An Opera Singer & Cabaret Artist Record an Astonishing Version of David Bowie & Queen’s “Under Pressure”

On the surface of things, Anthony Roth Costanzo, the internationally-recognized countertenor and Justin Vivian Bond, the subversive performance artist best known for their creation Kiki DuRane, “an alcoholic battle-axe with a throat full of razor-blades,” would have little reason to share a mic, let alone inhabit the same stage.

Leave surfaces behind!

Their genre-defying, just released album, Only An Octave Apart, explores the depths that lurk beneath them, finding common cause between their chosen art forms and then some. The album’s title, a nod to the opening number of a Metropolitan Opera television special starring comedian Carol Burnett and operatic soprano Beverly Sills, is just the tip of the iceberg.


As they state in the program notes for a recent appearance with the New York Philharmonic at Jazz at Lincoln Center:

We each sound different from what you would expect when you look at us. The juxtaposition of our voices, personalities, and repertoire subverts notions of high and low, be it in terms of pitch, cultural echelon, or degrees of camp – not to mention the difference in height.

If you thought David Bowie and Freddie Mercury sent things into the stratosphere when they joined forces on “Under Pressure,” listen to Costanzo and Bond’s take, above.

Their Dido’s Lament / White Flag Medley smashes the musical binary with a delicacy that is given room to grow.

Costanzo begins with two and a half soaring minutes from Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas.

Introducing the number at Jazz at Lincoln Center, he recalled how Dido & Aeneas was one of his first professional opera gigs at 19. No, he wasn’t cast as the fatally distraught Queen of Carthage, a diva role he’s eyed for years, but rather the Second Woman and First Witch.

(“Second Woman / First Witch…sounds like the story of my life,” Bond marveled. “I own it! Can you imagine if you were First Woman and Second Witch?”)

Costanzo got his chance at Dido in the summer of 2020 when, with performance venues still closed due to the pandemic, he hatched an idea to cart Philharmonic musicians and guest singers around the city’s five Boroughs in a rented pickup dubbed the NY Phil Bandwagon80-some free performances later, he felt ready to record.

When Bond joins in, it’s with English singer-songwriter Dido‘s 2003 chart topper, White Flag, which also speaks to the pains of love. The sincerity of the performers causes a gorgeous alchemical reaction to soften the positions of more than a few staunch opera-phobes and pop-deniers.

(“The wonderful thing about the opera,” Bond cracks, “is when you wake up, you’re at the opera!”)

Their Egyptian Sun mash up is born of an even cannier pairing – The Bangles’ mid-80s hit, Walk Like An Egyptian and Philip Glass’ ancient Egypt-themed minimalist modern opera, Akhnaten, in which Costanza recently starred, making his first entrance nude and flecked with gold.

Other treasures from this fruitful collaboration include skillful intertwinings of Tom Jobim’s Bossa nova favorite Águas de Março (Waters of March) with Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella-themed confection La Cenerentola,  and Gluck’s 18th-century masterpiece, Orfeo ed Euridice with Don’t Give Up, a “message of hope in the bleakest of moments” and a hit for Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush when Bond was a year out of college…and  Costanzo was four.

Listen to Only an Octave Apart in its entirety on YouTube or Spotify.

Anthony Ross Costanzo will reprise his role as the revolutionary pharaoh, Akhnaten, at the Metropolitan Opera later this spring.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Blob Opera Lets You Create Festive Music with Ease: An Interactive Experiment Powered by Machine Learning

Tis the season when we’re never more than one singalong Messiah away from wishing we had a better voice.

David Li’s interactive Blob Opera allows us to pretend.

The machine learning experiment takes its cues from four opera singers—soprano Olivia Doutney, mezzo-soprano Joanna Gamble, tenor Christian Joel, and bass Freddie Tong—who provided it with 16 hours of recorded material.

The result is truly an all-ages activity that’s much easier on the ears than most digital diversions.


Click and drag one of the gummy-bodied blobs up and down to change its pitch.

Pull them forwards and backwards to vary their vowel sounds.

Once all four are in position, the three you’re not actively controlling will harmonize like a heavenly host.

