The First Lady of Song

Classic Arts Features   The First Lady of Song
 
A Q&A with Barbara Cook, who makes a grand return to Carnegie Hall this season, beginning on November 18.


When Barbara Cook made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1961, she was Broadway's brightest ing_nue. In a few short years, she had batted out crystalline high Cs in Leonard Bernstein's Candide; had vividly reimagined the role of Julie Jordan in a major revival of Carousel; and had picked up a Tony Award for her Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. At Carnegie Hall that February night in 1961, a starry New York Philharmonic tribute to Bernstein, the twenty-something Cook scored with a "Glitter and Be Gay" that nearly stole the show.

But it was her 1975 concert at Carnegie Hall that launched Cook's career in a new direction. That night, Cook was reborn as a prime interpreter of the American songbook. Thirty years later, she is still going strong.

On November 18, Cook returns for her first concert here since her 2003 Mostly Sondheim Revisited program, which was among the singer's last projects with her longtime collaborator, Wally Harper, who died in 2004. For the new show, Cook anticipates, as she puts it, "some Sondheim, some Hammerstein, some Bernstein," and she is working with conductor Eric Stern. And on January 23, she returns to lead a public master class — a program of The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall in partnership with The Marilyn Horne Foundation — in which she engages the next generation of vocalists.


Playbill: How do you keep performances fresh?

Barbara Cook: One of the reasons I can keep doing certain songs is that I always try to be in the moment. Whatever is happening in my life might feed into what I do with a song. It's about knowing the songs from the inside out, then making acting choices.

Playbill: It looks effortless.

Cook: It isn't. [Laughs] Look, I was fortunate that, very early on, I met a singing teacher who stressed the importance of technique, which has helped me over the years. As you get older, things are not quite as easy. You have to think and prepare a little more here and there.

Playbill: How did you start doing your master classes, and why do you like working with young singers?

Cook: Ages ago, an actress friend was taking a class on auditioning and asked me if I would speak to the class. It went very well. What I try to do — without sounding grandiose — is give singers permission to do what they already do. When you're young, it's hard to believe that the world wants you. You think, "Oh, I have to sing like Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, or whomever." That's never true. What any audience wants is the authentic self.

My classes are not like most master classes. They're about having the courage to be onstage and understanding that that's where safety lies. This thing that seems so dangerous — revealing your true self — that's where you're safe. The idea of exposing ourselves emotionally is frightening. But when people see one another's humanity, it touches lives and brings us together.

Playbill: What does Carnegie Hall mean to you as an artist?

Cook: Carnegie Hall represents a kind of pinnacle, a stamp of approval. The 1975 concert was important for me personally and for my career. The first time I sang at Carnegie Hall, in 1961, was also the first time I sang with the New York Philharmonic, and Leonard Bernstein was sitting in the audience. Man, I was so scared.

Playbill: How do you think you did?

Cook: I did great. [Laughs] At one point, I started giggling onstage and said, "I'm not as nervous as I thought I'd be." Well, thank goodness we do grow up some. But, you know, it's always wonderful performing at Carnegie Hall. It always feels like a homecoming.


Robert Sandla is a frequent contributor to Playbill.


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