(Counter) Tenor Of The Times: From Bima To Opera Stage


Two serendipitous events took Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen to the cusp of a career as an international opera star.

Nussbaum Cohen, who last week was named one of six winners of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions Grand Finals at Lincoln Center — the most prestigious competition for young opera singers in the United States — was singing and humming with some friends at a neighbor’s home in seventh grade. “That kid’s pretty musical,” one of his friend’s parents told his parents, who enrolled him in the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

In later years, Nussbaum Cohen, now 23, sang in the HaZamir Jewish High School Choir and served as assistant cantor at the East Midwood Jewish Center on the High Holy Days, but he didn’t think of music as a career; at Princeton University, he studied history and political science.

Then, as a sophomore at Princeton, he won a ticket from the Music Department to see a performance of “La Bohème” at the Metropolitan Opera.

He was hooked, and he soon began intensive operatic training. He rose quickly through the ranks of opera singers and won a competition sponsored by Houston’s Grand Opera. Last week, after the grand finals at the Metropolitan Opera, a New York Times writer praised “the baby-faced countertenor from Brooklyn” as ready for stardom and a “complete artist.”

“It’s been a good run,” Nussbaum Cohen, who lives in the hipster part of Crown Heights, said of his rapid success. As a countertenor, he sings in the range of a woman’s contralto or mezzo-soprano.

He’s lined up training programs in Virginia and Texas for the next two years; then, Nussbaum Cohen, who has already performed in Austria and Italy, will set out on a life as an international opera singer.

Unlike Jakie Rabinowitz, the conflicted protagonist of “The Jazz Singer,” who was split between the bima and the stage, Nussbaum Cohen said his heart is clearly in opera; his days of assisting Cantor Sam Levine at the East Midwood Jewish Center, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, are over.

Cantor Levine, who trained Nussbaum Cohen for the last seven years, said his student “got better and better every year” while sharing the cantorial duties on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. “He’s been wonderful. The kid has a remarkable and extraordinary gift. We’re looking at one of the great voices of our generation.”

“People really appreciated … his davening,” Cantor Levine said. “I’ve had numerous people e-mailing me, expressing their regret that he won’t be there” on yom tov this year. “He’ll be missed.”

Nussbaum Cohen (son of former Jewish Week staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen and tapped two years ago as one of The Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 young achievers), who attended the Hannah Senesh Community School in Brooklyn and La Guardia High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, said his Hebrew first name (it means lion in Hebrew) will be distinctive in the opera world. “And I’ll be the first Nussbaum Cohen.”