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An opera star on the fast track

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen at Glaze on Fillmore Street.


At only 25, opera singer and neighborhood resident Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has already had a head-spinning career. 

Cohen graduated from Princeton in 2015. Just two years later, he was one of 12 artists to join S.F. Opera’s prestigious two-year, performance-oriented Adler Fellowship Program, which is what brought him to San Francisco. 

He made his S.F. Opera debut this summer in a major supporting role in Handel’s Orlando. By then, he’d already held the limelight in an important tryout for future stars: the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions Grand Finals, in March 2017. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe saw several good singers onstage, but “only one complete artist,” noting that Cohen “stood clearly apart from the pack.” He was one of six winners.

Cohen is a countertenor. Singing above the vocal terrain of a tenor, he and the other 50-some quality countertenors working today perform music written in the 17th and 18th centuries for castrati — men castrated before puberty so their voices would remain high. After the practice was banned, much of that music lay dormant for a couple of centuries. When Baroque music made a comeback, the high, pure, sonorous countertenor tradition was born.

Among its most lauded practitioners, Cohen will be performing here early this month in two programs: “The Future Is Now,” his final Adler Fellows concert, with the S.F. Opera orchestra, at Herbst Theatre on December 6; and as a soloist in Handel’s Messiah, with the S.F. Symphony, at Davies Hall on December 13 and 14.

What made you become a countertenor?

I was in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. I peaked at 13, singing backup for Elton John at a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. We sang behind Billy Joel and James Taylor, too. As a kid, you don’t really know who these people are or what it means. We also sang great classical stuff at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

What happened when your voice changed?

We were doing all these cool engagements, and I really liked singing in this choir, so I kept trying to sing in the falsetto. I learned as I went along. It wasn’t until college that I had any inkling of a musical career.

When you look back over the last few years, what are the highlights?

What stands out most to me is the up-and-down journey at first. I applied to some graduate programs in vocal performance, and for some fellowships, and I got into the finals but was not accepted anywhere. I spent 2016 and ’17 working as an SAT tutor to pay the bills while I honed my skills. To think how wildly things have changed is just extraordinary for me. The Met Opera competition changed my life overnight.

This month you’re performing in two programs here.

In many ways, the Adler Fellows concert is the most accessible way to get a taste of classical music. Each fellow sings two arias or duets, showcasing music we love to sing. It’s amazingly varied. I’ll be singing some Handel and some contemporary stuff.

And in the Messiah, you’ll be singing the alto part in place of the usual mezzo-soprano.

In Handel’s lifetime, that part was sung by countertenors and mezzo-sopranos. It is probably one of the most performed pieces in the world. There’s a reason for that — the experience of hearing these beautiful choruses and symphonic work, the amazing arias.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Countertenors have a different sort of lifespan. Even with tenors, you have the light lyric tenor who sings through his 40s or early 50s; and the heldentenors, with bigger, more dramatic voices. They peak in their 40s and 50s. I’m on the front-loaded end of the spectrum, so I feel all the more lucky to have this all rolling at such a young age.

Do you plan to stay in San Francisco?

Abby, my girlfriend, moved here this summer, and if we can afford it, we would love to stay. The main attractions are nature and the weather — and the people, who are very warm and welcoming. And the food. I could spend five hours talking about food. It’s my third great passion.

What’s the second?

Politics. I was originally a policy major, at Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy. I might like to come back to that after about 50. I could see myself making a run for office. Maybe I’ll run for the Board of Supervisors one day.