Troy Cook: From the Bluegrass State to world-class opera

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    Even if you’re not a big opera fan, the Opera Company of Philadelphia might pull you in with its innovative staging, excellent singers and interesting casting. A while back, after I interviewed executive director David Devan I saw “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which featured two women playing the lead male and female roles. This year’s opening production, “La Boheme,” also promises to be another innovative show, blending the classical opera with modern technology. PGN was lucky enough to catch baritone Troy Cook, who will play the role of Marcello, in between rehearsals.

    PGN: You’ve traveled and performed all over the world, but where do you originally hail from? TC: I’m from Kentucky, between Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati. In Kentucky, you refer to where you live not by the city but by the county, and I’m from Henry County.

    PGN: I was in Louisville two years ago and loved it. It was really hip. TC: Oh yeah, Louisville’s a great town. Where I grew up it was a very small Southern town: I only had 33 kids in my high-school class. We had K-12 in one building. You might wonder how I got from such a small farming community to becoming an opera singer.

    PGN: [Laughs.] Yes, I would wonder. TC: Since the time I could reach the piano, I taught myself to play by ear. Music has always made sense to me. I remember playing a piece when I was in kindergarten and my parents were like, “Who taught you that?” I shrugged and said, “I don’t know, I just learned it.” It was like in the movie “Good Will Hunting” when Matt Damon’s character explains how he does math: “I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play … Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that … I could always just play.”

    PGN: Outside of music, what kind of things did you like to do? TC: I had a pretty tight-knit group of friends and we went swimming a lot in the summer. The whole neighborhood would play kickball, that type of thing. We’d go to Kings Island, which is the big Six Flags amusement park. I rather enjoyed that. In fact, I still do.

    PGN: What did the folks do? TC: My father was a pharmacist. I grew up in a family business. There are still three Cook’s Pharmacy’s in Kentucky to this day and my sister is the CFO. My dad passed away my last year of graduate school. My mom was kind of like the woman behind the man: She ran the store and the pharmacy. Though, when we were in school, she took care of us.

    PGN: How many siblings? TC: I have two older sisters. They refer to me as “The Golden Child” because they say I was my mother’s favorite. [Laughs.] And they were right. She wouldn’t admit it, but my mom knew it, I knew it, everybody knew I was her favorite.

    PGN: Aside from your self-taught piano, do you play any instruments? TC: I played the trumpet in our high-school band.

    PGN: How about sports? TC: I was the stat keeper for the girls’ softball team in high school. I even got to travel with the team. [Laughs.] Does that count?

    PGN: I don’t think they letter you for stat keeping. TC: True. Well, I run now and I’m hoping to do a 10k this fall.

    PGN: Do you remember the first time you heard an opera piece? TC: Hmmn, I think the first time was at the [Kentucky] Governor’s School for the Arts. I went there for a summer program during the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I was raw talent and had never had a voice lesson and for my first voice lesson my teacher assigned an aria for me to learn. It was the first music I’d ever learned in a foreign language and I thought that was so cool. It was awesome.

    PGN: If you weren’t an opera singer, what did you go there for? TC: I didn’t do opera but I was into music and singing, and my music teacher suggested I try out for the school. Everyone else sang these Italian art songs for their auditions and I did “Memories” from “Cats.”

    PGN: Nice. TC: One of the things that got me into theater was that my parents had a subscription to the Broadway series at the local theater. The first show I ever saw was “Little Orphan Annie.” It was a transformative experience for me. The lights went down in the theater and it was like the audience disappeared. The walls of the theater disappeared and it was just me and Annie. I knew after that performance that I wanted to do something in the theater.

    PGN: When did you realize you were gay? TC: Well, I sort of knew in high school. I was always teased a lot but I was a child from Kentucky back in the ’80s, so you didn’t come out; you just tried to fit in as best you could. I had a few girlfriends in college: I think they thought I was just saving myself. But, finally, my senior year of college I came out first to myself. I didn’t run around campus putting up posters saying, “By the way, you should know that Troy Cook is gay,” but I decided that if anyone asked me, I would be honest about it. Of course, the first person to ask me was my mother.

    PGN: Of course. TC: The way it happened, my dad was really, really sick and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He was on the board of directors of the local hospital where he was being treated and they tested him for Lyme disease and everything they could think of. Everything came back negative but he was still getting sicker. I finally asked my mom if he’d been tested for HIV, and she was like, “No, why would we test him for that?” Of course back then it would have been considered offensive for a doctor to suggest testing you for that because it implied you were gay. Well they did, and it turned out that’s why he was sick: He had full-blown AIDS. So I think the accumulative effect of my interest in the arts and my knowledge of HIV prompted her to ask me if I was gay. And I must say my family was amazing: From the minute I came out they’ve been totally supportive. My nieces love my partner, Rob. [Laughs.] I think some of them might even like him more than me! Actually, I think it’s even. PGN: Did you find out how your father got sick? TC: Well, he had three different stories as to how he got it. I had my suspicions — I think my Dad might have been gay; knowing what I knew about him it wouldn’t surprise me. I know there was this one restaurant in Louisville that he frequented that just happened to be attached to a gay bar. Of course with the disease, he was never fully himself, but he never once said that he was gay. He had different explanations: He was sharing needles at a party, etc., which I didn’t believe for a second. I mean, come on, hello, my dad the pharmacist, sharing needles? I don’t think so. But, luckily, my mom was fine and we carried on.

