"Only an Octave Apart," photo by Nina Westervelt for Spoleto Festival USA.

A collaboration between Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo, “Only An Octave Apart,” juxtaposes the whimsy of cabaret and the intensity of opera. At this year’s Spoleto Festival USA, the duo will be performing mashups and medleys from their recently released album of the same name as well as a few new tracks.      

A staple in the cabaret scene for more than 30 years, Bond is known for creating characters like Kiki DuRane in the duo Kiki and Herb. Costanzo is an accomplished countertenor who has performed in the United States and abroad with the Metropolitan Opera, the English National Opera and other companies

The pair’s repartee is easy. Bond delivers satirical quips and Costanzo responds through giggles. They became friends as they became fans of each other’s work. Their show “Only An Octave Apart” had its world premiere in 2021 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City with a limited run in London the following year.

In early 2022, they released their album. The cover shows the duo cheek to cheek. Bond’s platinum hair is flowing while an oversized crown sits on Costanzo’s head.

Each clever song pairing starts with a word reference, literary connection, or classical piece of music and is then married with a more popular idiom. The result is Double Rainbow, an original mashup of I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, a popular vaudeville song, and Rainbow Sleeves, a 1983 pop rock tune sung by Rickie Lee Jones.     

“It was sort of a free associative kind of game playing,” said Bond. 

Some associations like “Egyptian Sun” — a medley of “Walk Like an Egyptian” by The Bangles and “Hymn to the Su” from the opera “Akhnaten” might have come easier, as Costanzo is well known for playing Akhnaten in several productions, most recently in 2019 at the Metropolitan Opera. Through working with Bond, he has become more comfortable embracing the spontaneity of cabaret and exploring new genres. (“You haven’t done a lot of rock and roll in your life. Have you?” Bond teased him.)

“So often we get distracted in opera by the pursuit of perfection or all of the trappings of the art form,” said Costanzo. “Then we lose track of the honesty and directness, which is what makes any kind of musical communication powerful to an audience.”

Bond relies on that direct communication as they create their shows. Despite their sincere love of performing, Bond never likes to take themselves too seriously. “Anyone who doesn’t laugh or cry at our show is basically dead inside. Anyway, I should know. I am dead inside,” they joke. 

Beneath the show’s humor lies an undertone of self expression. Constanzo identifies as gay and said that as an opera singer, he has always been out and queer. The way he sings as a countertenor is an easy entree into feeling queer because he sings in a realm of cognitive dissonance (a countertenor’s voice is equivalent to a female contralto or mezzo-soprano.)

“I had never actually explored my community and my ties to that community and myself through the show I was creating or through the music,” said Costanzo.

Bond, who is transgender, added, “They’re trying to get us out of the schools. That means we’re in the schools. They’re trying to get us out of the theaters. That means we’re in the theaters,” said Bond. “They’re working very hard, but the genie is out of the bottle as it were. I defy them to do it.” 

The show is often described as “camp,” a term meaning deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style or extravagantly flamboyant in a way that is sometimes stereotypically associated with queerness. Bond points out that the use of this word is often taken for granted and be seen as frivolous, but can be dangerous — a coded homophobic way of expressing something.       

“If you’re camp in certain places, you get killed for it. Being camp is a political stance. It’s an outsider’s critique of the mainstream,” said Bond. 

The pair has found that their audience is varied — not just the queer community or theater and opera people. Constanzo said he is excited to take the show into a new context with the “open minded and wonderful” Spoleto audience despite the state’s current political climate. South Carolina is one of the states that’s seeking to ban gender-affirming care

IF YOU PLAN TO GO:  June 7-11. Various times at Dock Street Theatre. Tickets range from $33 to $103. 

Joyelle Ronan is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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