An excellent use of camp: Only an Octave ApartReview
I’ll come out and admit that often, when opera singers put out studio recordings, I don’t get excited about it. Sometimes the album title takes itself too seriously, some ponderous snippet of Yeats or Rückert standing as a bit of proverb or twee metaphor. Sometimes the opera singer’s recording feels too precious, too close to the microphone, too far away from the honest, full-throated way they sing live.
But I adored Only an Octave Apart, the recently-released collaboration between star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and actor/cabaret singer Justin Vivian Bond. It’s essentially an album of duets, fusing operatic arias and pop songs in properly ingenious arrangements — many of which were done by au courant composer Nico Muhly.
First thing’s first: Costanzo sounds his best yet. He sings full-out with a tone that seems new, the latest colour of an ever-changing voice. Here, Costanzo has a smooth, enameled sound, confident in his technique but with a refreshing sense of ease. When he croons into the microphone it’s a choice, not an unwanted ASMR experience.
And Bond, of Broadway, off-Broadway, Short Bus and The Get Down fame, is a fantastic foil to Costanzo. Together, they really do sing an octave apart, and instead of it cuing an eye roll, it lands like lovable camp. Bond’s throaty sound is equal parts Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and Rufus Wainwright, and they have that off-the-cuff way of half-singing that’s so utterly cabaret.
Musically, Only an Octave Apart has no business being so clever. The aria/song mash-ups are the product of a lot of thought and respect for the original works, but they’re also so much fun.
“Egyptian Sun” blends “Walk Like an Egyptian” with Phillip Glass’ “Hymn to the Sun”, a cool fusion of styles and a pointed nod to Costanzo’s signature work in Glass’ Akhnaten.
There’s an awesome mix of Gluck’s “Deh Placatevi con me” from Orfeo ed Euridice (another bit of Costanzo branding) with Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, which is adorable in the thematic through-line.
And I laughed at the fun of pairing Dido’s Lament with “White Flag” by…yep…Dido. Also, Costanzo’s “When I am laid in Earth” is totally stunning.
I think what makes this album something to respect is that it’s firmly rooted in a really specific type of history. It’s the history of Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett, of Beverly Sills and Danny Kaye, and all the times when “high art” blended with popular culture. Costanzo and Bond are using the genre to say something that’s also not new: gender is not black-and-white, and unlikely duos make each other better. I love that they send the point home in their rendition of “Faeries at the Bottom of my Garden”, nodding to the wonderful Michael Aspinall, aka The Surprising Soprano.
In the album’s gorgeous liner notes by Wayne Koestenbaum, he makes the case for pairing a countertenor with a cabaret singer:
“Listening, we forget which voice is higher and which is lower, which is silken and which is stringent, which is delicate and which is rugged, which is soigné and which is crenellated, which is overtly seductive and which is secretly a cocktail, which frequents the bar and which requires the barre, which genuflects to disco and which has an appetite for mordents.”
When you listen to Only An Octave Apart, all of that rings true. Beyond the initial curiosity of these two voices, what’s clear is that there’s room to have fun; Bond and Costanzo have created that room for themselves by being excellent performers.
Between the top-notch singing and the thoughtful camp, this album made me feel seen. If you’ve ever been on a YouTube rabbit-hole that started with either Julie Andrews or Dame Edna or even Victor Borge, I wholeheartedly recommend Only An Octave Apart.