Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen heads to Adelaide Festival

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Afterwards, the guests all wanted to know the same thing Life & Leisure did upon first hearing Cohen – where did that voice come from?

Cohen explained that he joined the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in seventh grade, and enjoyed it so much that he didn’t want to leave, as boys usually had to when their voices broke.

“We’d sing backgrounds for Sting, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel… At Elton John’s show at Carnegie Hall. I was so into it that they showed about 70 close-ups of me on the jumbotron … Why would I want to give that up?” he said.

“I finagled my way into staying by showing them I could hit the same notes as the girls well enough, and then by singing in that range every day after my voice dropped, it strengthened over time.”

His is a rare gift. Cohen says there are about 60 to 70 countertenors singing at a professional level around the world, compared with the “tens of thousands” of sopranos and tenors trying to make it.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen at the National Council Grand Finals Concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York 2017. The New York Times

Yet Cohen was late to considering music as a career. After finally leaving the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, he was content to sing with the synagogue as his main stage until, while studying public policy at Princeton, he won a raffle to see an opera at the Met.

“I’d never seen an opera before – I was a musical theatre guy – so I was lucky that ticket was for La Boheme, the opera everyone should start with. Plus it was the production by Franco Zeffirelli, which is just a sumptuous masterpiece,” he says. “The way those larger-than-life emotions were portrayed on the stage that night just hooked me. It changed everything.”

It’s lucky for Adelaide that Cohen will make his debut here even before he does so at his beloved Met. (That milestone is scheduled for next year, when he’s directed by another Australian, Brett Dean, as Rosencrantz in Hamlet.)

The Grammy-winner was supposed to be at the Tulsa Opera this northern winter, lending his velvety voice to Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. But before Cohen could confront Hades in the underworld, real-life purgatory intervened.

With concert halls in the US shut for the foreseeable future due to surging COVID-19 cases, Armfield and his Adelaide Festival counterpart Rachel Healy pounced.

After sneaking in most of their 2020 festival just before coronavirus restrictions were first imposed, by the middle of last year the pair had accepted that many of their 2021 plans – such as a series of co-productions with the Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence – would have to be postponed.

Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy. Tony Lewis

The safest bet for 2021’s marquee show, it was decided, was a readily accessible one from Armfield’s own prolific catalogue. Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Armfield premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2009, seemed the best fit.

“It’s uncanny how appropriate it is for a post-pandemic festival, given Shakespeare wrote the play out of the experience of the shutdown of the theatres in London due to the plague between 1592 and 1593,” he says.

“There’s all these references to nature being upside down and out of joint, then you have the mechanicals at the heart of the work, putting on a play against all the odds. The fact that it’s a comedic triumph speaks to the healing nature of art.”

Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon and Laura Claycomb as Tytania in a 2009 opera production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Michael Cooper

Casting the fairy king Oberon, and his queen Titania, however, are always fraught decisions, given Britten wrote them for a countertenor and coloratura soprano, respectively.

Armfield found Cohen after asking veteran opera administrator Anthony Freud, who gave him his first international breaks in directing, for his dream Oberon.

“Aryeh’s got a great physique, he’s built like a football player, and I wanted that because with Oberon written for a countertenor, there’s a danger that this powerful character in the story can feel quite fey,” he says.

Once Cohen was freed from his gilded cage and had his first rehearsal at Festival Theatre on January 27, singing alongside Perth-born Met veteran Rachelle Durkin as Titania, Armfield was even more convinced he’d made the right call.

“In the three worlds that intertwine in Midsummer – the lovers, the mechanicals and the fairies – there’s a beautiful sense in which a Jungian analysis will tell you that these are the same characters, dreaming different versions of themselves,” he says.

“Looking at them this morning, Aryeh and Rachelle have the same sort of height, the same sort of strong presence – they could be brother and sister. It was like watching the male and female sides of a psyche dancing with each other.”

NEED TO KNOW
Neil Armfield directs Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at Festival Theatre for four performances between February 26 to March 3, as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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