Troy Cook has garnered an admirable reputation as an elegant, extremely musical lyric baritone on the international scene. On November 12, 2017, he opens as Enrico, the volatile brother in Florida Grand Opera’s season-opening production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by Alexander Polianichko and directed by Elise Sandell. Recently, Cook sat down for a face-to-face interview with followkellow.com.
BK: Tell me about your professional history with Lucia di Lammermoor.
TC: I sang Enrico ten or so years ago at Kansas City, ten years ago, maybe more. Very straightforward production. I think there was no Wolf’s Crag Scene, which is often the case. I do enjoy singing the Wolf’s Crag scene, because it kind of explains what the family conflict is. Then I did a production in Las Palmas, a kind of very Bram Stoker, very dark, Gothic production.
BK: I was wondering if you have been talking with Elise Sandell, director of Florida Grand Opera’s production of Lucia, about how you get across Enrico’s point of view, without just making him a stock villain. Because he does of course have a point of view. He has an argument to be made in the course of the opera.
TC: Of course. I guess the way I look at Enrico is that when you take any animal and back it into a corner, your instincts are to save yourself. Living people in that situation would do things they wouldn’t normally do. Politics and family are enclosing Enrico into a corner. He has no choice. He tries all means of persuasion with his sister, and nothing seems to work. I think one thing people don’t see in Lucia is that she betrayed him as well, by getting together with the enemy of the family. I think it’s a motivating factor for Enrico. In the sextet, he sings about how remorseful he is for having to put her in that position, but it doesn’t change the fact that he has to put her in that position.
BK: If he wants his desired outcome
TC: There’s one way to prevent ruin for him and for his whole clan and that is this one marriage. It’s the only way. So I feel that the image of someone backed into a corner—it’s all about survival. I think even with the made up letter, he’s reluctant to use it. He says “I love you, I’m your brother—but don’t do this to me. You don’t realize what you’re doing.”
Now, with Elise Sandell working with two casts, there are differences. When Enrico says “Basti!”—with Trevor Scheunemann [who alternates with Cook in the role of Enrico at FGO] he almost hits her! With me, it’s more like “Fine.” I think he’s regretful about what he does.
I think both the tenor and baritone in this show are the drivers of Lucia. They are there to facilitate her going crazy in this story. But they both have a reason to be in there, too.
BK: Anna Christy, who sings Lucia on opening night at FGO, feels that in insanity, Lucia finds her escape and freedom. This strikes me as being more of a latter-day notion; I don’t think this is something that a lot of mid-century divas probably thought about a great deal. What do you think about that?
TC: One of the things about the bel-canto repertoire is that the mad scene is a lot of embellishment. The huge cadenza is always a little different for each soprano. But those things have to mean something—otherwise, it’s a very long song. But I think when you think of madness, you get to the point where you can’t deal with life any more. I think Lucia creates her own reality because she can’t deal with the one that she’s in. So she’s cornered, too. She goes inside of herself, and Enrico lashes out. All of the characters are selfish. They all have their own agendas. Including Lucia. Including Raimondo. They all fight for their own self-interest.
BK: Just as people do in life.
TC: And I think that the operas that sort of stick around are the ones with these universal themes.
BK: What do you think is Enrico’s crucial moment in the entire opera? The one you land on as an actor most strongly?
TC: When he offers her the letter. It’s all bluster and suspicion and him trying to find things out—and for me, that’s the moment—when he gives her the letter and lies to her. It’s one thing to plead with her and say I’m going to haunt your dreams. It’s one thing to do that and another thing to blatantly make something up. That, in addition to Raimondo’s pushing.
BK: Have you and Elise Sandell worked out a backstory about the siblings’ relationship?
TC: Somewhat. In the book, Enrico is not the Enrico from the opera. In the book, the mother isn’t dead. She is the facilitator.
BK: She’s such a vile character in the book. I kind of miss her in the opera.
TC: Horrible character. In the opera, Enrico sort of is the mother. It is all fused into him. He takes up some of the function of the mother from the book—the manipulator. He’s probably in his late twenties and she’s in her early teens. I don’t think he expected to have this kind of responsibility at this age. I think there’s an underlying resentment between them, because he expected to be doing other things—
BK: And not having all this thrust upon him.
BK: I was wondering: there are so many gifted lyric baritones performing today. Does that make things any more difficult for you in terms of finding interesting work?
