Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is quite sure he’s the only man working in opera today who spent seven years serving as a cantor for High Holiday services at a Conservative synagogue, starting when he was just 15.
“There are very few Jewish opera singers,” he said. “It’s not the most haimish industry. I know a few others, but no one who grew up as religious as I did. Even if I’m not davening and having Shabbos dinner regularly, it’s important to who I am.”
Cohen, 25, spoke to J. from Chicago, where he was performing. Later this month and in April and June, he will be making a number of appearances in the Bay Area, performing with the San Francisco Ballet and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and singing his first principal role with the San Francisco Opera, where he is an Adler Fellow.
In his breakout season in 2016–17, Cohen was named Grand Finals winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and he was singled out for praise in a New York Times headline. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle described him as “a countertenor of remarkable agility and heroism” with “extraordinary vocal sonority — muscular, sleek and full of enchanting colors.” (A countertenor is a male who sings in what is traditionally considered a female vocal range; there are about 50 countertenors working today at a high level, Cohen said.)
And his star continues to rise. On Feb. 10, Cohen’s first commercial recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra, won a Grammy Award.
Cohen was raised in Brooklyn and attended Jewish day school. Neither of his parents are particularly musical, though his father is a big rock and roll fan. His mother, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, is a longtime writer for Jewish publications.
“I would put money down that there was never a minute of classical music voluntarily played in our home, outside of hearing ‘Carmina Burana’ in a car commercial,” he said.
It was in middle school that Cohen’s latent gift was first spotted, when he sang karaoke at a friend’s “American Idol”–themed birthday party. The friend’s mom told Cohen’s mother that he had real talent.
My job is to help you feel something based on the music I’m singing.
She enrolled him in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, mainly because it was a block away. The chorus was tapped to sing with such luminaries as Billy Joel and Sting.
“I had just turned 13, and I sang at Elton John’s 60th birthday concert, which was sold out at Madison Square Garden,” he said. “How many people would kill to be behind him onstage? But when you’re a kid, it’s more like, this is what I’m doing. My parents in the audience were a lot more excited than I was.”
Cohen later sang with HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir and attended the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Because the school is housed at Lincoln Center, he walked by the Metropolitan Opera House almost daily, but he never stepped inside.
That changed while he was a student at Princeton, where he thought he would major in public policy. Singing was more of a hobby at that point, until he won a ticket to attend “La Bohème” at the Met and encountered opera for the first time, an event that changed the trajectory of his life.
Looking back, he can point to how the improvisational nature of the High Holiday liturgy helped inform the singer he is now.
“My job is to help you feel something based on the music I’m singing,” he said. “It’s not about my feeling it, but my accessing emotion to make you feel it. The fact that I’m 110 percent ‘in’ when I do something has been very useful to channel emotions in a very deep way, which is what opera is all about.”
There are a number of oratorios based on biblical texts. Last year in Houston, Cohen appeared with the Ars Lyrica baroque group in Handel’s “Esther,” in which Esther, Haman and Ahasuerus are characters. “It’s a real treat for me to play a part in telling these stories that I grew up cherishing,” he told the magazine Arts and Culture Texas at the time.
One of Cohen’s upcoming Bay Area performances is the role of King David in Handel’s oratorio “Saul,” also based on the biblical story.
“Saul” is “one of Handel’s greatest masterpieces,” Cohen told J. “David has this aria that is just earth-shattering, with the whole chorus backing him up. Having grown up with all of these stories in the Tanach, I’m particularly excited to play King David.”