Like many other performers, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has lost one booking after another in a year overturned by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the lost work will extend into 2021 as venues and companies try to guess when they'll be open again and cancel some performances to make room for rescheduling others.
So the Houston-based Grammy Award-winning artist was more than happy to be contacted by the Houston Grand Opera
asking if she'd like to perform a concert recital for its audiences. She had already been working on commissioning new songs from female composers during her pandemic-inspired down time, so she pulled three pieces from that (there are 16 in all and she plans to record them and release them commercially) and works by Rossini and Schumann to build her program which will premiere on Friday, January 8 at 7 p.m. as HGO's "Live From the Cullen" series continues.
Rosinni's "Giovanna d'Arco" will start the program followed by Schumann's "Frauenliebe und lieben," which is about Joan of Arc.
"The Rosinni is something I've never done before but it's just a beautiful piece. I kind of liked the idea that it was a bit operatic and it seemed like a nice fit for doing it at an opera house. The Schumann is something I really love and seemed to fit with the program."
Accompanied by HGO's principal coach Kirill Kuzmin on piano, Cooke said her recorded recital which clocked in around 50 minutes, tries to give the feeling of a live performance.
"It was very special. It had been ten months because my last performance in public was in February. It was surreal yet familiar. It was something I knew how to do but because it had been so long, it was all a little bit overwhelming. It's sort of like a muscle, if you don't exercise it. It was also emotional because it had been so long. Houston Grand was the opera company where I was inspired to become a singer. So there was something meaningful about that too."
What helped her in this, she says, were the couple of patrons allowed to sit up in the balcony during the taping in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center. And her father drove in from College Station. "They were all in masks in the balcony and spread out. Then [HGO's Artistic & Music Director] Patrick Summers and maybe four of the crew."
Being filmed as opposed to a live performance in a room filled with people is, of course, different.
"You kind of have to pretend [the cameras are] not there. That's actually very easy. You’re in a theater. You're with a pianist. You just pretend the audience is there. And with the patrons in the balcony it felt like I had an audience."
The three world premiere composers all have Texas connections. They are:
"Self Portrait with Dishevelled Hair" by composer Missy Mazzoli
(who was supposed to have an opera done here in the spring) and librettist Royce Vavrek
"That Night" by composer Hilary Purrington
(who went to Rice) and librettist Mark Campbell
"Dear Colleagues" by composer Rene Orth
(from Dallas) and librettist Colleen Murphy
Cooke, a graduate of Rice University, Julliard and the Metropolitan Opera program, previously performed in Verdi's Requiem
for HGO, has sung at the Met and around the world and hopes to appear as Sylvie in the world premiere of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly at Dallas Opera in February and March — with a very spread out audience. She lives in The Woodlands where she moved after returning to Texas. Her parents are professors at Texas A&M University.
Asked why people should tune in to her performance, Cooke says: "I do think that recital is the most intimate of the singing art forms. So there's something very special about the fact that even in a pandemic one of the things we can do as singers happens to be the most intimate, the recital format.
"When you program a recital I always think it's like making dinner for your friends. That's made even more intimate by HGO because of the video. You can get closeups. You can feel like the singer is sending it directly to you. I think all of those things make it very special.
And as for getting a job at a time when she believes a lot of artists have been forgotten, Cooke says:
"I'm very grateful to Houston Grand Opera. At a time when I've lost so much work, one doesn't imagine getting a job. You kind of get used to losing jobs. But to be offered a job during a pandemic is really meaningful.
Sasha Cooke's performance is scheduled for streaming at 7:30 p.m. January 8. Access through your computer, tablet or smartphone by logging into hgo.org or marquee.tv. Or stream by accessing the Marquee TV app using Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV or other device. Available on demand through February 7. Free.