Rising Stars: An Interview with Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen

The following interview with New York countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was conducted with the facilitation of the Houston Grand Opera.

[Below: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen; publicity photograph by Fay Fox.]

Wm: Aryeh, often ask my interview subjects about the earliest memories that they had of music. What were yours?

 ANC: I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, in a household with a lot of appreciation for music, but not classical music. My Dad is a huge lover of classic rock – Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash Young, and the like – and consequently this was the music of my childhood. I have many fond memories of attending concerts by these artists and many more at the Beacon Theater, Madison Square Garden, and other great venues, and this love of music was instilled in me from a young age. However, classical singing was far from anything I was experiencing.

Wm: When did you start experiencing classical music?

ANC: The first sort of turning point was a birthday party for my friend Elias that I attended in about fourth or fifth grade. He had an American Idol birthday party (that show was all the rage at the time!), which was essentially a glorified karaoke party, with each kid taking their turn singing a song. I sang my song, and I guess I made an impression, because when my parents came to pick me up, Elias’ Mom told them I really had some musical talent, and that they needed to ‘do something’ with it. From there, my parents had me audition for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (BYC) the children’s choir that was down the block from the the Hannah Senesh Community Day School. the Jewish Day School I was attending in Brooklyn.

It was my great fortune that the BYC was one of the two premier children’s choirs in New York City. At BYC, I learned to read music and gained so many other musical skills, and we as a choir had some amazing opportunities. We were performing regularly at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, with conductors like Lorin Maazel and Marin Alsop, and we also did some amazing pop music backup gigs, singing behind Elton John at Madison Square Garden, and also singing behind folks like Billy Joel, James Taylor, Sting, and Sheryl Crow. Needless to say, these were pretty remarkable experiences to be having as a kid!

Wm: In a large number of the of the interviews I have conducted of opera singers, their introduction to musical performance as a child or youth – no matter what kind of music they performed – turned out to be a pathway to their later interest in musical performance as a career.

[[Below: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen performing in concert with the Princeton University Orchestra, as winner of the Princeton Concerto Competition; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.]

You grew up in New York City, in a conservative Jewish community. You’ve spoken elsewhere on the influence of your experience in the boys’ choir and of the importance of the musical tradition in the religious ceremonies in which you were raised. What do you regard as the milestones in decision to pursue a musical career, and to what extent did those milestones a consequence of your musical interests as a youth?

ANC: While I was in eighth grade, I also first began training and working as a cantor for Jewish High Holiday Services, beginning to serve as Assistant Cantor at the East Midwood Jewish Center for these holidays. I spent hundreds of hours preparing the music and chanting modes of these services, under Cantor Sam Levine, and I think this experience was invaluable in helping me develop an ‘artistic’ voice; shaping the lines of chanting for the congregation of a few hundred people to try and move and uplift them taught me a lot about performing.

I then went off to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts, which is the premier performing arts high school in New York, and perhaps the U. S. – made famous in the movie and musical Fame! At LaGuardia, I had a fantastic experience, and I got to continue my choral singing, take classes in music history and music theory, and start doing a little bit of solo singing for the first time.

I still didn’t have a private voice teacher, but we had group Voice Class, in which we learned repertoire and had the chance to stand up and perform pieces in front of our 25 or so classmates. This training was invaluable, but I still thought of music as a hobby, and I intended to pursue my other great passion – politics – professionally. So, when it came time to look at colleges, I didn’t even apply to conservatories. I ended up attending Princeton University, where I went off to be a Public Policy major. I intended to pursue policy work as a career, and I thought about maybe going to law school. However, everything changed once I was at Princeton, thanks to two experiences I had there.

Wm: What were those experiences?

ANC: First, I saw my first opera! The Princeton Music Department had a raffle for free tickets to the Metropolitan Opera – someone had donated a subscription of Grand Tier tickets for around 12 operas each season to the University to be raffled off. I immediately started entering the raffles upon my arrival at the school – I figured that it would be a fun experience to attend an opera in New York City and visit my family for the weekend. I would always drop my name in the bin, but it took a long time for me to win the drawing!

