Sasha Cooke

Photo by Dario Acosta

Photo by Dario Acosta

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@]gmail.com. A complete list of our interviews can be found here.

Sasha Cooke was born in California and raised in College Station, Texas. In 2011, the mezzo-soprano won a Grammy for 'Best Opera Recording’. According to the New York Times, she combines "the outward purity of a Renaissance angel and a voice of powerful sensual warmth and excellent musicality,". Below is the transcript of our July 19, 2012 conversation with Sasha Cooke.

EH: What is your musical background ?

Cooke: I would say ‘yes’ to musical family in the sense that they are great lovers of classical music, but they’re not musically-trained or inclined in that sense. I started the piano at four, learned the viola, and then started choir at around age ten. I actually played the piano until I finished high school and then it just became too difficult to do both. I remember having to tell my piano teacher in Texas that I would be focusing on singing, and she was a bit upset by it because she thought I could do something professionally with it. But it’s actually helped me immensely with my work. I accompany myself all the time. I try to learn everything – I’m a big believer in that – knowing my part, memorizing the accompaniment and knowing the harmonic world of the work.

EH: What are some of the most important musical ideas you learned at Rice University and Juilliard ?

Cooke: I got kind of lucky at Rice because my first teacher brought it back to the piece of music and the composer. A lot of teachers in the vocal world sort of isolate singing and work on technique, technique, technique. But my teacher was not that way. Her name is Kathleen Kaun and I worked with her for four years. The best revelation actually happened quite early on. I said to her, “Kathy, I want to sound like Queen of the Night, I want to sound like the sopranos, like all those other girls,”, and she just told me, “it’s good to be different”. And that’s really what she pushed the whole time, and I’m grateful for that.

I have recordings of my lessons from the early years, and I was so flat much of the time, and so bad, but she really allowed me to find my voice. In the singing world, you really have to trust someone else’s ear because they’re telling you what you sound like. It’s a delicate, tenuous situation because you really have to be in the right hands. I’ve always believed that singers should have a very strong instinct. I’ve heard many singers complain ‘oh, this teacher got me on the wrong path’ or ‘I lost my voice because of my teacher’, and it’s not true. Everybody should take ownership of their own instrument and be in-charge of it; if someone is not doing well with you, you should have a sense of that and do something about it.

Singing lesson are quite a different dynamic from what instrumentalists experience. Singing lessons are naturally a little bit more of an interdependent relationship – I don’t mean ‘needy’ (laughs). A lot of the time, instrumentalists go through what singers might call ‘coaching’, where you are told ‘you can do the phrase this way’ or ‘why don’t you vibrate there’, etc. But for singers, you’re working on your very sound, all the time.

At Rice, it was about understanding what operatic singing was, commitment to the text and the poetry in a much more extreme way than what I was comfortable with. I try to tell young singers and musicians to sometimes exaggerate something to see if it actually goes that far – and usually it doesn’t quite (laughs) – but we have to be encouraged and encouraged to push the limits.

At Juilliard, things shifted because it was less about performing operas and more about gaining experience. I was thrown into so many recitals and contemporary music, becoming friends with composers who are my own age. I remember someone saying “You’re getting a reputation for being one of the quickest studies. People like to throw music at you, saying ‘can you perform this next week ?’”. So that was my time at Juilliard. I remember coming home at 11:30 pm one night and thinking, ‘I live there!’. I spent just about every waking moment and hour at Juilliard (laughs).

EH: On the subject of technique, I’m sure many singers are curious to know: what elements do you struggle with most ? Are you more comfortable with high or low tessitura ? And was it ever a struggle for you to unify your head voice, middle voice and chest voice ?

Cooke: Those are pretty much the biggest issues for all singers (laughs). One thing that’s comforting to know is that everybody struggles with breath. Breath is the constant journey of every singer. It changes as you get older, your voice changes, and then the repertoire changes. So breath is something I always work on to make sure I bring the best breath support to my singing. It is the foundation for everything else, no matter what you’re doing.

