Opera:The soundtrack of a life

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By Brad Bowman

Troy Cook didn’t let his small town upbringing stop him from a life on the big stage.

From Eminence High School chorus and church youth choir to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the love of music has given Cook the soundtrack of his life.

Cook started humming and singing as a child. He would carry home a  tune taught in nursery school in his head where he would play it out by ear on the piano. He would perform the songs from Little Orphan Annie in front of his family’s fireplace.

“I tricked my teachers into playing a piece they assigned for me, not reading the music, and I would remember it,” Cook said. “They caught on. I would play harmonies in the piece and they would tell me how nice it sounded, but that it wasn’t in the original composition.”

In 1987, Cook looked at fliers posted at Eminence High School announcing auditions for the first Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. With a bit of ambition, he left the comforts of small town Eminence and entered vocal auditions at the large Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville.

“Everyone else was singing these really sophisticated pieces,” Cook said, “and I sang Memories from Cats (Broadway musical). Kay Bates (vocal judge), from Murray State, I was told said she wanted me.”

The Governor’s School for the Arts accepted Cook, which opened doors for him to study with vocal coach David Brown from the Youth Performing Arts School in Jefferson County. The experience broadened Cook’s exposure to music, which was previously based on extracurricular activities like drama club or a spring concert at Eminence Independent Schools. Cook would commute to lessons in Louisville.

“Another big moment for me was the Sweet 16. I won with the German song Verborgenheit.  You have not just the Sweet 16 in basketball but also music. All-state chorus exposed me to things I didn’t know existed,” Cook said. “I don’t know if I had completely formulated yet what I wanted to do with my life. I enjoyed singing and learning about music. It was the start of a journey for me. Mr. Brown had picked it out for me. It wasn’t too long. It was a good competition piece.”

When it came time for college, Cook weighed his options, which included prestigious performing arts colleges like The Juiliard School, a private conservatory, and decided on Centre College. He auditioned and joined the Centre Singers, a chamber-like choir of up to 24 voices. Centre would help solidify Cook’s path.

“I decided I was going to be an opera singer. I had never seen an opera or heard an entire opera. The Centre Singers toured through the states, I was a part of that. That was my music fraternity.We were all very close,” Cook said. “My degree was a combination of music and language. I thought it was cool singing something in Italian. First year at Centre I minored in German. It’s basically love of language and music.”

During the summers, Cook went to the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina where he saw his first opera — Madame Butterfly.

“I entered their opera apprentice program and you start building a network with professionals who know your ability and that is how the business unfolds,” Cook said. “At this point in the game, you understand what other people on the other side of the table think. It’s a part of building your network, so if they hire you in two years, they know you’re not in vocal crisis and you are a vocal mess. They have to have an idea where you are going and your ability.”

Cook made the leap and moved to New York City after school. New York City was then considered the opera mecca where everyone makes their pilgrimage to do their time with coaches and auditions for the ambitions of working in opera professionally.  Landing a few apprenticeship programs, opera companies gave Cook a stipend with coaches and teachers in exchange for performing in medium and small stage roles.

“My first professional role was with the Minnesota Opera. The folks there are great because they will take a chance on new talent,” Cook said. “They double cast so there is less pressure on you and that was the place as well where I got my first agent.”

Cook’s agent helped him secure what his career path was, where and what type of contracts he wanted to secure. The agent must be an advocate, putting the artist in the right auditions and planting the seed for auditions and roles, Cook said.

“If you get auditions, once the doors open, it’s up to you as an artist to bring the goods,” Cook said. “If you are auditioning the ball is in your court. One thing people don’t understand is as an opera singer, unlike musical theater where you tour, we are all independent contractors doing one show at time.”

After working an additional time for the Minnesota Opera, Cook was in another apprentice program in Florida. The phone rang and an artistic manager from the Metropolitan Opera was on the other end.

Once Cook sang for the Met and it was on his resume people started listening. His career has taken him to Germany, Spain and across the nation. He has rehearsed with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. He recently performed with the Kentucky Opera at the Brown Theatre as Palo Albiani in Simon Boccanegra. Cook will return to Eminence and perform at Martha Tarry Simpson’s Henry County Pride in Arts at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, at Eminence Christian Church.

“Music is my life,” Cook said. “I am one of the lucky ones who have ability or talent and actually get to do what I love to do as my job. There are plenty of people who work hard to do what they want to do and I get to do both.”