Masha and I saw *Only An Octave Apart* at St. Ann’s Warehouse on Sept 30, 2021.
This was a sort of staged cabaret show starring chanteuse Justin Vivian Bond and opera singer Anthony Roth Costanzo (I’ll call them JVB and ARC in the interest of time). I was tickled beyond words when I heard about this show because I recognized the title from the Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills TV special from the Metropolitan Opera. “Only An Octave Apart” is a song that was written for Burnett and Sills, illustrating how they’re voices are dissimilar but they’re (you guessed it) only an octave apart.
It’s the same spiel with ARC and JVB. They’re a fascinating study in vocal and gender contrasts. JVB presents as primarily female but their voice is a high baritone, whereas ARC presents as male but is a counter tenor, singing in what’s typically seen as the female range.
The show opened with some amusing banter, the two of them talking about how they met, how they were fans of the other, and always wanted to work together. JVB said they had very little experience with The Opera and got into it because of ARC. The funniest comment: “The best thing about going to the opera - - you wake up and you’re at the opera!”
I feel I should describe their costumes throughout, they were marvelous, done by Jonathan Anderson. JVB started the show in a cherry-red velvet gown with a strange pointy object sticking out on the side. A daring choice. ARC wore a similar gown, in black, and sleeveless. JVB’s hair throughout was Dina Merrill Blonde. The hairpiece might have actually belonged to Miss Merrill. ARC’s hair was short and carefully coiffed messy.
Next they did maybe my favorite number in the show, “Me and My Shadow.” The song started with ARC, his singing was so beautiful, it gave me chills. He did an expert job throughout the show of singing with his own operatic voice but not sounding like he was slumming when singing more pop-flavored fare. This is a tricky balance and he did it very well.
I have never heard JVB sing better, throughout the show. This song had a genius arrangement - - all of the arrangements (for a small pit band of about ten instruments) were by the great Nico Muhly. It opened with ARC singing it as a ballad then transitioned into JVB singing it in a slow yet snappy groove with a strong Bob Fosse vibe. The lighting and JVB’s movements played up the shadow content of the song. It was fantastic.
Next ARC sang “What a Charming Night” from Purcell’s *The Fairy Queen.* Lovely. JVB came onstage in a new frock (white lace, with feathers on the bodice) and sang a delightfully daffy ditty, “There Are Fairies At the Bottom of Our Garden.” Here it is done by the one and only Beatrice Lillie:
JVB came back wearing a black lace jumpsuit with feathers. The two of them sang a Jobim song I love, “Aguas de Março” (they sang it in English). ARC added a few interjections of “Non piu mesta” from Rossini’s *La Cenerentola.* Amusing and charming.
Next up, “Autumn Leaves.” Did you know the tune was partially borrowed from Massenet? I didn’t know that either. ARC started singing it in French, and JVB sang it in English and later in French. The lighting was gorgeous, some meaningful use of the sheer curtains, and of course some falling leaves.
ARC sang a Liszt song, a setting of a Goethe poem, “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.” I hadn’t heard the song before and it was magical. JVB come onstage in a new outfit - - ARC later wore a matching outfit and they were the only sartorial misfires of the evening, blousy black and white numbers done in a heavy triple-knit polyester. Not quite hideous, but getting there. I’m trying to put it out of my mind.
The next sequence was the funniest in the show. JVB said something similar to how I started this review, about how JVB appears to the world to be a glamorous lady of the stage and yet the voice is resolutely male, and yet ARC looks to the world like a nice looking young man and yet the voice is all girl. He thought they could do a *Singin’ in the Rain* routine and make a trade. JVB stood in front of the curtain, ARC behind it, and ARC sang the “Habanera” from Bizet’s *Carmen* with JVB not very convincingly lip-synching to it, often using the goofy hand gestures Lina Lamont used in *Singin’ in the Rain.* I laughed so hard. Then they did the reverse, with ARC lip-synching to JVB singing some macho ballad from the 70s. He actually knew the words, which made it much funnier.
ARC sang a Mozart duet, I think it might have been from *Nozze.* He sang both the baritone and soprano lines, running back and forth behind a curtain when he changed characters. It was equally parts funny and impressive.
JVB came onstage in their final costume of the evening, a gorgeous purple sequined dress with a slit on the side. They sang “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and another song I didn’t know, also rainbow-related. I had seen JVB three or four times before, and always thought that the sloppy, not quite rehearsed quality of the performances were an essential part of their brand, but wow, it really is more rewarding when it’s professionally done. Every moment was well-crafted but still full of life and theatrical magic. I’d like to see JVB do more of this in the future. Does that make me a square?
ARC came out in his final costume, a green sequined dress. He sang “Stars” by Sylvester, who JVB referred to as a “trans-censtor.” Great word. ARC sounded like a million bucks on that song. ARC did an aria from Gluck’s *Orfeo ed Euridice,* which was good but not overwhelmingly special. Here they are in their sequined finery taking their bows (you can see the Dina Merrill hairpiece in this clip, too):
The last number on the program was “Pressure,” the finish of which was punctuated with a rain of mylar confetti. Many shows would be helped by some mylar confetti. Not all of them! But many. It was rousing, and the audience went nutty. We weren’t quite sure that the show was over, but once people started standing up it seemed to confirm that suspicion.
Of course they did an encore, which JVB introduced as “their hit single.” It started with ARC singing “When I Am Laid in Earth,” aka Dido’s Lament, from Purcell’s *Dido and Aeneas,* which led to JVB singing “White Flag” by the pop singer Dido. This rather incongruously was capped off with both of them singing the finish of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s *I Pagliacci.* I raised my eyebrows at that, but it worked! Here’s that “hit single:”