by Bruce Duffie


Terry Cook is a fine young bass with a bright future ahead of him.  His physical stature, and confidence – to say nothing of his voice – have the makings of a solid career to be proud of, and those of us who enjoy his performances now can look back later and remember these early days as ones filled with vigor, hope, and a feeling for destiny.

After winning the Met Auditions, Terry Cook became a member of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.  There, he worked on his craft, and received help and guidance in big and small roles.  As part of the program, he appeared in the regular productions of Lyric Opera of Chicago singing many small characters, but gaining experience with such directors as Tito Gobbi and Hal Prince, as well as the biggest singers in the opera business.  [See my Interview with Tito Gobbi, and my Interview with Hal Prince.]  He mentioned enjoying the role of Luther in Hoffmann simply because it was his first opportunity to play a fat man!  But he was kept busy.  He remembered the day of the Butterfly premiere.  There was a musical rehearsal for Luisa Miller in the morning, then at 2 PM a master-class with Jon Vickers [see my Interview with Jon Vickers], at 3:30 an audition for the Houston Grand Opera, and his makeup call for the evening’s performance was at 6 PM.  He is now in his third season at the Metropolitan Opera, and continues not only to rack up performances there, but also fills engagements in both opera and concert around the country.

Last season, he appeared as Basilio with the Portland Opera, sang in Jean D’Arc au Bicher with the Boston Symphony both in Boston and at Carnegie Hall, was soloist in the Shostakovich 14th Symphony with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and appeared in Tippett’s oratorio A Child of our Time in Baltimore.  He also made his debut with the Paris Opera in Rinaldo.  This season (1985-86), there was Oroveso in Norma in Boston and Raimondo in Lucia in Seattle before returning to the Met for Neptune in Idomeneo, the King in Aïda, Paolo in Simon Boccanegra, and Harapha in Handel’s Samson.  After his Met season, our young man goes to Los Angeles for the Beethoven 9th, and then returns to Paris for the Speaker in Zauberflöte, and Colline in Bohème.  He has engagements booked as far ahead as 1987-88, and there is no doubt that his calendar will remain as full as he cares to keep it.

So how does it all happen?  That’s exactly what I asked him…

Bruce Duffie:    How does a tall, lanky bass from Texas get on the stage at Lyric Opera?

Terry Cook:    I guess it started from taking voice at Texas Tech University.  Maestro Schaenen (of the Lyric Center) heard me sing at a Met audition in New York, so that’s how I got to Chicago.  He liked me and called my voice teacher in Lubbock, Texas.  But my teacher thought it was too early – I was only 21 at the time – so we decided to wait a bit, and two years later I auditioned and got a contract.

BD:    Is 21 too young for a bass?

TC:    I think so.  They say the bass voice matures the slowest, and I believe that.  I’m still waiting for my voice to fully mature.  That could be a problem for young basses – being thrown into all kinds of roles that shouldn’t be done yet.

BD:    Do you like playing the father of someone who is 20 years older than you?

TC:    I like that – it’s fun.  It’s all part of the acting.

BD:    Are auditions or contests the way to go for a young singer?

TC:    Without that audition I probably wouldn’t be here.  You get a lot of recognition from them.  Many singers start out by auditioning for apprentice programs – like in Santa Fe or Lake George or Wolf Trap or the Merola Program.  These are the outlets for young singers right now.  They are good because you learn the craft, and that’s when you find out if you really want to do the singing business.

BD:    Do you really want to do the singing business?

TC:    Oh yes.  There’s nothing else for me.

BD:    When did you decide, or what made you decide that?

cookTC:    Actually, I got my first exposure to opera from my brother.  They were closing down a high school in our neighborhood and they were giving away records.  They gave him bunches of opera records and those were about the only records we had in the house.  So I listened to them and fell in love with them.  Right away I liked the music.  I was about 12 years old then, so the odds against liking it are 1,000 to 1.  But I started studying a lot of things – like science and math.  Right after I graduated from high school, I decided that I wanted to be a recording engineer because I loved listening to the music.  I didn’t think I had much chance to make music, and I thought that because I was black they wouldn’t hire me as a singer.  But in college, while majoring in engineering, I also took voice because I liked singing.  I sang in the chorus.

BD:    No thoughts of going into gospel singing?

TC:    I sang in church and did a lot of gospel singing, but it wasn’t like opera to me.  My voice teacher was head of the opera department at Texas Tech University, and he cast me as the Usher in Trial by Jury.  That was a great role because it didn’t take much acting.  I could be stiff and just sing my lines.  But I loved being up there on stage, and ever since then I thought, “Hey, this is what I want to do.”  Right after that semester, I changed my major to music.