You can disable individual blobs’ audio to create solos, duets and trios within your composition.

Press record and you can share with the world.

The blobs don’t sing in any discernible language, but they can do legato, staccato, and shoot up to incredibly high notes with a minimum of effort. Their eyes pinwheel when they harmonize.

As Li describes to co-producer Google Arts & Culture below, it’s not the original singers’ voices we’re channeling, but rather the machine learning model’s understanding of the operatic sound.

Click the pine tree icon and the blobs will serenade you with the most-searched Christmas carols.

Begin your collaboration with Blob Opera here.

If you find yourself wanting more, have a go at the interactive Choir Li created for Adult Swim.

Related Content:

Stephen Fry Hosts “The Science of Opera,” a Discussion of How Music Moves Us Physically to Tears

The Met Opera Streaming Free Operas Online to Get You Through COVID-19

The Opera Database: Find Scores, Libretti & Synopses for Thousands of Operas Free Online

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Shostakovich Adapted Gogol’s “The Nose” Into an Opera: Watch Giant Noses Tap Dancing on the Stage

The first-time reader of a story called “The Nose” may expect any number of things: a character with a keen sense of smell; a murder evidenced by the titular organ, disembodied; a broader ironic point about the things right in front of our faces that we somehow never see. But given its conception in the imagination of Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” is about a nose — a nose that, on its own, lives, breathes, walks, and dresses in finery. The nose does this, it seems, in order to rise in rank past that of its former owner, the run-of-the-mill St. Petersburg civil servant Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov.

Written in 1835 and 1836, “The Nose” satirizes the long era in Imperial Russia after Peter the Great introduced the Table of Ranks. Meant to usher in a kind of proto-meritocracy, that system assigned rank to military and government officers according, at least in theory, to their ability and achievements. The fact that those who attained high enough ranks would rise the to the level of hereditary nobles created an all-out status war across many sections of society — a war, to the mind of Gogol the master observer of bureaucracy, that could pit a man not just against his colleagues and friends but against his own body parts.


Nearly a century after the story’s publication, a young Dmitri Shostakovich took it upon himself to adapt “The Nose” into his very first opera. In collaboration with Alexander Preis, Georgy Ionin, and Yevgeny Zamyatin (author of the enduring dystopian novel We), the composer rendered even more outrageously this tale of a nose gone rogue. Incorporating pieces of Gogol’s other stories like the “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” as well as the play Marriage and the diary Dead Souls — not to mention the writings of other Russian masters, including Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the 1928 opera combines a wide variety of musical styles both traditional and experimental, and among its set pieces includes a number performed by giant tap-dancing noses.

You can see that part performed in the video above. The venue is London’s Royal Opera House, the director is Barrie Kosky of Berlin’s Komische Oper, and the year is 2016, half a century after The Nose‘s revival. Though completed in the late 1920s, it didn’t premiere on stage in full until 1930, when Soviet censorship concentrated its energies on quashing such non-revolutionary spectacles. It wouldn’t be staged again in the Soviet Union until 1974, nearly a decade after its premiere in the United States. (Just a couple years before, Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker had adapted the story into the pinscreen animation previously featured here on Open Culture.) The sociopolitical concerns of Gogol’s early 19th century and Shostakovich’s early 20th may have passed, but the appeal of the former’s sharp satire — and the sheer Pythonesque weirdness of the latter’s operatic sensibility — certainly haven’t.

Related Content:

Nikolai Gogol’s Classic Story, “The Nose,” Animated With the Astonishing Pinscreen Technique (1963)

Revered Poet Alexander Pushkin Draws Sketches of Nikolai Gogol and Other Russian Artists

The Bizarre, Surviving Scene from the 1933 Soviet Animation Based on a Pushkin Tale and a Shostakovich Score

George Saunders’ Lectures on the Russian Greats Brought to Life in Student Sketches

Why You Should Read The Master and Margarita: An Animated Introduction to Bulgakov’s Rollicking Soviet Satire

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Barcelona Opera Re-Opens with a Performance for 2,300 Potted Plants: Watch It Online

Writes The Guardian: “Barcelona’s El Liceu opera house reopened on Monday with a concert to an audience of 2,292 potted plants. The event took place a day after Spain’s state of emergency came to an end after more than three months. It was the work of Spanish conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia, who said the inspiration came from a connection he built with nature during the pandemic: ‘I watched what was going on with nature during all this time. I heard many more birds singing. And the plants in my garden and outside growing faster. And, without a doubt, I thought that maybe I could now relate in a much more intimate way with people and nature.'”

