Countertenor forges a career his way

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen

GREAT BARRINGTON - Friends of Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen were worried about him. He was worried, too, sometimes. But he didn't doubt his goal.

Midway through his Princeton years, the now 24-year-old Cohen had decided to turn himself from a pre-law student into a countertenor, that male of the species who sings in an alto's range. Applications to graduate schools and fellowships for a master's degree leading to a vocal career got him nowhere. So at his graduation in 2015, he embarked on a five-year plan to make it on his own.

In New York, he studied voice independently and took on work as a high school test tutor to bring in money.

"That," he recalls, "was the period when all my friends were a little worried for me, and I was worried for myself."

They needn't have feared. After only two of the five years, Cohen was one of six winners of the Metropolitan Opera's national auditions. Reviewing the winners' joint concert, The New York Times declared that there was "only one complete artist."

"At just 23," the Times said, "Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a baby-faced countertenor from Brooklyn, already possesses a remarkable gift for intimate communication in a vast hall, combined with a voice of velvety gentleness — surprisingly penetrating given the tenderness of its texture — and a taste for adventure."

In Saint James Place Saturday at 6, the former Brooklynite joins director-cellist Yehuda Hanani and pianist Michele Levin in a "Voice of the Baroque" concert in the Close Encounters with Music series. In honor of the occasion, Close Encounters subtitles the program "A Close EnCountertenor."

Cohen will sing a shortened version of his current recital program, "From Dowland to Dove." It's a survey of English song literature from the 17th century to the present. Dowland, Handel and Purcell lead to Britten and two contemporary composers, Jonathan Dove and Herbert Howells. The songs will alternate with Bach's three gamba sonatas, performed by Hanani.

Cohen is currently in training in Houston Grand Opera's Studio program. His love of singing goes back to sixth grade, when a friend's mother overheard him humming a tune and told his parents the boy had music in him. They enrolled him in a youth chorus near home. The group sang not only with major New York orchestras but also as backup for Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, and Sheryl Crow and James Taylor.

Cohen was an alto. When his voice changed, he said by phone from Houston, he didn't know what a countertenor was but he knew he didn't want to quit singing. To stay in the vocal range he knew, he learned to "finagle" an alto's high notes, but "I never thought it would turn into an important career decision."

During his sophomore year at Princeton, winning a free lottery ticket to "La Boheme" — the elaborate Zeffirelli production — at the Met led to a rekindling of interest in singing. He switched from a major in public policy to history so he could learn more about the background of early music. Graduating with a history degree, he also received certificates in vocal performance and Judaic studies.

The big break came in the summer of 2016 when the San Francisco Opera accepted him into its Merola training program. He's "forever indebted to the amazing people" there for the chance, he said.

"They saw, of course, that I had a lot of work that needed to be done, as I knew, but they saw I had potential, and they took a chance on me. And it was there that I first got exposure to many folks from the big opera houses, both here in the U.S. and some in Europe. It really opened a lot of doors for me."

Cohen arrived in Houston last fall just before Hurricane Harvey (he was spared any damage) and began a series of secondary roles with an appearance in Handel's "Julius Caesar" under artistic director Patrick Summers. In the production, the newcomer sang alongside leading countertenors David Daniels and Anthony Ross Costanzo. Costanzo, Princeton '04, is a mentor.                                                                           

"Aryeh has a complex set of gifts in which we want to invest," Summers told Art and Culture Texas magazine. "Great voices have a sonic imprint, every bit as distinct as a fingerprint. Aryeh's countertenor voice type is extremely rare, but he represents an artist who could resurrect works from the vast repertoire of Renaissance and Baroque operas This bodes for an exciting future for him and for the opera world."

Other engagements have taken him to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where he sang in Bach's Magnificat in the church where Bach served as director for the last 27 years of his life.

To pursue opera at Princeton is "not an average sort of student's choice," Cohen says. In New York, he had family near and his best friends from college were there, though working in such fields as finance and technology. Still, that first year was a struggle.

"There were periods of great motivation, and there were periods where it was hard to just buckle down and do all my work on my own every day," he says. "But I was able to keep sight of the greater purpose of all that work - of what I dreamed of doing someday."                                                                                               

He adds: "I've been very lucky." And if he's lucky, he'll see snow in Great Barrington. He misses the stuff in Houston.