It wasn’t until the very end of my freshman year that I won, on something like my tenth drawing. It was just my luck that I happened to win for Puccini’s “La Boheme”, and the legendary Zeffirelli production at the Met just blew my mind. The portrayal of these deep, huge human emotions in such a larger-than-life way hit me so profoundly. As I sat in the audience that night, I just felt that if there was any way I could do that professionally, I had to try.

[Below: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as the Emperor Nero in a Princeton University performance of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.]

Wm: You discovered opera performance. What was the second Princeton experience that set you on your career path?

ANC: I was fortunate to win this award from Princeton, the Dale Sophomore Award, to fund a summer of deeper exploration of singing professionally. The Dale Award is a wonderful award that funds around 12 students to pursue a summer project between their sophomore and junior years that is explicitly not connected to their academic coursework. The idea is for students to pursue a dream deferred for that summer, with the thinking being that it’s a pivotal point halfway through college, where one’s academic path begins to be set in stone.

My project involved apprenticing with this famous countertenor who had gone to Princeton – the wonderful Anthony Roth Costanzo – who graciously introduced me to some of his formative teachers and coaches, who then gave me some lessons.

[Below: Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) coaches Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. ]

Wm: That’s impressive. I conducted an interview with Anthony, which is posted at Rising Stars: An Interview with Anthony Roth Costanzo .

ANC: The Dale Award also permitted me to attend the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute and the Early Music Vancouver Vocal Program, to explore the baroque repertoire and performance practice more in-depth. And I absolutely loved every minute.

Getting to spend my days refining my singing and artistic expression fed my soul, and it became clear to me that if I didn’t at least try to pursue this as a career, I would always look back and wonder “what if…” So, when I returned to Princeton for my junior year, I changed my major to History so that I could study the history behind this 17th and 18th century repertoire I was really beginning to love. And, well, the rest is history!

You pursued training as a countertenor. Although there were some significant countertenors performing in the 20th century, the countertenor as a career has come into its own in the 21st century, with the increasing interest in baroque music and new roles being written for the countertenor voice. How did you choose your voice teacher?

ANC: I was fortunate to first start regularly studying voice privately at Princeton, largely because it was free! The Princeton Music Department pays for voice lessons with a member of the University faculty for anyone who sings in one of the University choirs. Since I sang in the Glee Club (and later the Chamber Choir), I began taking lessons with a lovely teacher David Kellett, who is on the Princeton voice faculty.

[Below: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Moses in a Princeton Univerity performance of Handel’s Moses; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.]

After school, I hit a bit of a bump in the road when I didn’t gain admittance to any grad programs for a voice degree, so I moved back to New York and sort of assembled my own program. I studied with Robert C. White Jr., affectionately known as Doc White, and Deb Birnbaum, the famous breath technician. I was really able to make some huge strides technically thanks to their expertise.

Then, when I went off to the Houston Grand Opera Studio, I began studying with the teacher who is still the person I consider “my teacher”, Dr. Stephen King. Dr. King really helped me hone the healthiest way for me to sing, and opened up a whole new further world of vocal possibilities for me.

[Below: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen recording Kenneth Fuchs’ Poems of Life with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, 2017, which later won a Grammy; edited image, based on a Benjamin Ealovega photograph, courtesy of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.

Wm: In addition to the Houston Grand Opera Studio, you have been associated with several other Artists Programs associated with opera companies. including two years as a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, one of the world’s premiere programs. What have you learned from Young Artists’ programs and particularly the Adler Fellowship?

ANC: I gained so very much from being part of Young Artist Programs, and I feel particularly fortunate to have been in some amazing programs – Houston Grand Opera’s HGO Studio, the Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera, and others. Countertenors aren’t often granted the opportunity to be part of these programs, so I feel especially grateful. In these programs, the education I received was invaluable – the voice lessons, acting and movement lessons, language lessons, and so on.

Above all else, I think I gained the most from the performance opportunities, and from just watching how the very best artists in our business work. Getting to perform at HGO and San Francisco Opera as a young artist was an amazing experience. Nothing can replace learning by doing. But getting to know some of the foremost artists of our time, and getting to watch how they rehearse, how they develop their characters in conjunction with the conductor, director, and the rest of the artistic team on a given production – getting to see all of this up-close is where I think I gained the most, and I am so grateful to have had these opportunities! 

