Princeton is a place that shapes one’s identity, interests, and career. For 23-year-old Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, it was the start of a lifelong love for opera singing. As a 2016 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and recipient of a Sara Tucker Study Grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, as well as various other awards, Cohen ’15 has been an enormous success in the first few years of his opera singing career. I caught up with Cohen to discuss his recent accomplishments, his time at the University, and his plans for the future.
Unlike many opera singers who grow up surrounded by opera music and attending elite music conservatories, Cohen's journey with opera began his sophomore spring. As a history major, his experience with singing had been something of a hobby — he was a member of Glee Club, Chamber Choir, and was on track to receive a certificate in Vocal Performance. However, he had never considered opera singing as a career path.
The real “aha” moment came when he won a free ticket to the New York Metropolitan Opera. “I had never been to an opera before, and the show blew my mind,” said Cohen of the experience. The show prompted him to explore the possibilities that opera singing had to offer. After winning the Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award, a financial stipend that enables University students to pursue projects in their areas of interest, Cohen decided to pursue his passion for opera. That summer he trained with Anthony Roth Costanzo ’04, a countertenor opera singer who also won the Metropolitan Opera competition. “It was [that summer] that I realized that if I devote myself to [opera], I could maybe make this happen. And I fell in love with it.” Cohen said.
After graduating, Cohen entered the highly competitive world of professional opera singing. This March he was named one of six winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, one of the most prestigious awards, and received a superb review from The New York Times. Cohen called the experience “incredible,” elaborating that “the Met is such an imposing place. It is the holiest ground for opera singers. Yet throughout an intimidating and stressful process, the people I met were so warm, creating a familial vibe amidst the pressure.”
Going forward with opera, Cohen describes himself as “all-in.” He just returned from Virginia where he sang in the world premiere of Kenneth Fuchs’ “Poems of Life” performance with the Virginia Symphony.
Cohen attributes his success in part to his Princeton education, which informs the way he approaches opera singing. In the world of opera, Princeton is an “unconventional” background amid so many elite music conservatories. But Cohen is glad he never attended a conservatory, “Of course opera singing can be stressful, but for me, it never took on the negative aspects that it can at conservatory. My academic work was separate from opera, which allowed me to come at opera singing with a sense of rawness that has been well received.”
He also noted that, “the biggest challenge for an opera singer is that there are so many things to be thinking of at once. You have to multitask the vocal technique, the drama, the language, and the music. There are so many layers to dig into at one time and after spending four years at Princeton spending so long in the libraries engaging the brain intensely with one subject at a time, I am enjoying the kind of engagement that opera requires.”
At Princeton, Aryeh’s favorite classes included a historiography seminar his senior fall, which he described as one of the “most engaging parts of his history studies,” as well as an American politics class. He was a member of Tower Club and was actively involved in the Princeton community. He founded J Street U Princeton, an Israeli-Palestine advocacy group, and was a co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, for which he organized a dialogue trip to Spain.
When asked what he missed the most about the University, Cohen reminisced, “One of the things you don’t realize until you are gone is how easy it is to see people you like every day. It’s different in the real world where you don’t get to eat every meal with your friends. Especially in this career path, things are more isolated.” Unfortunately, Aryeh won’t be back at reunions this year but you can catch him performing with Wolf Trap Opera in Virginia in July and August as well as with the Houston Grand Opera this coming fall.