TC: I don’t think so. I feel lucky to be a lyric baritone in my mid-forties with a calendar full of work. A lot of lyric baritones in their mid-forties are in the Met chorus. In that mid-to-late thirties period, the business seemed interested in the barihunks—the new, young, beautiful folks. One question you heard a lot was “Where are all the Verdi baritones?” I think that the industry has lost interest in the sort of middle-aged baritone. So there are probably a lot of Verdi baritones in the Met chorus, because they wanted more than two gigs a year, and they couldn’t support their families on two gigs a year. For me, I just feel lucky that I am still getting to do this work. I guess the companies I tend to work for tend to hire me for my experience. My voice sounds a lot different than it did. I couldn’t have sung Posa in Don Carlo ten years ago. Verdi scared the Bejesus out of me. A lot of it has to do with age. You have to get there! I would never sing Rigoletto, but I can sing Germont and Posa and Ford. I think my voice fits those things well. People tend to use my voice for things that are … noble. I’ve been told that. The color of my voice has a sense of nobility about it.
BK: I would agree. I also want to ask you about Kevin Puts’ and Mark Campbell’s Elizabeth Cree in Philadelphia. Congratulations on the success of it.
TC: Thanks. I think Kevin is a wonderful composer. He’s a melodist. His music doesn’t sound like Puccini, but he tells the story in the same way. There’s an emotional arc to his music. You keep handing off these feelings. I think that’s why his music speaks to people. Just like in La Bohème—a lot of people think Puccini is manipulative. I think he’s just expressive. It’s like a film score. The story doesn’t stop when people aren’t singing. And I feel Kevin is that way. And then there’s Mark, who is just smart. One of his biggest strengths is that he understands today’s audience. In writing Silent NIght, he wouldn’t write an act longer than an hour. If he can get it done in ninety minutes with no intermission, he’ll do that.
BK: Yes. He’s savvy.
TC: Yes. He understands that the piece has to be produced by opera companies who have to be able to afford to produce it. I feel that Elizabeth Cree is very much that. It’s also something we don’t have in the canon—a thriller. A whodunit. It keeps you questioning the whole time. And it does it very well. In the first fifteen minutes of the show, you have this great sympathy for Elizabeth Cree. She has been through hell, and she has now found this place where she is embraced and she has come home. And then the first murder happens. It’s just beautifully crafted. And the ending is harrowing.
BK: Do you have a favorite musical theater role?
TC: I like Fredrik in A Little Night Music. I did that recently. I think A Little Night Music is a really special show. The themes in it play 100 percent right now. You relate to every one of those people. A person of my age, who is starting to move from Guglielmo to Don Alfonso (laugh)—there’s a coming to terms with where you are. I think, well, I never got to sing Billy Budd, and now I probably won’t. And that’s fine. I feel like Fredrik in life, just being an aging opera singer. And the music in Night Music is timeless. Some Sondheim pieces sound like when they were written. This one does not.
BK: You also perform a healthy amount of orchestral repertoire. Do you think that students today are encouraged to learn orchestral and oratorio rep?
TC: I think that every baritone and bass should come out of university knowing how to sing Messiah.
BK: When I first came to New York, Thea Dispeker’s agency had basically cornered the market on oratorio. There were many singers who did little else.
TC: Yes. And there are all those singers who don’t want to be away from home that long. For me, I miss the rehearsal process. Discovering who your character is and the psychology of the process. I love performing too, but a lot of my love of performing is my excitement to share what we have discovered. I remember when I was here at FGO years ago as a Young Artist. It was Diana Soviero and Bernard Uzan’s first time running the studio. We were doing Hoffmann, and someone said, “It’s so awesome to come out onstage at the end, and everyone is screaming and applauding.” And Diana said, “Is that why you’re doing this?” And he said, “It’s part of it.” And she said, “You’re going to be miserable. You have to love words. You have to love rehearsing. You have to love sitting down and discovering what all these idiomatic expressions mean and how they relate to your character. Because when the curtain comes down, you’re going to be alone in your hotel.”
BK: How do you deal with the constant travel of the performer’s life?
TC: It’s a blessing and a curse. The business isn’t very big, so you’re never more than once removed from your colleagues. For the most part, you know everyone you’re working with. You kind of feel like you have family and friends wherever you go. But if I possibly can, I go home with a suitcase full of clean clothes. Things are folded in my suitcase exactly as they are folded to go in my drawers. The feeling that I hate is when I get home from a gig and the settling in drags over three days. I travel so much, and certain things make me feel human. It used to be that my husband would have everything in disarray in the closet when I would come home.
BK: It’s called order. Do you think a lot about what the future will hold for you as an opera singer?
TC: I do. I think that when I retire from singing, I would like to go into the development world. I live in Bucks County. The whole reason that I have a car and a house and a life is because of the generosity of these people. Take the festival we just did in Philadelphia. My fear is that everyone else is going to think, “We need to do a festival.” But that’s not the takeaway. The takeaway is that Philadelphia spent two years doing market research so they could understand their audience. And the festival is the end result of all that research. We need to invest in understanding the arts. My fear is that it’s going to be, “Oh, let’s do a festival. Let’s do these fringe things.” But in Omaha, the fringe things might not work.