Opera Philadelphia’s new leader comes into the office from the stage

The famed countertenor plans to keep performing while leading the opera company.

Listen 0:59
Anthony Roth Costanzo poses for a portrait

Anthony Roth Costanzo is the new general director of Opera Philadelphia.(Opera Philadelphia)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Anthony Roth Costanzo is known to opera lovers as a countertenor who has appeared on international stages, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and in 2009 with Opera Philadelphia in Hans Werner Henze’s “Phaedra.”

Now, Costanzo is about to star in Christoph Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, beginning May 16.

He has never held a senior administration position in an arts organization.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Opera Philadelphia has tapped Costanzo to replace David Devan, the longtime general director who will step down on June 1.

Board member David Ferguson, who chaired the selection committee, said Costanzo is well suited to lead Opera Philadelphia.

Anthony Roth Costanzo stands on the stage at the Academy of Music
Anthony Roth Costanzo stands on the stage at the Academy of Music. Costanzo is the new general director of Opera Philadelphia. (Opera Philadelphia)

“His international profile, the high quality of his artistry, the range of ideas that he’s able to bring to the table,” Ferguson said. “He’s incredibly persuasive and thoughtful as a communicator. We think all of that’s going to really serve us well when we think about how to right the organization.”

Like many performing arts organizations, Opera Philadelphia has suffered since the pandemic with shrinking audiences and budgets. The company has staged fewer productions per season with fewer resources. Ferguson said Opera Philadelphia is going into its 2024-2025 season with about $10 million, where it would have had about $18 million in the past.

What Costanzo lacks in experience working at the institutional level, he makes up for as a performer and producer at the independent level. While an undergraduate at Princeton University, he fundraised and produced his senior thesis project, “The Double Life of Zefirinowhich,” which became an award-winning short film, “Zefirino: The Voice of a Castrato.”

Since then, Constanza has commissioned and produced several original projects, his most ambitious being “Glass Handel,” a mash-up of works by Phillip Glass and George Handel, which premiered at Opera Philadelphia’s O Festival in 2018. He performed selections from “Glass Handel” on NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series.

Developed with David Devan and Opera Philadelphia, Costanzo said he raised about $1 million to produce “Glass Handel.”

“I say I’m a producer and people are always, like, ‘What does that mean for an opera singer?’ Costanzo said. “It is arts administration. I do all the budgets. I put everything together. I raise the money for all the projects that I’ve created, and I put the creative teams together.”

“Of course, this will be a different level of arts administration,” Costanzo said of his new job.

Costanzo, 41, has a history with Philadelphia going back almost 30 years. His first appearance at the Academy of Music was in 1996 at the tender age of 14, performing the Shepherd Boy in Puccini’s “Tosca,” in a traveling production created by Luciano Pavarotti.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Anthony Roth Costanzo with Luciano Pavarotti
Anthony Roth Costanzo, Opera Philadelphia’s new general director is pictured with Luciano Pavarotti. The photo was taken in 1996 when Anthony was 14 years old and appeared for the first time onstage at the Academy of Music, as part of a Pavarotti touring production. (Opera Philadelphia)

Most recently, he performed in Philadelphia in 2019 as part of “Late Night Snacks,” a rotating series of performances created by Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

“Opera Philadelphia feels like a second home to me already,” he said.

Ferguson believes Costanzo’s position as an internationally recognized performer will give him unique advantages as a fundraiser and leader.

“I’m a huge sports fan, right? He’s in the game,” he said. “There are certain things you see as a player that aren’t necessarily clear as a coach. You’re seeing minute by minute, play by play, and you’re able to pivot and create in really fresh ways.”

Costanzo will be filling the shoes of Devan, who built Opera Philadelphia’s international reputation as an innovative company committed to producing new work, particularly by artists not often part of the traditional canon, such as Black, Latino, Asian and LGBTQ writers and composers.

Anthony Roth Costanzo appears in a M&M's commercial.
Anthony Roth Costanzo appears in a M&M’s commercial. (YouTube)

Costanzo intends to keep that company on that course.

“The structures that pervade opera are sometimes considered elite or inaccessible. I think we need to rethink those structures,” he said. “I think what I can bring to Opera Philadelphia are some strategic partnerships and some collaborations that do, in the words of our board chair, a kind of ‘radical unscaling,’ which is to say taking opera to new frontiers outside of the opera house in exciting and innovative ways.”

Costanzo has already dipped his toe into this kind of “radically unscaling” on television. Last year he appeared in a commercial for M&Ms when a new purple-colored candy was introduced. The celebrated opera singer appeared briefly as a singing potted plant.

“That is an example of a strategic collaboration that I think can reach a lot more people,” he said. “All of a sudden you hear a countertenor — not only an opera singer but this guy who sings really high in an M&M’s commercial. Someone’s ears might prick up and they might say: What is that? What is that kind of singing?”

While leading Opera Philadelphia, Costanzo plans to continue his singing career. He will not be the only one. Other senior staff members are professional singers, such as vice president of community initiatives Veronica Chapman-Smith, and vice president of people, operations and inclusion Derell Acon. Neither, though, is to the scale of Costanzo’s career.

“We have this really strong senior leadership team to execute the strategy and vision that he’s going to bring to the company,” Ferguson said. “We are more than comfortable bringing him on and having him lead us with all the experiences that he’ll bring to the table.”

Costanzo will begin as general director on June 1.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal