San Francisco Opera | Interview with Sasha Cooke

Inside the mind of ‘Steve Jobs’ star Sasha Cooke

She didn’t need to audition. She was simply asked. That’s how Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke landed the role of Laurene Powell Jobs in the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, itself a Grammy winner for Best Opera Recording.

This summer, Cooke is set to reprise the role she created along with other members of the world-premiere cast, including baritone Edward Parks as Steve Jobs. The character of Laurene is just one of the original creations Cooke has showcased on this stage: In 2013, Cooke made her San Francisco Opera debut in the first-ever performance of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, starring in the title role.

Ahead of her June performance, Cooke — who made recent appearances here in Hansel and Gretel and Orlando — answered questions about what inspires her as an artist.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Which performer do you most look up to, and why?

SASHA COOKE: The first person that comes to mind is the baritone Gerald Finley. Before each and every performance of Doctor Atomic, which we did together twice, he would knock on my dressing room door to see how I was doing. That's a perfect example of what a great colleague Gerry is. And equally important, he is an inspiring singer artistically and technically. Gerry also puts a lot of focus and energy into recital so I relate to him on that level. He's managed to balance a fair amount of contemporary music with concert repertoire and standard operatic repertoire which is something I strive to achieve as well.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’re known as a champion for new works, having performed in world premieres including The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Some might see doing this as a risk, rather than sticking with the classics. What draws you to new operatic pieces?

COOKE: I really love all opera, and it was a surprise in a way that contemporary music became such a significant part of my work. In the same way that [playing Hansel in Hansel and Gretel] makes you feel very 'in' the moment, contemporary music is similar. When you are premiering a work and creating a character that has never been sung before, never seen onstage before, you're hyper aware of the moment and how special that shared experience is. You feel a certain electric energy in the room between performer(s) and the audience. That for me is a great privilege, not to mention that new works often make for the most memorable artistic experiences. I like to think that after a performance, in any genre, we are changed as people. It's like a magnified example of how we shape and influence one another all the time. And particularly the new works I have done have shaped me the most as an artist and as a human being.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, you worked with Violins of Hope to present the world premiere of a work by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer. How can music help heal the trauma of that past?

COOKE: The first lines of Jake and Gene's piece come to mind which are "When they told him not to pray, told him to forget, when they told him not to hope, he played the violin." Music will always rise above and simultaneously serve as a lens into our humanity. That includes the parts that are difficult to face. As Jake once said, we cannot forget the pieces of our past and with art, we are open to those conversations in a way unlike anything else. Sadly we are living in a time where ethnic cleansing still happens and slavery still happens. Reflections on our past such as this piece instill in us a sense of our common humanity and puts into focus what we still have yet to learn.

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