A lot of the time, I work on putting things into the machine in the right order. If I were to learn a piece just days before the performance, many things about it would be off (laughs). Muscularly, I would be tense trying to shove things into my voice, my body wouldn’t have time to learn the repertoire and get underneath the music, and emotionally, I wouldn’t be as connected to the art of the piece and ready to express it for people. So these are all the building blocks that you have to go through slowly. I make sure to try to slow down my process, to work on the music away from singing it, and then to sing it – still sort of apart so that I’m not jumping into it. I work on stretching, breathing exercises, and constantly on technical exercises to keep all of that in-shape.

The high and low tessitura thing, it really depends on the piece. I’ve been told by people that I have a large range. Some people will tell me that I’m a soprano because I have the high notes, and others will say ‘No! I really enjoy the mezzo range’. In choosing a voice type, I’ve always believed that you have to be comfortable, that it’s not so much what you can sing. I’ve done many things that are very soprano-ish and I just haven’t been as comfortable. I had to prepare myself athletically for those and they just didn’t come as easily. It’s always a challenger. Normally, I’d say that the lower stuff has never been an issue for me. I’ve done some pieces with orchestra that have low D’s or low E-flats, and I like the lower-middle part.

The problem these days is that I’m working so much, I don’t have too many opportunities to take lessons, you know ? When I graduated from Juilliard, my teacher said, “Sasha, you’ve done a lot of amazing singing, but we didn’t really get to work on just singing that much”. I performed so much that I never really spent a good portion of time just on technique, and I know a lot of singers do that. So it’s something I sort of fantasize about (laughs) – having a month, or two months - just working on my technique.

EH: Beyond technique, there are so many singers who dream of having a big career. What advice would you give about persevering through the many rejections ?

Cooke: To make sure that your life is fulfilled with things outside of music is always a key and it will always fill your art. It is really hard to deal with rejection. The only comforting thing at the end of the day is the joy you receive from making music. And if making music still gives you joy, then that will fill your spirit. You know, when I have a couple hours to myself at the piano, no matter how many things are going wrong, how many auditions I didn’t get, etc. , there has to be that.

I always say that instinct has to be key. A lot of musicians believe that they know what’s best for them, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for them in the business. There’s something about knowing what your niche is in the market and in the business. What do you bring that’s different from other musicians ?

When I was at Rice, I went through so much chamber music. I went to all the symphony concerts, all the string quartets, everything – and of course, now when I look back, I think ‘my gosh, I didn’t know it, but I was doing something that contributed to what I’ve now become’. At the time, my singer friends would ask, ‘why are you going to this ?’ or ‘what’s so exciting about that ?’, and I remember saying ‘Oh, I don’t know, I just enjoy it’ and something about ‘the instrumental level is so high’ at Rice. But I just soaked it up.

Now I work with many of the world’s great instrumentalists, doing a lot of symphonic works – almost more than opera – and I think of how important it is that everything you do, even from your early high school days, is contributing to what you’ll become. So my advice is to fill your life with good things, do things that excite you, find other areas outside of music that fill your person. All of it will contribute to your music-making. You know, I was ten years old and obsessed with French. I wanted to be a poet at a café in Paris, with a beret and a cigarette. I love French music now, and I have an affinity for the language that has helped me in my career. But I have friends whose lives revolve around their career, and the truth is that there are a lot of unhappy people in the business.

EH: Instrumental technique has improved over the decades, however, there seems to be a consensus that since the early part of the twentieth century, there’s been a drop in the ability to connect with audiences. Has the same thing happened in the world of opera ?

Cooke: There’s one thing in the singing world that is both wonderful and sad at the same time. The HD culture has changed things. Singers now have to prepare to have their faces seen centimeters away on a big screen. And whether we like it or not, when we audition for a role, the end goal is to be successful in the business. A lot of people believe that the singing quality has gone down because of this. It’s now very much about how you look and people cast based on how you look. I’d say that this is pretty true.