    PGN: Tell me about your partner. TC: His name is Rob and we’ve been together for 13 years. We met in New York, the old-fashioned way, in an America Online chatroom. Now we have a home in Upper Bucks County with two Jack Russell terriers and lots of plants. He’s a gardener, which is great. When we bought our house there was an azalea bush and a rhododendron outside; now we have a gorgeous garden. Whenever I come home from traveling and pull into the driveway, it’s such a treat to see.

    PGN: So back to your career: One review I read said, “Baritone Troy Cook came close to stealing the show and he lobbed a string of high notes into the auditorium.” What does it feel like being onstage and opening up and hitting those big notes? TC: It’s incredible. One thing I really love is the rehearsal process. It’s like you’re getting paid to horse around with your friends and put on a show. It’s the greatest thing. I consider myself so lucky that this is my job!

    PGN: A favorite moment onstage and the biggest disaster? TC: [Laughs.] I’ll start with the biggest disaster. I was playing Escamillo, the toreador in “Carmen,” and during the big aria I had to jump off of this barrel on the high note and start the next note on landing. Well, as I went to leap, my foot crashed right through the barrel! Amazingly — I guess I’d rehearsed it so much — I didn’t even stop singing. They told me that a chorus member helped me get the barrel off my leg, but I just kept going. If you listen to the recording, you couldn’t tell that anything happened, certainly not a baritone hopping around with a barrel on his foot. One of my best moments was an opera that I did in Bilboa, Spain. It was a gender-bending opera and I started the opera as a guy, then in the story, my wife decides that she doesn’t want to be a woman anymore so she can become a doctor or lawyer, one of the men’s professions. Other women follow suit and no one’s making babies anymore, so I become a woman and have 49,009 babies in one day.

    PGN: Ouch! TC: Yes, it’s a crazy opera. I got to dress in heels and a dress and sing incredible music. For a gay man it was great fun! Quite liberating.

    PGN: You get to travel a lot: That must be fun too. TC: It’s a blessing and a curse. You travel too much and you just want to come home, open your suitcase and dump your clothes in the fireplace. You’re so sick of wearing the same pair of jeans for two weeks that you want to get all new clothes. On the other hand, I get to go to some amazing places: Spain, Japan, the Canary Islands, the U.K., all over the States. And I’m usually there for at least a month, so it’s not like your typical business trip where you see the inside of a hotel and a few restaurants. I really get to know the places, find a favorite coffee shop or hangout, see the sights, etc. Since Rob works in gardening, most winters he gets to go with me and pretty much everything is paid for except getting him there. It’s fantastic, though there is something to say about working for the Philadelphia Opera Company. It’s a real treat to be able to sleep in my own bed each night and still do what I love. It’s my fourth production with them and I’m also singing in “Silent Night” this season as well. You should really try to see that, it’s a wonderful production.

    PGN: I will. TC: One of the best things about this OCP is that they’re really working to make this Philadelphia’s opera company, they’re not trying to compete with New York or San Francisco, they want us to be unique to Philadelphia so people can take civic pride in coming to see us. For instance, we’re collaborating on this show with The Barnes and the Art Museum. I play Marcello the painter, so I’ll be painting on my palette, which is actually a giant TV screen that sort of comes to life as I paint. There’s this cool interaction between the art and the live characters. I really think the staging is going to set this production apart from the typical staging of “La Boheme.”

    PGN: I had to laugh at the wording of some of the reviews I read. One of them said, “Troy Cook’s excellent baritone was in fine fettle from the off.” I could almost hear Niles from the show “Frasier” as I read it. TC: Well, I think that reviewer is from the U.K. You probably won’t find too many American writers using the word “fettle.”

    PGN: Do you think there’s a misconception of opera as being inaccessible for most people? TC: Yes. As far as it being inaccessible is concerned, I think that’s not true at all. Especially now. For one, there’s a translation over the stage so you can understand what the song is saying. You don’t have to feel like you have to study the language beforehand so that you’re not left out if there’s a good joke. “La Boheme” is a perfect example because everyone can relate to goofing off when you’re young, falling in love for the first time, having a core group of friends — then a tragedy happens and they come out on the other side changed because of it. It was universal when it was first written and it’s still universal today. That’s the thing: The operas that last, that get performed over and over again, are the ones that still have relevance. Time may change, but the human condition never does.

    PGN: Well said. How about some random questions. Historical moment I remember best … TC: 9/11. I was living in New York and Rob, my partner, was a banker then and he was working in the Empire State Building. In the three weeks post-9/11, they were hardly in the building because idiots were calling in bomb threats — every day. They’d have to evacuate a three-block area in the radius of the building. It was ridiculous. It’s what prompted him to change careers and become a gardener.

    PGN: What’s a movie that always makes you cry? TC: “The Color Purple.” I’ve seen it a thousand times.

    PGN: If you could do an aria with anyone, who would you choose? TC: I think Adele. She’s just amazing and has such a unique and powerful voice. And she has something to say in her music that’s important to me — not just how you sing, but what you’re saying.

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