One of the other great benefits of being in these programs is just getting to see the world-class productions the company is putting on, free of charge. I’ve been able to see so many amazing performances, including watching a given cast and production five or six times, to see how each artist approaches each performance – given how their voice may be feeling that day, what kind of mental space they’re in, etc. – and seeing how they make each performance totally new and special. I’ve been so lucky to get to soak up all of this at such amazing home companies!

Wm: As an Adler Fellow you were cast in the role of Medoro in Handel’s “Orlando”, in a strking production by Harry Fehr.

I find myself continously fascinated by the Renaissance poets – Matteo Maria Boiardo (“Orlando Innamorato”), Ludovico Ariosto (“Orlando Furioso”) and Torquato Tasso (“Jerusalem Delivered”) and the infinite possibilities they found in a set of characters ultimately derived from the medieval epic “The Song of Roland”.

ANC: Absolutely! It is extraordinary how much the composers and librettists of the 18th century were able to extract from these stories, and it always amazes me how much emotional depth they managed to achieve while painting with such a limited artistic and musical palate. They had far fewer colors to paint with than we do today!

Wm: As imaginative and diverse as their Renaissance-era plots are the diverse 21st century productions. Contemporary directors, such as Harry Fehr, are able to incorporate the emotions of 18th century music and texts of the arias, written in 18th century baroque and classical periods, while shifting the time period and plot elements in ways that could not have been imagined.

Medoro, who for Ariosto is an African Prince, in Fehr’s conceptualization, is a wounded British soldier hospitalized in the early days of World War II. Yet to me Fehr’s changes made sense. [Review: A Finely Sung “Orlando” Melds Handel’s Seductive Music with Harry Fehr’s Surreal Staging – San Francisco Opera, June 9, 2019].

[Below: the American Angelica (Heidi Stober, left) takes a special interest in the wounded British soldier, Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.]

What are your own thoughts on that production and that role?

ANC: I thought it was a wonderful production, and getting to make my San Francisco Opera debut in a role like Medoro while still an Adler Fellow was truly a dream come true. It was an amazing opportunity! I love when directors are able to take these stories of yore and reinvent them in interesting ways, and I thought that Fehr’s transformation of the Orlando story to this World War II setting worked really well, helping make the emotions and actions more immediate for a contemporary audience.

Wm: It is, however, your performance as David in Handel’s “Saul” at the Houston Grand Opera that has to be regarded as a high point of your career so far. The production, created by Australian director Barrie Kosky (currently General Director of Berlin’s Komische Oper). Kosky’s intensified (and sexualized) the underlying themes of David and Jonathan’s love for one another and the paranoia and ultimate madness of King Saul, Jonathan’s father, but Kosky didn’t need to make any changes in Charles Jennens early 18th century libretto – straight out of the Book of Samuel – on which Handel’s music is based. Kosky created one of the most absorbing, exciting productions of a baroque opera that I have ever experienced [Review: A Visually, Vocally Stunning “Saul” at Houston Grand Opera: – October 25, 2019].

ANC: The Kosky production was a dream come true as a performer. His vision for Handel’s under-rated masterpiece is so crystal clear, yet it leaves the perfect amount of room for the performers to develop their own characters within the structure he has created. As a performer, it is always a joy to be part of productions where the director has crafted such a clear vision of the relationships and dynamics at play. Kosky’s production of “Saul” is the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had as an artist.

[Below: adoring crowds of Israelis surround David the Goliath-slayer (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, center, shirtless; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The nature of it having been a revival is that indeed, there was a pre-determined staging. However, our revival director, the amazing Donna Stirrup, allowed for a wealth of changes and adjustments to fit the path we were chartering for our characters; this made it a particularly rewarding experience. We even took entirely different character arc paths than had been originally part of the production – particularly for my character of David. Donna was in contact with Barrie as we rehearsed, and they discussed these changes throughout the process. So, long story short, there was indeed a pre-determined staging, but there was also a lot of improvisation within that – what seemed to me like a lot more improvisation than is usually given in revival productions. 

