Catherine Cook Returns to ‘The Barber of Seville’

With 30 Years on the San Francisco Stage, Catherine Cook Returns to ‘The Barber of Seville’

Catherine Cook

In the solitude of her car, as she drove home from that first staging rehearsal, Catherine Cook started to cry. She didn’t expect to. But suddenly the emotions overwhelmed her: She would be back on stage, performing live, for the first time in over a year.

The tears surprised the normally chipper voice professor and mezzo-soprano. “You know when you’re crying, and you’re asking yourself, ‘Why am I crying?’” Cook laughs, looking back.

But the last year had brought so much uncertainty, with layoffs and cancellations and the specter of the coronavirus looming over it all. Cook considers herself a glass-half-full kind of person. And yet, even she found herself alone behind the wheel, overcome with the stress of the pandemic—and the hope of better days to come.

“It was such a release,” she says. “I felt like I was letting go of all the grief I was carrying, not only for myself but for my students.”

This spring, through May 15, Cook stars in a new production of The Barber of Seville. It will be another notch in a career that includes over 50 engagements on the San Francisco Opera stage, including multiple versions of The Barber of Seville. She celebrates her 30th anniversary with the Company this year.

Cook returns as Berta, a cynical maid and fan favorite who gets caught up in the antics of the household she tends.

But this performance will be different. Due to pandemic-related restrictions, the new Barber of Seville is a drive-in production held outdoors at Marin Center.

Normally, Cook only has to run three blocks to go from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she teaches, to the theater where she regularly performs. Now, she has to commute across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a lot to juggle, and Cook admits, “It’s kind of nuts.”

But being busy is part of her routine. This morning alone, she’s been out on a hike with a student. Immediately after this interview, she has a Zoom lesson. Then for the rest of the afternoon, she’s at the conservatory. Her phone already has “like a million messages” waiting for her.

It’s a hectic life—but it’s exactly the kind of career Cook always dreamed of. “I wanted to sing and dance since the day—I mean, gosh.” She trails off, unable to pinpoint exactly when the dream began. “I was really young. I always knew I wanted to do this. There was never anything else.”

Cook grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago. Being so close to the city afforded her a wealth of opportunities. And Cook was a precocious performer. She smiles now thinking of the pride she felt as she marched in Villa Park’s Fourth of July parade, a child baton-twirler in a tiny costume.

Her family had no performing arts background—her stepfather was a tool and die maker at a local factory and her mother was a banker—but they supported Cook’s ambitions. Her first dance recital made those ambitions abundantly clear.

“I was standing at the curtain and I pulled the curtain back and I looked down at the audience,” Cook recalls. She remembers gasping: “Somewhere inside of me, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Each little dancer had to toddle out onto the stage, make a leap and take a bow. But the crowd had inspired something in Cook. “I saw the audience, and I saw a moment. So I came out and I jumped—but then I pretended like I was going to fall. Then I came back up and started bowing over and over again,” Cook says. “The audience just went nuts.”

For years afterwards, her mother would tell the story of that moment—and how she sat in the audience wondering, “Oh my god, what have we created?!” But she made sure her daughter got every lesson she needed, every performing arts class she could take.

That meant Cook was doing plays, choir, musicals. When she got old enough, she even took the train downtown to take classes at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. And then at Willowbrook High, under the guidance of teacher Kenneth Greenhouse, she discovered a knack for classical singing. But it was only later that—as she puts it— “opera found me.”

“I was never interested in opera in high school, but they bussed us to see The Barber of Seville at the Lyric Opera of Chicago,” she says. “I remember sitting in the opera house thinking, ‘This is it. Oh my gosh, This is everything I love all on one stage.’”

She returned home with an announcement for her parents: She would be an opera singer. It was the start of a path that led her to years of training, first at Millikin University, then Wichita State, then Cincinnati.

Year after year, Cook studied, not feeling ready to take on the competitive world of opera auditions. She even canceled her first audition for San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program a week before it was scheduled to take place.

But when she did start performing for casting directors and contests, she was a sensation: Cook nabbed the top spot at the 1990 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the most prestigious opera competition in the United States. That same year, she went through with her Merola audition—and was accepted on the spot.

Cook credits her preparation with making those successes possible. “You want to walk in there with complete confidence in what you’re presenting, repertoire-wise,” she says.

