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Handel Hero: Q&A with Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen

WEO's Caesar, former Adler and now Metropolitan Opera artist, shares his beginnings, technique and singing with Elton John

WEO: What do you have to focus on in order to make the particularly beautiful sound that you are able to achieve? Give us a little technique lesson if possible.

ANC: To me, great singing is all about freedom. My goal is to sing as beautifully as possible, and achieving freedom throughout the throat and body is crucial in trying to achieve that. I’ve worked for many years with voice teachers, breath technique teachers, Alexander technique teachers, and other experts to try and create that freedom, and I hope that the results are enjoyable to others.

When we as singers can achieve that freedom, it allows us to focus on the emotions of the piece we’re singing at a given moment; that, to me, is what performing is truly all about. I go to the theater to be moved by honest displays of emotion, and we singers do all of this technical background work so that in the moment, we don’t have to think too much about the technical aspects of singing, and instead, we can recall experiences in our own lives that bring certain emotions to the fore. And thus we can hopefully bring meaning to our audience members.

WEO: I once heard you tell a story about being a backup singer for (was it?) Elton John at Madison Square Garden… what the what? (Tell us about the moment you said to yourself: “Countertenor, yes!” Was that an exciting moment or a terrifying one? What was it that made you decide to be become a countertenor?)

ANC: Ha! It’s true. I came to singing - and I learned to read music and received my first musical training - as a member of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, when I was in middle school and high school. It was also through my experiences in that choir that I sort of accidentally became a countertenor. BYC was a treble, higher-voice choir, and we were doing lots of amazing classical music gigs — singing at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center all the time. But we were also doing some amazing pop gigs — singing backup for Elton John at a sold-out Madison Square Garden (I often joke it has all been downhill since that experience, which I was fortunate to have at age 13!), singing behind Billy Joel, Sting, James Taylor, and others.

It was quite a special series of experiences to be having as a kid. And so when my voice dropped, I didn’t want to leave the choir. I finagled and still tried to sing the high notes that weren’t as natural anymore, and the folks from BYC had me come in and do a re-audition. I guess I did a convincing enough job of it that they let me stay, and I sure am glad they did because that’s what turned me into a countertenor. Every day since my voice dropped, I’ve been singing in this higher range, and it just strengthened over time. Today, it feels completely natural, and when I hear a song and imagine it in my head, I do so in my countertenor range.

Aryeh as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Adelaide Festival. (photos: Tony Lewis)

WEO: You were trained as a cantor. How did that training affect your life and experience as a professional opera singer?

ANC: There is a long legacy of great opera singers who trained (and continued to perform throughout their careers) as cantors, perhaps most famously tenors like Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce, and I’m honored to try and carry on a small piece of that legacy. Looking back now, I realize that so much of who am as a singer and an artist was shaped by my time working as a cantor on the High Holidays, starting when I was 13 years old. Every year for seven years, I spent these important Jewish holidays at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, leading many of the services - the Morning Service, Torah Service, Afternoon Service, and doing the chanting of the Torah reading. I was trained by the marvelous cantor Sam Levine, who taught me the traditional ‘misinai’ melodies and musical modes, and there was remarkable freedom in how I was taught to sing these services. I was tasked with taking these traditional Jewish musical modes and scales (the type of musical scales you might hear in Klezmer), and shaping the text however I saw fit, to bring out the text and to create the most meaningful experience for the listeners and for myself. That developed my musicality in ways I had no conception of at the time. And the skills that gave me transfer particularly well to baroque music.

Aryeh as Modoro in Handel's Orlando at San Francisco Opera. (photos: Cory Weaver)

WEO: Lastly, tell us about singing Handel. What is special about it for you?

ANC: Handel is my favorite composer to sing. Handel’s music is incredibly intimate and exposed - at first, this can be very scary as a singer, because there’s nowhere to hide. But over time I’ve come to appreciate the vulnerability that this allows me to share as an artist. There is also remarkable freedom in singing Handel, because there is so much choice left up to the singer, choices to be made in tandem with the conductor, director, and others who are part of the creative process. Later composers from Puccini through composers today have written out seemingly every detail of what they want in a role - the dynamics, the affect, where they want accents and articulation, and so on. But Handel’s manuscripts are more akin to an outline, with lots left up to us to decide today. Of course, we are informed by what is historically accurate, and what Handel would have likely wanted, but there is still so much freedom and flexibility - there is a seemingly infinite number of ways one can choose to shape a Handel aria, and that freedom is very rewarding as an artist. This harkens me back to the skills I gained as a Cantor, where I worked on how to shape music, with freedom and flexibility, to bring out as much meaning as possible. Who knew that my years on the Bimah (altar) would lead me to singing Handel on some of the world’s great stages!


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