I meet Princeton students in many forms, but never before as a pharaoh. Anthony Roth Costanzo is the first. And as the lead role in the opera “Akhnaten” by Philip Glass that I recently saw in New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Countertenor Costanzo, 37, appears on the scene right from the start. In the chic Met, where everyone at the opera has dressed up for the gala premiere at their most festive, Costanzo first appears stark naked. He has had all his body hair removed, except for his dark eyebrows. For six minutes, he strides slowly across the stage, without singing a note. He is strong in his vulnerability, looking the audience in the eye. You just have to dare. But then he begins to sing in that fascinating falsetto voice that resonates in my ears throughout this evening-long opera.
Drenched in the hypnotic tones of Philip Glass, Costanzo is then wrapped in robes, gold is applied to his skin, and the pharaoh’s crown is placed on his head. While his father is lying mummified behind him, Costanzo changes to Akhnaten, husband of beautiful Nefertiti and father of King Tutankhamun, the visionary change agent whose tomb was dramatically opened in 1922.
In the temple, Akhnaten expresses his belief in one god, the sun — a totally revolutionary idea at the time. In the land that, among others, worshiped Isis and Osiris, people were only allowed to worship the sun god Aton.
On stage, a group of flamboyant jugglers — not one drops a cone to the floor this evening — portray, in the typical Glass style with jolting, repetitive movements, how sensitive that monotheism was. Just like the politicians of today, this pharaoh also has to find a balance. His adoration of the sun, a huge red orb that fills even the huge stage of the Met and toward which he dramatically climbs up a staircase in an orange robe, is moving.
Costanzo is a convincing Akhnaten. With his high feminine voice, wearing robes on which breasts and female genitals are painted, he easily transforms into this pharaoh, who is often depicted as hermaphrodite. Probably because he believed that god was both woman and man, Akhnaten wanted to get closer to god in this ambiguous way. Costanzo himself sees the pharaoh as the first transgender icon.
He has adapted his life for this role. He works out a lot, eats a carefully controlled diet, and does not drink a drop of alcohol. The music of Philip Glass, with its endless repetitions with subtle changes, was memorized by him. This show almost took place without him. Costanzo got cancer. He underwent, successfully, a major operation close to his vocal cords, which the doctor compared removing chewing gum entangled in a tuft of hair.
In the opera, Akhnaten is thrown off the throne and killed. His controversial monotheism disappears. His images are destroyed and his name removed from the tombs of pharaohs.
In the last scene we see students receiving lectures on the excavation of the city of Amarna, which Akhnaten had built around 1346 BC. Spitballs are thrown. A great life has been reduced to a boring history lesson.
But the pharaoh gets the final say. Although wordless, Akhnaten and Nefertiti sing to us in elongated monosyllables. They speak from the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. What do they want to tell us? We do not know.
Ahkenaten’s final performance at the Met is December 7.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.