You can watch the performance below. It begins at the 8:30 mark. And do know that plants will be donated to frontline health workers.

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6 Minute Reprieve From the World’s Troubles, Courtesy of Tilda Swinton, Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Five Springer Spaniels

This video of Tilda Swinton’s Springer Spaniels cavorting in pastoral Scotland to a Handel aria performed by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo won’t cure what ails you, but it is definitely good medicine.

Swinton and her partner, artist Sandro Kopp, filmed the beautiful beasts in such a way as to highlight their doggy exuberance, whether moving as a pack or taking a solo turn.

The title of the aria, “Rompo i Lacci,” from the second act of Flavio, translates to “I break the laces,” and there’s no mistaking the joy Rosy, Dora, Louis, Dot, and Snowbear take in being off the leash.


Flashbacks to their rolypoly puppy selves are cute, but it’s the feathery ears and tails of the adult dogs that steal the show as they bound around beach and field.

The filmmakers get a lot of mileage from their stars’ lolling pink tongues and willingness to vigorously launch themselves toward any out of frame treat.

We’ve never seen a tennis ball achieve such beauty.

There’s also some fun to be had in special effects wherein the dogs are doubled by a mirror effect and later, when one of them turns into a canine Rorschach blot.

The video was originally screened as part of Costanzo’s multi-media Glass Handel installation for Opera Philadelphia, an exploration into how opera can make the hairs on the back of our neck stand up.

Related Content:

Stephen Fry Hosts “The Science of Opera,” a Discussion of How Music Moves Us Physically to Tears

How a Philip Glass Opera Gets Made: An Inside Look

Tilda Swinton Recites Poem by Rumi While Reeking of Vetiver, Heliotrope & Musk

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Italians’ Nightly Singalongs Prove That Music Soothes the Savage Beast of Coronavirus Quarantine & Self-Isolation

It’s not like we’re maestros…it’s a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety. —Emma Santachiara, Rome

As reported by The New York Times, Ms. Sanachiara, age 73, has joined the vast choir of ordinary Italians taking to their balconies and windows to participate in socially distant neighborhood singalongs as coronavirus rages through their country.

The Internet has been exploding with messages of support and admiration for the quarantined citizens’ musical displays, which have a festive New Year’s Eve feel, especially when they accompany themselves on pot lids.


Three days ago, Rome’s first female mayor, Virginia Raggi, called upon residents to fling open their windows or appear on their balconies for nightly 6pm community sings.

A woman in Turin reported that the pop up musicales have forged friendly bonds between neighbors who in pre-quarantine days, never acknowledged each other’s existence.

Naturally, there are some soloists.

Tenor Maurizio Marchini serenaded Florentines to “Nessun Dorma,” the famous aria from Puccini’s opera Turandot, repeating the high B along with a final Vincerò!, which earns him a clap from his young son.

In Rome, Giuliano Sangiorgi, frontman for Negramaro, hit his balcony, guitar in hand, to entertain neighbors with Pino Daniele’s 1980 hit “Quanno Chiove” and his own band’s “Meraviglioso.”

Earlier in the year, the 11 million residents of Wuhan, China, the deadly epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, also used music to boost morale, singing the national anthem and other patriotic songs from their individual residences. Jiāyóu, or “add oil,” was a frequent exhortation, reminding those in isolation to stay strong and keep going.

Readers, are you singing with your neighbors from a safe distance? Are they serenading you? Let us know in the comments.