BD:    Education or performance?

TC:    Performance.  My parents really didn’t want me to do that.  I was in engineering, and that’s the way to go for a lot of young people.  It’s still a growing field.  I have friends who were graduating into jobs paying $24,000 or $30,000 per year.

BD:    Were you parents afraid you would not make it?

TC:    They were afraid I wouldn’t make it singing in opera.  But after I won the Met auditions, they started thinking that maybe I could make a living at this.  That audition process weeds out a lot of singers.

BD:    Are there some who are weeded out who make it eventually – or should?

TC:    Oh yes, I think so.  The Met looks for big sound, but smaller companies look for beautiful voices that are not necessarily big.  There were a lot of great singers in my audition that didn’t make it.  There was a guy in the audition in Texas named Tim Jenkins.  I beat him, but he’s at the Met singing Parsifal.  He was singing as a baritone, and they said if he changed to heldentenor they would take him.  So that’s what he did. 

BD:    I wonder if being pushed into the heavy roles so fast, he’ll last for more than a few years.

TC:    That’s what I’m afraid of – being pushed into the heavy roles too soon.  The advice I’m getting here is to stick with the Mozart and the Donizetti – all the lyric bass things – for a while.  I’ll grow into the Verdi roles eventually.  I did three performances of Osmin. 

BD:    Have you got the low D?

TC:    In one of the three shows it was good and solid; the others it was just so-so.  I don’t think I’m going to sing that any more.  The rest of the role is fine, but that one note made me nervous.

BD:    Is it wrong for the public to judge a whole role just on one note?

TC:    They shouldn’t, but many times they do.  Many times that’s how they judge tenors.  But Osmin was a real fun role.  He’s a funny guy though he’s not trying to be.  He’s taken advantage of and made a fool of through the whole show.  It’s kind of a sad character.  I hope to come back to the role later in my career.  That’s one of the advantages of singing here in the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.  I have the chance to try out so many different roles just to see which ones I like.  At the beginning of the year, I felt I was singing too many different roles, but I would feel worse if I wasn’t busy at all.  My second year here I didn’t do anything at all – just one role up at Ravinia, plus learning new repertoire and studying the roles for the following season.

BD:    Is it good to experience to cover roles, or is that just frustrating?   

TC:    I feel I learned a lot from watching others on the stage.  You build a really big repertoire that way, and not just little two-line roles, but big roles which I’ll get to sing someday.

BD:    Are you purposely trying to pace your career and not accept some things too soon?

TC:    Yes, and my agent wants to do that, too.  That’s so I can have a long career.

BD:    How difficult is it to say no?

TC:    It depends on what the part is and how much I really want to do it.  I’ve been studying King Philip for a couple of years, and that would be really hard to turn down.  I’m not sure anyone would offer it to me, but it might be interesting to try it in a really small house.

BD:    For a small house, though, you might have to do it in English.

TC:    I’ve done Figaro in English and that works fine, but I’m not sure about Don Carlo

BD:    Do you find any closer communication when you’ve sung a line and know that the audience understands it?

TC:    Oh yes, definitely.  I find myself really close to the audience when they know what I’m singing, but I don’t seem to miss that when I’m singing in Italian.  I love singing in Italian or German.  I spent all my years at Texas Tech singing roles in English, but the audience can’t always understand it.

BD:    Who’s fault is that?

TC:    It’s mostly the singer’s fault – my fault – but it’s hard to have a legato line with the all consonants.  It’s much easier in Italian.  We’re so used to Italian here at Lyric that it would be a hard transition to English.

BD:    Does the size of the house matter at all when you sing?

TC:    No, not a bit.  I sing the same way in a big house as anywhere else.  It’s interesting – some of the singers who come from the smaller houses in Europe see the size of the big house here, and decide they must shout or force to be heard.  You don’t have to do that at all – in fact it’s easier to sing in the big house than in the smaller Civic Theater next door.  You get feedback in the larger house – you can hear your voice coming back – and in the little one you can’t.

BD:    How can you as a young singer help to get more young people to come to the opera?       

TC:    That’s a tough question.  First you’d have to explain to them what the story was about to get them interested in seeing something like that.  But it’s hard to get them interested in going to the opera.  When I was a student, our productions would only sell a few tickets to students, and most of them were music students.  Others just weren’t interested.

