Former cantor hits opera high notes
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Adelaide Festival

Former cantor hits opera high notes

American singer Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a rising young star of world opera, is set to delight audiences at the Adelaide Festival.

Opera singer Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who spent seven years as a cantor in a Brooklyn synagogue.
Photo: Shannon Langman
Opera singer Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who spent seven years as a cantor in a Brooklyn synagogue. Photo: Shannon Langman

ONE of America’s top young opera singers, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, is in Australia to star in the Adelaide Festival’s centrepiece production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

For the 26-year-old countertenor from San Francisco, it will be his first opera role since COVID-19 hit early last year. 

Nussbaum Cohen will play the male lead of Oberon, the fairy king, in Benjamin Britten’s musical transformation of Shakespeare’s classic comedy which will have its Australian premiere at the festival with four performances from February 26 to March 3.

“I’ve been out of work since mid-March, when rehearsals for the American premiere of Vivaldi’s Bajazet at Portland Opera came to an abrupt halt when COVID-19 hit,” Nussbaum Cohen told The AJN by phone from his San Francisco home.

A scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the centrepiece production of the Adelaide Festival.

Directed by Neil Armfield, the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Taryn Fiebig, Warwick Fyfe, Kanen Breen and Rachelle Durkin.

Nussbaum Cohen will also perform a recital concert on March 9 as part of the Adelaide Festival, featuring works by composers ranging from Brahms and Handel to Cole Porter.

“This is an opportunity to sing some of my favourite numbers and the program includes some Jewish pieces,” he said. “Whenever I perform in concert I love to include some famous pieces from my heritage, including some in Hebrew.”

Nussbaum Cohen grew up in Brooklyn in a family that loved pop music. His mother is journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen whose reporting has appeared in many Jewish publications.

“Being a cantor for the High Holy Days at East Midwood Jewish Centre (a Conservative synagogue) in Brooklyn for seven years was the first type of solo performing that I did,” he recalled.

However, by the time he went to Princeton University he was more interested in politics than singing. 

“Opera was not on my radar as far as a career path – I went to Princeton University as a public policy major and thought of maybe going to law school. I was on the path of every Jewish mother’s dream of becoming a lawyer!” he explained.

“The Princeton Music Department had a raffle for free tickets to the Metropolitan Opera – I figured that it would be a fun experience to attend an opera in New York City and visit my family for the weekend,” he recalled.

“I won a raffle ticket to see La Bohème and that was my introduction to opera. The legendary Franco Zeffirelli production just blew my mind.

“And when I told my parents that I wanted to try to become an opera singer, they were taken aback but very supportive.”

Nussbaum Cohen graduated from Princeton in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in history. He was awarded the Isidore and Helen Sacks Memorial Prize for extraordinary achievement in the arts, granted each year by Princeton University to the student of greatest promise in the performance of classical music. He then returned to New York and worked independently with music teachers and singing coaches.

In his breakout 2016-17 season, Nussbaum Cohen was named Grand Finals Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and received a rave review in The New York Times.

He was first prize  winner of the Houston Grand Opera Eleanor McCollum Competition as a countertenor.

“A countertenor is a man who sings in a vocal range traditionally associated with a woman – we do that by singing falsetto,” Nussbaum Cohen explained.

“In opera it is a niche skill, but it is popular in pop and other music.”

Nussbaum Cohen’s first commercial recording project – the world premiere recording of Kenneth Fuchs’ Poems of Life with the London Symphony Orchestra – won a 2019 Grammy Award in the best classical compendium category.

Recent stage highlights include the role of David in Melbourne-born director Barrie Kosky’s heralded production of Handel’s Saul at Houston Grand Opera last year (Kosky’s Saul was also staged at the Adelaide Festival in 2017).

“Saul was a remarkable production and for me to get to play a character such as King David, who I idolised growing up, was a great thrill and I look forward to playing the role again in a couple of years,” he said.

Nussbaum Cohen recorded an album with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of Handel’s Saul which was released last year.

He admits he has coped well during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“In opera, productions are planned well in advance, so I have been using the time in isolation to prepare for some of the big roles I have in 2023 and 2024,” he said.

“We will all appreciate being able to go to performances and concerts again – sitting together in a live theatre is something that we have all taken for granted and you don’t realise how much you love something until you can’t have it.

“Outside of music and politics, I love nature and hiking and am fortunate that in northern California there are lots of beautiful national parks that my fiancée Abbi and I enjoy spending time outdoors.”

They plan to get married in California in July, but for now Nussbaum Cohen is concentrating on making his debut as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“It is one of the dream roles for every countertenor.”

The Adelaide Festival is being held from February 26 to March 14. Bookings: adelaidefestival.com.au.

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