Related Content: 

Tom Waits Releases a Timely Cover of the Italian Anti-Fascist Anthem “Bella Ciao,” His First New Song in Two Years

Pink Floyd Plays in Venice on a Massive Floating Stage in 1989; Forces the Mayor & City Council to Resign

Bruce Springsteen Singin’ in the Rain in Italy, and How He Creates Powerful Imaginary Worlds

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Like most of us in this crazy, historic period, all of her events have been cancelled. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How a Philip Glass Opera Gets Made: An Inside Look

Most fever dreams require very little pre-planning and coordination. All it takes is the flu and a pillow, and perhaps a shot of Ny-Quil.

A fever dream on the order of composer Philip Glass’ 1984 opera, Akhnaten, is a horse of an entirely different color, as “How An Opera Gets Made,” above, makes clear.

For those in the performing arts, the revelations of this eyepopping Vox video will come as no surprise, though the formidable resources of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, where the piece was recently restaged by director Phelim McDermott, may be cause for envy.


The costumes!

The wigs!

The set!

The orchestra!

The jugglers!

… wait, jugglers?

Yes, a dozen, whose carefully coordinated efforts provide a counterpoint to the stylized slow motion pace the rest of the cast maintains for the duration of the three and half hour long show.

This maximalist approach to minimalist modern opera has proved a hit, though the New York Times‘ critic Anthony Tommasini opined that he could have done with less juggling…

We presume everyone gets that bringing an opera to the stage involves many more departments, steps, and heavy labor than can be squeezed into a 10-minute video.

Perhaps the biggest surprise awaiting the uninitiated is the playful offstage manner of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the supremely gifted countertenor in the title role. As the pharaoh who reduced ancient Egypt’s pantheon to a single god, Atenaka the sun, he makes his first entrance completely nude, head shaved, flecked in gold, facing the audience for the entirety of his four-minute descent down a 12-step staircase.

(One step the video doesn’t touch on is the workout regimen he embarked on in preparation for his nude debut, a 6-day-a-week commitment that inspired him to found one of the first American businesses to offer fitness buffs training sessions using Electrical Muscle Stimulation.)

His dedication to his craft is obviously extraordinary. It has to be for him to handle the score’s demanding arpeggios and intricate repetitions, notably the six-minute segment whose only lyric is “ah.” His breath control on that section earns high praise from his longtime vocal coach Joan Patenaude-Yarnell.

But—and this will come as a shock to those of us whose concept of male opera stars is informed nearly exclusively by Bugs Bunny cartoons and the late Luciano Pavarotti—his outsized talent does not seem to be reflected in outsized self-regard.

He treats viewers to a self-deprecating peek inside the Met’s wig room while clad in a decidedly anti-primo uomo sweatshirt, gamely dons his styrofoam khepresh for close range inspection, and cracks himself up by high-fiving his own pharaonic image in the lobby.

There’s incredible lightness to this being.

As such, he may be more effective at attracting a new generation of admirers to the art form than any discounts or pre-show mixer for patrons 35-and-under.

For further insights into how this musical sausage got made, have a gander at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-production videos and read star Anthony Roth Costanzo’s essay in the Guardian.

Related Content:

Is Opera Part of Pop Culture? Pretty Much Pop #15 with Sean Spyres

Watch Klaus Nomi Debut His New Wave Vaudeville Show: The Birth of the Opera-Singing Space Alien (1978)

Hear the Highest Note Sung in the 137-Year History of the Metropolitan Opera

Hear Singers from the Metropolitan Opera Record Their Voices on Traditional Wax Cylinders

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York: The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Is Opera Part of Pop Culture? Pretty Much Pop #15 with Sean Spyres

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Opera used to be a central part of European pop culture, Pavarotti was as big a pop star as they come. But still, it’s now the quintessential art-form of the wealthy and snobbish. What gives?

Guest Sean Spyres from Springfield Regional Opera joins his sister Erica along with Mark and Brian to discuss opera’s place in culture (including its film appearances), how it’s different from music theater, the challenges it faces and how it might become more relevant.

Some articles:

Watch the Shawshank Redemption opera scene or perhaps the Pretty Woman scene. What Is pop opera? Here’s Ranker’s list of artists. Paul Potts sings that famous song on Britain’s Got Talent. Plus, check out albums from brother Michael Spyres. Yes, you can hear an opera-singer sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” but you probably shouldn’t.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

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