Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has warm brown eyes and a broad, engaging face. The hair color and the stubbly beard are slightly reddish. The charismatic American seems made to embody a Jewish hero. The 29-year-old leaves no doubt: “King David is my absolute favorite role!”
The singer now has it in Georg Friedrich Handel’s Saul (from 1738) at the Komische Oper Berlin. He sings in a position that sounds surprising at first and that you can’t get enough of listening to during the course of the oratorio – this high voice sounds so tender, so colourful, so full from the robust male body.
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is a countertenor – literally »the voice that stands against the tenor«, i.e. the upper voice. »I sing a lot of Handel. What the tenor is today, the countertenor or the castrato was back then,” explains the singer. At 23, he was honored at the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2017 (including for the lamentation »Dove sei« from Handel’s opera Rodelinda); the »New York Times« called him a »consummate artist«.
FAMILY Since then he has had a steep international career. It didn’t make him vain: “I take my work very seriously, but not myself,” says the singer, who grew up as a religious Jew in Brooklyn. His father comes from Crown Heights and used to belong to the community of Chabad Lubawitsch, the mother’s family immigrated to the USA from Hesse in 1938. Nussbaum Cohen now has a German passport.
As a boy he loved Shabbat songs and sang in the children’s choir. “When my voice started to break, I kept trying to sing the high notes, even though they weren’t as natural to me anymore. I hadn’t planned on becoming a countertenor, it was a happy coincidence.«
PIJUT He sang his first solo at the age of 14: »The cantor of the synagogue next door was pregnant, the child was supposed to come on the holidays. They were looking for a Chazan Sheni. The cantor of my synagogue said, ‘Well, this boy, he has talent.’ I thought, ‘I’m Chasan now, I have to sing like a tenor or something.’ So I sang the whole service in my lower voice, but mine Favorite Piyut ›Le El Orech Din‹ in my higher voice. Many have congratulated me. And from today’s point of view, that was the moment when I blossomed as an artist.«
All this happened in a Masorti synagogue in New York – the boy had been instructed in the liturgy by the rabbi and cantor Sam Levine.
After school, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen went to Princeton »to study public policy or maybe law. But then I was in an opera for the first time, in ›La Bohème‹ at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.« His career aspirations were immediately clear: »That was Kismet, that was Baschert. I was 19 years old then.« After his studies he became a member of the opera studio of the Houston Grand Opera, where he was already in Saul when King David performed – in a production by Barrie Kosky.
HARPS For the countertenor, Saul is »the greatest thing that Handel ever wrote«. At the Komische Oper Berlin, however, the evening does not end with music by Handel, but with the song »King David« by Herbert Howells. In it, the hero seeks refuge from melancholy with 100 harps and a nightingale’s song. Nussbaum Cohen’s vocals are perfect at capturing and absorbing a depressed mood.
The only thing you shouldn’t look at is the program booklet: director Axel Ranisch (previously known as a filmmaker) goes so far as to say that he was “shocked” when “I found out that the Philistines are ancestors of the Palestinians” – one historically unprovable reading.
Meanwhile, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is looking forward to upcoming engagements at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He would like to perform as Chasan again on the High Holidays. “Some of the greatest opera singers were also chasanim. Like Richard Tucker, who performed in the Park East Synagogue – I love that sort of idea of keeping it going«, says the countertenor and laughs so broadly that one would like to buy a synagogue ticket immediately.
»Saul« can be seen at the Komische Oper Berlin on June 4th and 10th.
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