The Ability to Sing in the Soprano Register Is Princeton University Student’s Special Gift
Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen has always liked to sing. When he was in seventh grade, his parents signed him up for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which rehearsed just down the block from his school. Soon, he was performing with the New York Philharmonic and other famous arts organizations, at such prestigious venues as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
As with most boys, his voice dropped when he entered his teens. But unlike most boys, he retained the ability to sing soprano — and sing it well. It was then that Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen, now a 19-year-old junior at Princeton University, joined the rare and specialized ranks of counter tenors. These vocalists are prized for their mastery of unusually high registers, a talent especially important in music from the baroque period.
Baroque music is the focus of a recital Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen will present on Saturday, October 19 at 4 p.m. in the Mathey College Common Room of the University’s Lower Madison Hall. The program, which features music by Vivaldi, Dowland, Handel, Purcell, and Clerambault, is the culmination of the singer’s intensive study of Baroque music this past summer, made possible by three separate funding awards from the University’s Office of the Dean of the College, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Department of Music.
Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen attended the Early Music Vancouver Festival in British Columbia, and the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute in Ohio. He also spent time being coached in New York with experts in the field, including Princeton ’04 alumnus Anthony Roth-Costanzo, who sings with the Metropolitan Opera.
“This past summer, I really began to appreciate, more than ever before, the incredible beauty and intimacy of Baroque music,” said Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen, whose speaking voice, while not deep, doesn’t sound different from other young men his age. “Everything then was performed in small living rooms, even big operas. The theaters back then were tiny. With that comes a lot of real delicacy with the text. This music was really so much more about the text than later classical music. It’s also about beautiful singing, but mostly about bringing out the text.”
Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen, who likes classic rock and jazz as well as classical music, can sing in a lower register. But he doesn’t do it often. “I don’t have much choice because this feels like my natural voice,” he said of the higher sound. “I can sing in a lower register and I do, but I mostly do ‘up there’ because that’s what I train, and that’s what feels most comfortable.”
His ability to sing in the range usually reserved for female sopranos is “very unusual,” Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen acknowledged. It can provoke a mix of reactions from his peers. “It’s a very shocking experience to see someone who is clearly a man open his mouth and sound like a woman,” he said. “I get a kick out of it. There is something about the counter tenor voice that is kind of haunting. It’s not that it’s a woman’s voice in a man’s body. It has something about it that is surprising to people, and also draws people in in a way that I’ve always found remarkable.”
As Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen explains it, the repertory he sings was written for castrated men (castrati), who were celebrated in their era. “In the 17th century, castrati were the rock stars of the day. They drew huge crowds,” he said. “Women were falling all over them, like sex icons. Castration ended in the mid-17th century, but around the 1940s the repertoire started to be performed more. Alfred Deller, a British choirboy whose voice dropped, retained the voice, and he’s kind of the father of the counter tenor voice. He brought the music back into the forefront and paved the way for counter tenors like me.”
Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen began to study classical music in earnest while a student at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, otherwise known as “the Fame school.” But he has always made time for additional interests. “I didn’t want to give up my other intellectual passions like politics,” he said. At Princeton, he is a political history major with a minor in vocal performance.
But singing is clearly part of his future. “This is what I’m planning on,” he said. “I love it. And now that Baroque music is really in fashion again, counter tenors are never out of work.”