As far as my personal thoughts on the production and performing the role of David, there truly is so much I could say. David is my favorite role I’ve had the opportunity to perform – and I’ve been lucky to perform it in a few cities now. A recording of my debut of the role with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale has just been commercially released! It’s available for streaming or purchase on any of your preferred digital platforms – Spotify, iTunes/Apple Music, Amazon Music and so on.

[Below: the cover for the Philharmonia Baroque Ochestra and Chorale’s digital recording of Handel’s “Saul”]

This Kosky “Saul” production is my favorite production I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of. The vibrancy of Kosky’s vision just takes the entire piece to such incredible heights. I think that “Saul” is perhaps Handel’s greatest under-rated masterpiece; the depth of character and relationship development that Handel achieves with his 18th century musical painting palette is absolutely extraordinary. And the world that Kosky brings you into as an audience member or as a performer in the production is transformative.

But most of all, what I think is so brilliant about this production, is Kosky’s focus on the relationships between the characters; a huge portion of our rehearsal process was focused on fleshing these relationships out. For me, as a performer, those relationships and that time spent building character is the most important and thrilling thing – rather than just focusing on who goes where on stage, Kosky focuses on the meaning behind everything – every word, every action. That, to me, is the best thing a director can do. 

[Below: Jonathan (Paul Appleby, left) and David (Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen, right) express their physical attraction to one another; edited image, based on Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Wm: We are conducting this interview in California electronically during the Covid-19 pandemic. How have you fared during this period of lockdowns and of cancelations of opera performances?

ANC: It has certainly been a challenging time. Like everyone else, I’ve been out of work since mid-March, when our month-long process of rehearsing the North American premiere production of Vivaldi’s “Bajazet” at Portland Opera came to an abrupt halt during tech week. But I’m generally a pretty optimistic person, and despite the immense challenges of the moment, I’ve been trying to find the silver linings.

Getting to spend all of this bonus time with my wonderful fiancée Abbi has been so wonderful, and getting to be at home in San Francisco has been such a blessing. We’ve been following all of the important and necessary precautions – wearing masks, keeping our distance, etc. – but still enjoying the gorgeous natural surroundings of Northern California, and the great weather. I keep saying that there are so many worse places to be ‘stranded’ for a few months!

[Below: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as David in the Houston Grand Opera production of Handel’s “Saul”; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Professionally, of course it has been a challenge – many months of lost work, and I’m now looking at next season’s engagements being cancelled one after the next. As of now, I’ve lost work as late as next April, 13 months from when my Portland production was cancelled. Adapting to online performances and distanced recordings with pianist colleagues has been a challenge, but I’ve been taking this opportunity to learn some of the great roles I have coming down the pike in the next few years, and some other great repertoire.

In light of the American reckoning with the racism that is at the core of our nation’s identity and history, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Black Lives Matter, and I’m trying to educate myself as best I can about these essential issues. I’ve also been thinking about the ways that we as opera singers can be part of bringing about positive change, and one thing that has become important to me is lifting up works by composers of color. I’ve been learning lots of repertoire by African-American composers, pieces that I unfortunately hadn’t known before, and I’ve so loved exploring these amazing works. Going forward, on every single recital, where I control the programming, I look forward to sharing a set of works by African-American composers.

But in the midst of all of the craziness of the current moment, I just keep trying to hold onto the image of what it will be like when we are able to return to making in-person art. This pandemic has put so many things in perspective for so many, and it has also made us so aware of what we took for granted. Getting to sit alongside other human beings in a shared space and take in a shared artistic experience, escaping our own troubles and worries – wow, doesn’t that just sound so extraordinary right now? We miss it so.

Once we’re able to return, I believe that we will all be hungrier than ever for art – audiences and performers alike – and I just try to hold onto the hope that the day will come soon, and what I imagine it will feel like. What a time it will be!

Wm: Thank you for your time. Let’s plan a follow-up conversation at a future date.

ANC: It has been my great pleasure – stay healthy, stay safe, and yes, most definitely!