It’s a lesson she tries to instill in her students: “If there’s something you don’t think you’re ready for, don’t do it. It will be there next year.” It calls to mind the advice her retired agent once gave her about setting boundaries: “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”

Performing in the Merola Opera Program—and later, its sister program, the Adler Fellowship—would introduce Cook to the Bay Area for the first time. She still remembers arriving at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House for the first time, passing through its wrought-iron gates.

“I just took a breath of air and I thought the sky is so big here,” she says. “It just really felt like home right from the start.”

And eventually, San Francisco would become just that: home. She and her husband drove a U-Haul truck cross-country from Chicago and never looked back.

“I have a very unique situation in that I live in the same city as the company I work the most for. And that is really a very unique thing to have in this business,” Cook says as an aside. “I’ve sung hundreds of performances here, and I get to sleep in my own bed and come home to my kids.”

Her kids themselves grew up with intimate ties to their hometown company, San Francisco Opera. Cook calls them her “Barber babies:” Both times she was pregnant, she was performing The Barber of Seville in San Francisco.

Her first pregnancy coincided with her first performance as Berta with San Francisco Opera. It was 1996, and the performance had to be held at the Orpheum Theatre on Market Street, as the War Memorial Opera House continued its renovations following the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The second pregnancy posed even greater challenges, though. Cook was performing the housemaid Berta in a house on stage that rotated—and she had horrible morning sickness. Every time the house spun, she had to brace herself, lest she revisit her lunch.

Cook’s “Barber babies” became a running joke backstage: “Uh oh,” crew members would tease. “We’re doing Barber again. Are you pregnant?”

But this time, Cook says she feels like she’s passing the torch—to her fellow mezzo-soprano and Barber of Seville co-star Daniela Mack, who is pregnant herself during this spring’s performances.

Cook jokes that it proves “Barber babies” are an opera phenomenon: “When I found out Daniela was pregnant, I was like: ‘See? It’s a thing!’”

Cook’s character Berta is always up to some mischief—one past iteration had her playing strip poker on stage—but in this production, Berta is transformed into an aging diva, complete with winged eyeliner, bottle-blonde hair, and a leopard-print robe. From her lips dangles a cigarette—the prop kind, where you have to blow out to make the smoke appear.

“I have to say, I think this is my favorite one that I’ve ever done,” Cook says. This version of Berta shoots venomous glares at her lovestruck co-stars, all while bitterly plucking at the petals of a daisy, wishing for a romance that may never come.

Cook admits, Berta is often considered a small role. But she likes the challenge of making a big impression with relatively few lines. And she’s often on stage throughout the entire performance, listening to and interacting with the other characters.

“I never got into this business to be a star. That does not interest me in one bit. I’m interested in the storytelling,” she says. “What drives me is connecting with the audience.”

And connect she has. The San Francisco Chronicle has hailed her past performances as Berta as “vivid” and “magnificent.” The Bay Area News Group, meanwhile, called her Berta a “triumph.”

And even if she isn’t the leading lady in this particular production, Cook laughs that she’s still getting the star treatment backstage. The outdoor stage Marin Center is enormous—it was previously used for the Coachella music festival—and the performers have to move across a campus of tents to get ready for performance.

“They take us in these golf carts from where we get our makeup on to the stage. It feels very Beyoncé,” Cook chuckles.

But this production of The Barber of Seville hasn’t all been rock-star stages and golf-cart chauffeurs. The reality of performing outdoors is that there are more unforeseen elements to contend with—including the swarms of insects that assemble at twilight.

“There’s this part in the Act I finale where we all freeze, and I’m just standing there, and there are two bugs crawling up my nose,” Cook says. “And I’m trying to keep my mouth closed so one doesn’t go into my mouth!”

But bugs and all, Cook considers this Barber of Seville to be a gift. She says it’s been a joy to work on—and she’s hopeful it will be a joy to the audiences who see it. “The arts are essential. We are essential workers. I know people say it, and it sounds cliché, but it is essential. Our society needs this.”

It’s been three decades since Cook got her start on San Francisco’s stages, but her goals remain the same. She hopes that, no matter what worries an audience member may have, they can find an escape in her performances—just as she finds an escape through them.

“Through it all, I’ve gotten to do what I love to do. And I’m still doing it,” she says. “That’s a miracle.”

See mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook live in The Barber of Seville, on stage at the drive-in theater at Marin Center. Or reach out and say hello on Instagram or through her website.

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