By Barbara Jepson
INTERVIEW – Not many singers have the opportunity to participate in two world premieres by the same composer within a two-month period. But mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, a rising star who has already graced the stages of major orchestras and opera companies, will attain that distinction July 22 when she appears at Santa Fe Opera in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell.
After hearing Cooke with the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera, Bates invited her to create the role of Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the Apple co-founder, for his first opera. “We all knew that the warmth of Laurene had to be portrayed by Sasha,” said Bates in a recent telephone interview. “She has the most incredible chiaroscuro quality in her voice, and everyone who sees her is just drawn into her. So we didn’t audition her, we just asked.”
Bates subsequently wrote the song cycle Passage, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, with Cooke in mind. Commissioned to mark the centenary of President John F. Kennedy’s birth, it was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra on May 24 at the Kennedy Center, where Bates is composer-in-residence. Based on Walt Whitman’s well-known poem Passage to India, the cycle celebrates exploration and technological progress, weaving excerpts from JFK’s “Moonshot” speech and other space-related utterances into the musical fabric.
In a telephone interview, Cooke contrasted the music and challenges of performing these two works by Bates. “Passage is a very different sound world than Steve Jobs,” she said. “Mason manages to access the kind of locomotive sounds described in Whitman’s poem, and you have this very moving orchestra part paired with the rich text, which must be delivered rather rapidly because the poem is so long. But Whitman is such a singable poet, and Mason brings lyricism and an Americana flavor to the vocal writing. He’s also created this fabulous climax where you actually hear the rocket taking off, and because he’s added electronic sounds and digital reverb, the whole concert hall literally vibrates.
“I think in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, there are more reflective moments where there’s almost nothing in the orchestra. It’s very still, very Zen,” she said, reflecting both Steve Jobs’ interest in Japanese sensibility and the character of Kôbun Chino Otogawa, his spiritual counselor. “Steve’s scenes with Laurene are very intimate and conversational, and very different from Passage. It feels very freestyle, with less articulated rhythms, at least in my scenes. The challenge will be more emotional than vocal. If I get too emotional, then it can limit what the audience actually feels. So it will be important to just sing the words, connect to the moment, and don’t think too much about what is happening.”
The Jobs opera, with baritone Edward Parks in the title role, presents his life in a series of vignettes that jump around in time rather than follow a chronological narrative. In the first draft of Campbell’s libretto, the role of Laurene was reportedly more “embryonic” than Bates had envisioned, so Campbell developed it considerably. Here too, Cooke’s onstage poise and dramatic qualities made her the perfect foil for Steve Jobs. “I wanted someone so grounded that they could take on a person who is on fire and infectious with creativity and charisma,” recalled Bates, “and yet also cold and domineering. Sasha’s range is phenomenal overall, but there’s a middle and low range that is kind of like a special power, sort of superhero, that gives her that grounding.”
Cooke observed that in the great operas of the past, women are often portrayed as sexual commodities or prizes. But in many contemporary operas, the lead female role is the soul of the piece. This is particularly true, she said, for the Jobs opera. “Laurene reminds the main character about what matters. She’s the heart of that family, the anchor for Steve, and as the opera creators see it, she’s the reason he changed. I want to make her as three-dimensional as possible, even though the whole opera is seen through Steve’s eyes, and therefore, we know her only as his wife. The piece ends with his memorial, so it’s like Uncle Scrooge looking back at his mistakes.”
A graduate of Rice University and The Juilliard School, where she performed a wide variety of music, Cooke was chosen for the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. While there, she was tapped for the role of Kitty Oppenheimer in John Adams’ Dr. Atomic. Although the mezzo-soprano sings Mahler frequently, made her role debut as Magdalena in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger with San Francisco Opera in 2015, and performed the trouser role of Hansel in Hansel and Gretel with the Seattle Opera in 2016, she is also known as an expert interpreter of contemporary American music.
Kevin Puts wrote Of All the Moons, a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano, for her. She portrayed Mary in Mark Adamo’s opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, at the San Francisco Opera, and will sing the title role in the world premiere of Marnie by Nico Muhly at the English National Opera in November. The role of Laurene in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs – scheduled to be reprised at the Seattle Opera in the 2018-19 season and the San Francisco Opera in 2019-20 — is another milestone in her career. And Cooke’s distinctive combination of poise, vocal richness, and dramatic talent will no doubt continue to inspire composers writing music today.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs continues at Santa Fe Opera through Aug. 25. For tickets and information, click here.
Barbara Jepson is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section whose articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Arts & Leisure, Smithsonian, Opera News, Listen Magazine, MusicalAmerica.com and other publications. She is in her second term as president of the Music Critics Association of North America.