Only an Octave Apart Reminds Us Why Theater Exists

The performance, featuring the unlikely duo of downtown legend Justin Vivian Bond and operatic countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in outfits by Jonathan Anderson, is a mélange of camp glamour and genuine emotion.

Anthony Roth Costanzo and Justin Vivian Bond on stage
Photographed by Teddy Wolff

The mood at St. Ann’s Warehouse on a Friday night in September was giddy. It had been 18 months since the performing arts venue on the Brooklyn waterfront had been filled with a proper audience, and the first-day-of-school energy—although the seats were occupied by a mix that ranged from 20-somethings in drag to 80-somethings in Brooks Brothers blazers—was palpable.

The eclectic crowd was there to see the opening night of an equally dichotomous performance: Only an Octave Apart, starring the downtown cabaret legend Justin Vivian Bond and the operatic countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. The show, which runs at 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 velvet sheaths custom designed by Jonathan Anderson (the first in a series of four coordinating costume sets), it became clear that any attempts to apply a label to what we were about to see were beside the point.

What followed was a glittering, disarming, poignant, funny, occasionally fully spontaneous reminder of why theater exists at all, and in particular its ability to deliver surprise and comfort at once. The tension of the concept is built on the contrast between Bond and Costanzo’s voices, as well as the ostensible clash of their personas: Bond is a 58-year-old artist with a brassy voice and an unmatched mastery of camp; Costanzo, 39, is a classically trained singer best known for embodying roles at the Metropolitan Opera with a haunting gravitas. But throughout a series of medleys and mashups that includes “Deh! Placatevi Con Me,” from Orpheus and Eurydice, paired with Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” and Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” with the Bangles’s “Walk Like an Egyptian,” any lingering doubt is replaced with a complete rethinking of the purpose of genre.

Photographed by Nina Westervelt

A handful of solos, which make excellent use of the layers of sheer and shimmering curtains that make up the set, designed by Carlos Soto, with lighting by John Torres, ground the performance in emotion, while the often improvised banter between them toggles between tossed-off jokes and moments of genuine tenderness between two friends. (The songs from Octave will be turned into an album, released early next year.)

The show’s 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 Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews review. It also feels like 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 spoke to the current moment, as the city stutters into reawakening. “I can say that as a trans person, all that time alone in my house really messed with my head. Because who are we if we're not presenting ourselves to people?” Bond said. “And now, all of a sudden we're renegotiating being around other people and re-entry into society. I’m the first person to critique society and culture in my shows, but this one is about joyful self-expression, and reflecting that within the confines of a relationship with somebody you care about.”

“The combination of us says a lot without us saying it,” Costanzo added. “And those things that it says feel really important to me right now.”

Photographed by Nina Westervelt

Another intention going into the production was to try and make different aspects of so-called “high culture” feel more accessible to those who might not be able to find a point of entry to them: “As Viv says, there's a bulwark, this foreboding sense around classical music,” Costanzo noted. “But then what I discovered when I was doing it, which was surprising to me, is that it changed how I feel about classical music, because all of a sudden I was using my technique and my repertoire to express who I truly was. Normally I'm portraying another character. And even though I'm out and queer and gay, it's not expressed through the art. This opened up a whole new thing for me.”

“I think we’re showing that the high culture really is just as low. It's all a mirage,” Bond deadpanned. Costanzo added: “All the high culture opera stuff is all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll anyway.”

Bond, Costanzo and Winokur have all known each other for more than a decade, intermingling at various performances over the years. Costanzo is the one who nudged 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 recalled of an email they sent Anderson over the summer. “And within five minutes I had an email back saying ‘Anything you wish,’ which was the right answer.”

Most of the costumes were produced from scratch over the span of several weeks, others were significantly altered from existing samples from J.W. Anderson and Loewe, the two lines Anderson designs. After the velvet sheaths, which are fitted with geometric protrusions that the performers seem simultaneously confused and delighted by, the pair change into a set of feathered lace numbers, voluminous black and white Spanish matador-esque sets, and finally two sequined gowns accented by ruffled side slits that throw light around the stage in dazzling blazes.

Light was an important factor for Anderson as he was conceptualizing each piece. “There are similarities on how I design for both the stage and the runway, but then you have to think about the differences in lighting and how that affects texture,” he told me. “I wanted both of them to wear similar looks while also working against the set design to ensure that the looks correlated with the environment.”

Another environmental element the crew needed to consider is the fact that audience reactions are muffled by their masks, which make things difficult for the performers in terms of timing and exchange of energy. Susan Feldman, the founder and artistic director of St. Ann’s, noted that in addition to kitting out the space with updated air filters and safety protocols, they worked with sound designer David Schnirman to install area microphones over the seats, so that laughter can be heard from the stage more clearly—a little twist of pandemic-era engineering ingenuity.

As for the core of the show’s appeal, Feldman got to the heart of it: “When things defy categorization,” she said, “You just have to give up all those notions of like, ‘Where does this belong?” And just give yourself over to the art of it.”

As the opening night crowd—blazers, silk scarves, drag queens, sequins and skirts—streamed out of the theater and across a path towards Jane’s Carousel, where a DJ was playing Robyn and Aperol cocktails were being poured, it was clear they had done exactly that.