It’s a bit sad because if I had been auditioning and singing thirty years ago or so, there might be many more roles that I would have already done. But now, it’s more about the type that you are physically, and whether or not you suit that role. This is sort of what I was alluding to earlier about young artists having to know what they bring when they enter the business side, the place that they fill.

There are many girls who would love to sing Mimi, but if you’re 300lbs now, it’s difficult. It just is. Thirty years ago, you could sing Mimi like that, but now, it’s a different time. I think a lot of it has to do with the culture and not so much the musicians or the training. A lot of it has to do with a culture that needs simultaneous stimulation. We’re all on our cellphones during a performance, and it’s just a much faster more impatient culture. You have to sit still and absorb something devoid of technology, and it’s a bit more challenging for people.

EH: Outside of music, what other art forms have captured your imagination over the years ?

Cooke: I’m a huge fan of museums and art galleries. Whenever I have free time, whichever city I’m in, I try to check out the museums. I also love theater and actually did a bit of improv-comedy when I was younger. I always have the thought that when I retire, I’m going to do so much fun stuff with it (laughs). My husband actually makes fun of me because I have a huge shelf filled with mosaic pieces, and I never seem to have the time to do it. But one thing I would love to do is to write a book for singers and young musicians about the professional life of a musician, what they don’t prepare you for. It is sometimes quite lonely and singular, and people don’t often talk about the unglamorous side.

EH: On the 28th, you will be singing works by Schumann, Grieg, Brahms, Wolf, Poulenc, and others. I’m curious to know, what would you like the audience to pay especial attention to ?

Cooke: I think one of the things we would love people to pay attention to is just how the composers and poets were able to bring entirely different emotional and aural worlds to life. We’re singing such varied repertoire – from the very angular contemporary stuff, to the most ear-pleasing, Romantic music that you could imagine. So the idea is to go into that world of ‘what music does’, along the lines of what the festival is about this year. Some of the poetry is wonderfully deep and meaningful; others are totally absurd and silly. It’s about paying attention to the differences.

EH: Is the future of classical music secure ?

Cooke: Sometimes I think it is, but I don’t know. I think it will definitely change. I often think that the symphonic world is more secure than the operatic because the operatic is a bit riskier, a bit more all over the place. The symphonic world seems to attract a wider audience – I don’t think why this is – but part of it might be the expense. Symphony will survive but I don’t know what will happen to opera. It’s already changed so much in the last decade. Maybe people will go to movie theaters instead. A lot of opera companies are shutting down. There’s a move called 'chamber opera' where people are trying to put pieces together with fewer players.

EH: In your opinion, what is the utmost purpose of performance art ?

Cooke: Oh, human connection. I come back to it all the time and I’m reminded of it constantly. We actually don’t connect with one another very much on a regular basis. We connect with computers, cars, and devices, but we don’t connect with strangers. For me, one of the great joys of music-making is to come together in a place, people entrusting us with their time, and to try and take them on a journey. This journey is entirely based on human connection, on what we’ve experienced, on common emotions. I had a revelation in college where I was struggling with a piece – the content was Russian and very upsetting - and the director told me to imagine a scenario from my personal background. I said, ‘But I can’t do that. That’s not what I’m singing about or what the text is about’. And he replied, ‘It doesn’t matter. Nobody will know what you’re actually thinking. They will only feel that you are connected to the piece’. I can be thinking XYZ and a woman in Row H will be thinking of something else, going through her own ‘roses and mountains’ or whatever it is. At a concert, we are together going through our own past and what we’ve experienced. With a weak economy, people often talk about how art is not as important, but in bad times, I think it’s actually the other way around. Art is vital because it brings us back to our humanity, generosity, and all the things we really need to be in touch with.

EH: Sasha, thank you for taking the time today.

Cooke: Oh, it was my pleasure, Elijah. Thank you!