Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has made a name for herself in contemporary music, singing world premieres at some of the most prestigious opera houses in the world, such as English National Opera, San Francisco Opera and Santa Fe Opera. But the American mezzo returns to her standard operatic roots making her LA Opera debut this month as Hansel in Humperdinck’s charming yet spooky opera Hansel and Gretel.
The California-born mezzo spent most of her life in Texas, growing up in College Station and attending Rice University in Houston. After moving to New York City to attend The Juilliard School for her masters degree, she joined the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, which would prove instrumental to her career. In her last year in the program, she starred as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Met premiere of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, which not only propelled her career into the stratosphere, but also allowed her to make a name for herself in new music.
“In my studies, I realized I was one of the very few people who was willing to try new things,” Cooke explained. “I had a lot of classmates that didn't really want to tackle the difficult task of learning new music. And I remember distinctly thinking it was my most favorite genre, because it wasn't like a Bellini line I could learn in a matter of seconds. I had to put in the work to create something, and something new.”
Though Cooke’s breadth of repertoire lies predominantly in newer music and concert works, she finds it refreshing to return to standard repertoire, especially an iconic pants role such as Hansel. She first sung the role two years ago at Seattle Opera, and comes to Los Angeles with some new insight for the role. According to Cooke, diving into the mindset of a young boy can be challenging, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Plus, it helps to have children of one’s own.
“One can take in a couple different contexts about playing a boy, and there are certain feelings I have about them,” Cooke said. “What I love about being a boy on stage, especially a child, is that they’re so carefree. It helps that I have children, so I sort of have a kind of intimate sense with them. Kids have no censor. They're not aware of what's too much or too little. They don't have those voices in their head that tells them to be afraid of people's thoughts, so they just are. And that’s incredibly liberating to play on stage.”
Though much is fun and games, there are some serious aspects to the opera that Sasha considers pertinent to her interpretation, mainly that fact that both Hansel and Gretel are essentially in distress at the beginning of the opera.
Cooke added: “Survival mode to a child means to play games and forget about reality. And that's maybe also what we love about opera. We separate from our current reality.”
Not only is Cooke excited about the opportunity to return to the golden age of opera, but also to reconnect with the renowned Susan Graham, who has acted as a mentor in Cooke’s young mezzo days. She first sang with Graham in 2007 in a supporting role in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met. Cooke says that since then, Graham has turned from one of her major operatic inspirations to a dear friend. She states that she hopes to pay it forward to young singers like Graham did for her.
“If there is only one thing I have say to young singers, it’s that I believe a successful and huge career is made by preparation and hard work. We’re a flesh instrument and our bodies need time to adjust. So if you cram something into your voice or you learn under duress, you’ll shoot yourself in the foot. And that’s something I’ve been taught by my mentors.”
As Cooke prepares to make her LA Opera debut, she feels excited to take a step back from her usual repertoire and revisit this iconic role. And not just because she loves the music, but because she truly loves this character.
“One of the reasons I love Hansel is because he's the opposite of everything I do,” Cooke said. “A lot of what I do is very serious and still and stoic and dark. You know, there are so many mezzo pieces that are sad and heavy. But the main difference is that Humperdinck’s music has stood the test of time.”