BD:    Does it help that operas are on TV more and more?

TC:    It helps adults enjoy it a lot more.  When I was at home, they wouldn’t watch opera on TV if they could see Dallas or something like that.  I’m glad it’s all over the media.  The big superstar tenors are helping a whole lot.  Big names can introduce people.  After seeing them on Johnny Carson, they might wonder what a whole opera with them might be like.  There’s not much I can do to influence young people – I’m at the opera house working and not with the youngsters.  We have to develop an audience for the future.  When I’m 40, I hope to see a lot of people my age out there in the house watching.  I think we will because look how much opera has grown in the last 10 years.   

BD:    Tell me about some of your other roles.

TC:    I did a Sarastro in Orchestra Hall in a concert for children with the Chicago Symphony.  It was fun, and I’d love to do Don Giovanni.  When the world is ready for a black Don Giovanni, I’m ready! 

BD:    Does your being black enter into career decisions?

TC:    It hasn’t so far, but with make-up they can change the color of your skin if they want to.

BD:    Are you mad that the role of Otello is written for a tenor?

TC:    Oh God, yes.  I think Verdi made a mistake there – it should have been a bass singing Otello.  A big bass with a dark voice.  Too bad I’m not a tenor.  But I think there is more discrimination with black tenors than with basses and baritones.  Maybe management is a bit afraid of a black tenor with a white soprano, while not objecting to a white tenor with a black soprano.  In Europe, though, it’s been better for many years, but it’s all changing a lot now.  When I was in college, I sang Mephistopheles in Faust.  There may have been something of a color thing there, but it was a great success and the role feels right in my voice.  Simon Estes is getting a lot of work, and he’s paving the way for me.

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Bruce Duffie recently completed 10 years of service with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  His interviews with leading operatic artists have appeared on the air, as well as in magazines and journals.  "Conversation Piece" is now a regular feature in The Opera Journal.  Next time, a conversation with soprano Marilyn Zschau.

Bass Terry Cook has appeared with most of the major opera companies and symphony orchestras around the world. He’s known especially for his portrayal of the title role in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He took part in New York Harlem Productions’ Porgy and Bess in Germany, Norway, Spain and Italy, with the Houston Grand Opera at Opera Bastille and at La Scala, as well as at the Bregenzer Festspiele and in a new production at the Treatro Real in Madrid.

Mr. Cook has sung in over twenty productions at the Metropolitan Opera, most recently in La Gioconda, La Fanciulla del West (new production), II Trovatore, Un Ballo in Maschera (telecast on PBS' "Live from the Met") and Les Troyens. Other productions included La Traviata, Billy Budd, ldomeneo, Simone Boccanegra, Samson et Dalila, Aida, Tannhäuser, La Clemenza di Tito, Giulio Cesare, Salome, Porgy and Bess, Semiramide and Parsifal.

The 2009/10 season brought his signature portrayal of Crown in Porgy and Bess to the Washington National Opera. He also sang Banquo in Macbeth at the Fresno Grand Opera and appeared with the Atlanta Symphony.

In 2008/09 he reprised the role of Crown at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and during 07/08 he sang the title role in Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story (premiere) with Cincinnati Opera, as well as Crown with both National Philharmonic and Fresno Grand Opera.

In season 2006/07, Mr. Cook performed the role of Zuane in La Gioconda with the Metropolitan Opera, as Crown in Porgy and Bess with Los Angeles Opera, in a workshop of Hailstork’s We Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story with Cincinnati Opera and Christmas Oratorio with Xalapa Symphony in Mexico.

In the Fall of 2005, Mr. Cook sang the role of Crown in Porgy and Bess with the Washington National Opera. In the summer of 2006, he sang Osmin in Mozart’s Zaide, a new, joint production of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York, Barbican Centre, London, and Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by Louis Langrée.

Orchestral engagements have included the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Atlanta, Seattle, Detroit, Baltimore and Houston Symphonies. Mr. Cook has performed under such esteemed conductors as James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Seiji Ozawa, Erich Leinsdorf, Robert Shaw, Sir Simon Rattle, Pinchas Zukerman, Trevor Pinnock, Sir Colin Davis, Christopher Hogwood, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Gerard Schwarz.

Terry Cook's recordings include Beethoven's Choral Fantasy with the Cleveland Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy on London Records and Aida with James Levine for Sony Classical.

--  Agent biography, September, 2011 

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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage at the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 24, 1982.  It was transcribed and published in The Opera Journal in December, 1985.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.