It’s a rainy Monday morning in downtown Los Angeles and the staff at L.A. Opera is busy preparing for the next mainstage production. Inside a large, fluorescent-lit rehearsal space at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Matthew Aucoin, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Phelim McDermott are gathered around an iPad. They are watching YouTube clips of H.R. Pufnstuf (one of L.A. Opera’s set guys used to work on the show). As giant, colorful puppets lumber across the screen in front of them, they joke and laugh about the absurdity of the show’s premise and production quality.
A few minutes later, seated around a folding table, the group discusses the music of Philip Glass. Along with the rest of the cast, crew and creative team (as well as a talented troupe of jugglers), the trio is preparing to present Glass’s 1983 opera Akhnaten. Aucoin, L.A. Opera’s new artist-in-residence, is conducting the piece. McDermott is the director who designed the ambitious new production (it premiered in London earlier this year). Countertenor Roth Costanzo sings the title role. They share a palpable connection that is as dynamic when they are discussing Glass’ score as it is when they are considering psychedelic puppetry in television.
Akhnaten is the third of Glass’ iconic biographical operas composed in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Whereas Einstein on the Beach deals with science and Satyagraha (an opera about Gandhi) focuses on politics, Akhnaten deals with religion. Set in ancient Egypt, Akhnaten tells the story of its namesake, a pharaoh who was revolutionary because he rejected traditional Egyptian polytheistic beliefs, essentially becoming the world’s first monotheist when he founded a religion centered around the sun god Aten.
Aucoin, an opera composer himself, sees parallels between the minimalistic nature of Glass’ music and the “radical simplicity” of Akhnaten’s religious beliefs. “I hear the temptation in every bar [to make the music more complex]. But no, Glass says, we need to do that all over again. He lets the shape of it unfold without interference. It feels very honest to me. I think it took so much courage as a composer to recognize the essential nature of these materials.”
“You can’t listen to Philip Glass with ego,” McDermott interjects in a thick British accent.
Aucoin agrees: “The surrendering of the ego means not having expectations. You can’t be asking yourself, ‘Where is this going?’ because after a while you realize that you’re already there.
“It’s a bit like being in L.A., actually,” he adds. “I remember the first time I visited L.A. I was like, ‘Yes, but where is L.A.?’ But then you realize, ‘Oh, this is all L.A., and it’s great.’”
Aucoin's new position means he'll be spending more time in Los Angeles, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying the change of scenery (he’s based in New York now). This production marks the beginning of his three-year stint as L.A. Opera’s artist-in-residence. Next season, he'll conduct two productions, including one of his own operas. The company has commissioned a new opera from him to be premiered during the 2018-19 season. He’ll conduct that work as well.
As if that workload weren't ambitious enough, Aucoin is curating and hosting a new late-night concert series at L.A. Opera called After Hours: A Musical Nocturne. The free series will take place immediately following select opera performances and gives Aucoin a chance to explore musical interests beyond the confines of the traditional classical repertoire. The first After Hours show, scheduled for Nov. 19 after a performance of Akhnaten, features music by both Franz Schubert and Bruce Springsteen.
Aucoin is the first person to hold the title of artist-in-residence at L.A. Opera; the position was created specifically for him. His appointment is a big get for the company. At just 26, he is already a hot commodity in the opera world. Last year The New York Times Magazine called him “Opera’s Great 25-Year Old Hope.” A Wall Street Journal profile from 2014 compared him to Wagner and asked whether he is on his way to becoming the 21st century’s Leonard Bernstein.
The accolades aren’t hyperbole. Aucoin possesses an innate musical talent and genius-level intelligence that revealed itself at a young age. Growing up in Massachusetts in the 1990s, he composed symphonies and operas as a little boy. As a teenager, he explored jazz and started a rock band called Elephantom. He spent his undergraduate years studying poetry at Harvard before returning to classical music as a composition student at Juilliard in graduate school. He’s worked at the Metropolitan Opera and his music has been performed by major symphony orchestras. He’s brilliant and cool, a kind of millennial Mozart who seems to be able to handle the hype surrounding him.
In conversation with his colleagues, Aucoin is soft-spoken, thoughtful and warm. While he’s the newbie on this team (McDermott and Roth Costanzo worked together earlier this year in the production’s London premiere), he’s been friends with Roth Costanzo for years and has composed songs for the countertenor before.
Roth Costanzo’s unique sound has inspired many contemporary composers like Aucoin to write for him. As a countertenor, he uses a controlled type of falsetto that allows him to sing in the same range as a mezzo-soprano.
“There’s an otherworldliness to it,” McDermott says of Roth Costanzo’s voice.
“It contributes a sense of mystery,” Aucoin adds.
“And for people who’ve never heard a countertenor before, which is generally like 60 percent of the audience,” Roth Costanzo admits, “it does kind of grab you by the balls when you first hear it. Especially the men. You can feel them go eeeeoooff.”
McDermott and Aucoin laugh knowingly at the description. And then they dive back into a discussion of why Glass chose this voice for this role. Historical images of Akhnaten suggest that he was either intersex or trans, and the countertenor voice reflects that ambiguity.
After their conversation, it’s time to get to work. Jugglers are doing warm-up exercises with white hacky sack–like balls. Roth Costanzo walks off to the side and warms up his voice, making strange, guttural vibrating sounds. McDermott draws everyone in the room into a large circle and leads them through a daily check-in. When it’s his turn to share, Aucoin says that he’s been attempting to explore L.A. on foot during his down time. On his off day, he walked from Silver Lake to Highland Park, checking out the diverse neighborhoods in between.
This daily check-in sets a mood for the rehearsal, connecting the group and creating a unified atmosphere in which to work.
When the music begins, Aucoin transforms. As he conducts, he locks into Glass’ hypnotic beat and grooves to the complex rhythms. He mouths the words and sings along when he feels like it. His head drops and his body bounces.
When he’s conducting, younger versions of Aucoin appear. There’s the boy genius, conducting an imaginary orchestra from the back seat of the family car. There’s the jamming teenager, skinny and shirtless in a grainy YouTube video from 2009, performing with his rock band. And there’s the poet, engrossed in the complexity of musical language.
There’s a sense in the rehearsal space that something special is happening. In conversation, McDermott, Roth Costanzo and Aucoin admit they are already dreading the conclusion of the show’s run.
“A production is kind of an island,” Aucoin explains. “It evaporates, which is wonderful and also kind of sad at the end. But what’s nice for me is that I have in the back of my head that this isn’t the last time I’ll work with the chorus and orchestra and music staff and team here at L.A. Opera. It is actually just the beginning. I can say unambiguously that it’s a family feeling.”