From Libretto #5 (2023/24)
Five questions for…. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
In WRITTEN ON SKIN the young countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sings the dual roles of artist and angel. And he gets to sing his favourite aria!
Your voice is countertenor, which implies it’s related to but distinct from the tenor. Now, the heroes that feature in modern-day opera are not like those of 19th-century Italian works, and WRITTEN ON SKIN does not include a part for tenor. Should we be coming up with a new name for a voice like yours?
[Chuckling] A new name would be good, yes, because contemporary composers are looking at what they can get out of voices in the higher ranges. And George Benjamin pulls it off very well in WRITTEN ON SKIN. For countertenor some people use another label – sopranist -, which is a direct reference to its proximity to the female soprano. So it’s hard to shake off these umbilical links.
Was there anything in particular that set you on the path to being a countertenor?
It was pure chance. I was doing karaoke at a children’s birthday party and people picked up on my rather high version of »R.E.S.P.E.C.T.« by Aretha Franklin. Next thing was they were telling my parents they should encourage me as a singer. So then I was in this kids’ choir which, as well as being next door to my Jewish school in Brooklyn was also one of the top two choirs in NYC. That all worked fine until my voice broke. I didn’t want to jack it in, though, what with us singing for pop stars like Elton John and Billy Joel in Madison Square Garden alongside our Early Classical stuff in Carnegie Hall. It doesn’t get much cooler than that for a 12 year old, right? Anyway, I got them to give me another audition and they accepted me with my higher register. That was how I became a countertenor without even knowing what it was.
Your role in WRITTEN ON SKIN is actually comprised of two separate characters: an angel, and the young man who seduces the Protector’s wife whose portrait he is painting. Do you sing them in different ways?
Musically not really, but acting-wise yes. The most interesting element is the arc of the boy’s sexual and romantic development. There’s something magical about his angel’s innocence, and he channels that quality in his seduction of Agnès. There’s an intangible porosity between boy and angel, who are two sides of the same coin, and this is perfectly suited to the fluidity of the countertenor’s voice. I find his final aria, right at the end, absolutely thrilling. I learned it for my university audition and it’s the one I adore over all others. You’ve got the boy singing not only as himself but also at one remove about himself, because Martin Crimp’s lyrics are in the third person singular. It’s a moment of intensity and high drama, yet it allows an arm’s-length perspective too. Brilliant!
Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about gender fluidity and sexual identity. Countertenor is a voice type that’s tailormade for the debate, correct?
True, we’re living in momentous times, where these issues are concerned – and a lot of composers are fully aware of it – but I wouldn’t over-egg the countertenor’s part in it all. I’d say that many people are just drawn to the fluidity of that vocal pitch. This positive response on an artistic level may have the effect of taking some of the stress out of the discussions over gender and sexuality.
WRITTEN ON SKIN is one of the few modern-day operas that manages to fill auditoria around the world. Why is that?
Firstly, both the story and the language – musical and textual – are ultra-dramatic. I’m always telling friends that this opera is not unlike a nice, compact horror movie - although I should say I don’t get on well with horror films [laughs]. I’m talking about the directness of horror, the exaggeration and oppressiveness of it. It’s something that appeals to people who aren’t great operagoers. And at the same time WRITTEN ON SKIN avails itself of many established operatic devices, incorporating them deftly and respectfully. Secondly, this mediaeval tale also has things to say about our present day. It may be based on a plague-era story, but the sensation of being flung on one’s own pared-back essence is a universal one. Then there’s the jealousy and rage and a bunch of other things that we’ve not lost touch with – quite the opposite actually - even after the passage of a thousand years or so.