Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen '15
New York City
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has what he calls “a strange gift.” He is a countertenor, which means that he can sing higher than most women, and with little effort can hit a high “C” on the musical scale.
“I’m an even rarer kind of countertenor, which is called a sopranist,” he explains. “Most countertenors are altos. But I’m higher than the average countertenor. There are maybe 15 well-know sopranists in the world right now.”
Stranger still, Nussbaum Cohen did not need to train to develop an ability to sing as a countertenor. Most countertenors train as baritones and discover one day that they have this other voice, but in Nussbaum Cohen’s case, he has always been a countertenor. Like all boys, when he reached puberty his speaking voice dropped, but unlike most boys he retained an ability to sing in the soprano range.
It was a friend’s mother who essentially discovered him when he was 12. “One day I was at Elias’ house, walking and singing,” he recalls. “His mom heard me and told my mom, ‘You have to do something with that voice.’” It was good advice.
Nussbaum Cohen was attending a Jewish day school in Brooklyn, and located only a block away was one of the premier children choirs in New York City, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. He auditioned and was accepted, which opened up a world of opportunity. Because the chorus was essentially the resident children’s choir of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he sang frequently at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. The chorus also backed up such popular performers as Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Sting and Sheryl Crow. He continued to cultivate his singing while a student at LaGuardia High School of the Arts, a performing arts school that was the setting for the movie “Fame.”
When it was time to apply to colleges, Nussbaum Cohen was certain he wanted to continue with his singing, but he also wanted access to a liberal arts curriculum. He has a strong interest in politics, and is majoring in history with a focus on political history.
As it turns out, Princeton is a bit of a magnet for countertenors. Anthony Roth Costanzo, Class of 2004, is considered one of the world’s top countertenors and recently signed with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Gabriel Crouch, a senior lecturer in music and director of choirs at Princeton, also began his singing career as a countertenor.
After Nussbaum Cohen was accepted to Princeton, he sent an email to Costanzo asking him whether he should accept Princeton’s offer, rather than go to a conservatory. Costanzo, who did not know Nussbaum Cohen, responded right away. “He said you will not get a better undergraduate education anywhere,” Nussbaum Cohen recalled. “He said no matter what you choose to pursue, having that basis of an incredible education will prepare you to do it.”
Later, Nussbaum Cohen had an opportunity to meet Costanzo when he came to Princeton to teach a master class. They stayed in touch. When Nussbaum Cohen received the Martin A. Dale Sophomore Award, which supports a few students’ plans to construct summer study projects, Costanzo agreed to mentor him through a summer of opera study, including one-on-one training and introductions to top baroque opera experts at The Julliard School and the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program.
“Princeton has been amazing at creating opportunities for me,” he says. “It is allowing me to grow as a singer and as a student of baroque music.”