They say opposites attract in love but also in entertainment, and so it is with actor/cabaret star Mx Justin Vivian Bond -known as Vivian- and world-famous countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. Their unique but very different talents are about to be mobilised in their show Only An Octave Apart.
I caught up with them via zoom to New York. Vivian knew they were transgender at a very early age – 6 to be precise. “I had a relationship with a neighbour boy. My parents didn’t take it well. I said I was a boy from the waist down and a girl from the waist up. I prayed every night to be a girl the next day.” Now they identify as non-binary.
In their 20’s Vivian played an intersex character in a play called Hidden: A Gender, based on Herculine Barbin.And so came the start of being comfortable with themselves: “I decided rather than being a woman I would be myself. I took oestrogen after the age of 50 so avoided the menopause and I’m on my own personalised journey.”
Moving to San Francisco gave a feeling of empowerment after the earlier years of prejudice against them. Vivian’s creation was Kiki DuRane, based on a friend’s mother -a character both opinionated and intimidating.”It made me be honest about myself”.
“People liked Kiki, despite all her faults: I thought I was helping people to overcome their prejudices. Kiki believed in social justice. She gave me a protective shell”.Though Kiki’s been retired she will come back now and then, Vivian confesses.
At this point I ask how Vivian and Anthony first met. Anthony told me:” I went backstage after seeing the Kiki show and offered to do a guest spot the following night. I knew when I saw Vivian they were one of the greatest performers I’d ever seen.” Vivian refused to do a duet, but when they heard Anthony rehearse they changed their mind – the two sang Summertime the next night and a partnership was begun. Vivian admits: “we both look different from how we sound” and Anthony describes the formula as “ uptown/downtown, and high art and low art”.
Anthony was a Broadway star in The Sound Of Music and Falsettos, aged 11, having told his parents that was his destiny,and they saying ok. Aged 13 he starred in Britten’s opera The Turn Of The Screw, where all its psychological complexity excited him. And so began a career that has mixed many media and different pathways of entertainment, using different genres like music, dance, painting and video. He is a singing sensation around the classical music world
I was curious about the development of his voice. “I was a great success as a boy soprano and didn’t realise my voice hadn’t broken. A friend pointed out I had hair on my arms and must have reached puberty without my voice changing, so he said that I must be a countertenor!”
”Anyone can sing falsetto, and it’s a totally natural thing. But sustaining it is the trick. The vocal chords come together and vibrate, and the shorter the chords the higher the note formed. So you artificially shorten the chords and use the air smoothly to keep the voice steady. Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake can sing up there: it’s kinda sexy”.
“But the repertoire has usually been limited – anything before 1750 or after 1950. Vivian has helped expand my repertoire – we can explore all sorts of genres.” I asked why he wanted to team up with Vivian to do this show.
“Who wouldn’t want to work with such a great performer? We have a personal connection, our juxtaposed voices and personalities. I feel more myself in this show than I ever have before. We sing the Kate Bush/ Peer Gabriel number Don’t Give Up and it’s taken on a Queer meaning. It reveals my identity”. Vivian added: “In between the songs, which are all on our album of the same name, we have patter and impro: it’s fun and it’s dangerous.”
Asked for their coming out story Vivian said: “ I never came out. I was outed but I had to come out to myself after everyone else reacted. I wasn’t comfortable with Queerness till my early 20’s in San Francisco.” Asking Anthony the same question, he said:” My parents were ex-hippies. I slept with a boy at 18 and I got nervous to tell them, but they were accepting. I called my mom and told her I’d just made out with a boy. She asked if I used a condom, and when I said no, she said : well just have a good time”.
“I studied at Princeton and was apprehensive about announcing my Gayness. It took a couple of years to be ok about it.” Asked to give advice to a younger self, Vivian said: “ all the things you hope will come true will come true.” And Anthony added: “ being who you are is the most powerful thing you can be- even if it doesn’t feel like that at the time.”
Asked where they go from here with their partnership onstage, Vivian told me:” we want to go one better than the EGOT – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards – we want to achieve NEGOT – adding a Noble Prize”. I’m not sure they’re joking.
Only An Octave Apart runs at Wiltons Music Hall, London from 28 September- 22 October. For tickets follow this link wiltons.org.uk
You can listen to the album Only An Octave Apart album on Spotify, click here