to label the what we were going to see was irrelevant.
What followed was a sparkling, disarming, poignant, funny, sometimes totally spontaneous reminder of why theater exists, and in particular its ability to offer both surprise and comfort. The tension of the concept is built on the contrast between the voices of Bond and Costanzo, as well as the ostensible shock of their characters: Bond is a 58-year-old artist with a brassy voice and unparalleled mastery of the camp; Costanzo, 39, is a classically trained singer best known for portraying roles at the Metropolitan Opera with haunting gravity. But throughout a series of medleys and mashups that includes “Deh! Placatevi Con Me ”, by Orpheus and Eurydice, paired with Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” and Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” along with the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”, any lingering doubt is replaced by a complete overhaul of the genre’s purpose.
A handful of solos, which make excellent use of the sheer, shimmering layers of curtains that make up the ensemble, designed by Carlos Soto, with lighting by John Torres, ground the performance in emotion, while the often improvised joke between them switches between thrown-off jokes and moments of true tenderness between two friends. (The songs of Octave will be turned into an album, released early next year.)
Show director Zack Winokur described the effect as having “the energy of one of Viv’s Joe’s Pub shows, but exploded,” he said. “And it also has the energy of an old-fashioned criticism of Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews. It’s also what I most want opera to be, which is real and beautiful.
Speaking with Costanzo and Bond via Zoom the week of the premiere, I asked them why a show like this is talking right now, as the city wakes up stammering. “I can say that as a trans person, all this time alone in my house has really turned my head. Because who are we if we don’t introduce ourselves to people? Bond said. “And now all of a sudden we’re renegotiating being around other people and getting back into society. I’m the first person to critique society and culture on my shows, but this one deals with joyful self-expression and reflects that within the confines of a relationship with someone who matters to you.
“The combination of us says a lot without us saying it,” Costanzo added. “And those things he says seem really important to me right now.”
Another intention in the production was to try to make the various aspects of ‘high culture’ more accessible to those who might not be able to find an entry point for them: ‘As Viv says, there is a bulwark, that threatening sense around classical music, ”noted Costanzo. “But then what I discovered while doing it, what surprised me was that it changed my perception of classical music, because all of a sudden I was using my technique and my repertoire. to express who I really was. Normally I play another character. And even though I’m out and about, queer and gay, that doesn’t express itself through art. It opened up a whole new thing for me.
“I think we are showing that high culture is really just as weak. It’s quite a mirage, ”said Bond unmoved. Costanzo added, “All high culture opera stuff is all about sex, drugs and rock and roll anyway.”
Bond, Costanzo and Winokur have all known each other for over a decade, mingling in various performances over the years. Costanzo is the one who pushed his co-star to reach out to Anderson, with whom Bond has a long-standing collaborative relationship. “I just took a chance and asked him if he would be interested in designing our costumes,” Bond recalls of an email they sent Anderson over the summer. “And within five minutes I got an email saying ‘Anything you want’ which was the correct answer.”
Most of the costumes were produced from scratch over the span of several weeks, others were significantly modified from existing samples from JW Anderson and Loewe, Anderson’s two design lines. After the velvet sheaths, which are fitted with geometric protrusions that seem both confusing and delighted, the pair transform into a set of feathered lace numbers, voluminous black and white Spanish matador sets, and finally two dresses in sequins accented by ruffle side slits that light up the scene in dazzling flames.
Light was a big factor for Anderson as he conceptualized each piece. “There are similarities in the way I design both the stage and the track, but then you have to think about the differences in lighting and how that affects the texture,” he told me. . “I wanted them both to wear similar looks while working against the set design to make sure the looks correlated with the surroundings.”
Another environmental element the team had to take into account was the fact that audience reactions are muffled by their masks, making it difficult for the performers in terms of timing and energy exchange. Susan Feldman, founder and artistic director of St. Ann’s, noted that in addition to outfitting the space with updated air filters and safety protocols, they worked with sound designer David Schnirman to install Zone microphones on the seats, so laughter can be heard from the stage more clearly – a little twist of engineering ingenuity from the pandemic era.
As for the crux of the show’s appeal, Feldman got to the heart of the matter: “When things defy categorization,” she said, “You just have to let go of all these notions like: To what does it belong to? And just indulge in the art of it.
As the opening night crowd – blazers, silk scarves, drag queens, sequins and skirts – exited the theater and crossed a path to Jane’s Carousel, where a DJ was playing Robyn and Aperol cocktails, it was clear that they did. exactly that.