The blackout at Longy’s Pickman Hall had approached totality Tuesday night when Harmony Samuels’s “Think Like a Man” began blaring from the PA. As the penumbra of her sonic past passed by, the stage lights then revealed the swaying, clapping figure of Sirgourney (Tanner) Cook in a gorgeous empire gown of Kente cloth. Then in a fine dramatic soprano moment, she sang along with the spiritual, “Ride on King Jesus,” much as she had done (though probably with less force) as a 6-year-old listening to the radio in the car with her mother and within a massive church choir in the south side of Chicago. So, what was BMInt doing at Longy for “What am I doing Here?
Last November we had admired the serious and comic actor/singer with major pipes in her Boston Opera Collaborative Opera Bites role as Aphrodite [HERE]. Learning that she would be recounting “A singer’s quest to seek meaning and purpose, from a childhood immersed in gospel, to singing pop backup, balancing her love of gospel, God, and classical music,” we decided to stretch our comfort zone a bit and hear her tale.
Cook may have felt immediate kinship with pop and gospel, but the experience of hearing Leontyne Price, “a strong, black woman who commanded the stage with her presence and gorgeous voice” singing opera opened another inspiring vista, which she imparted to us in a take-no-prisoners-diva rendition of “Ah fuggi il traditor” from Don Giovanni. Yes, oh yes! Attitude and chops galore.
Her appetites inspired degrees in philosophy and music, as well as performances in every genre conceivable for a determined woman with her range of experience. For three financially and artistically profitable years, she backed for Jennifer Hudson, whose “Spotlight” Cook essayed with jazzy, scatting grace. But lucrative pop was not enough for her. So to Longy she came for a graduate degree to expand her range. Her major teacher and mentor, the late Robert Honeysucker, whom she remembered with much love, must have experienced her artistic engagement much as she was drawn to his. When he sang “Were you there When They Crucified my Lord” for me in a Charlestown Palm Sunday Concert/Meditation, everything in the world stopped save our tears. (Cook along with baritone James Dargan will be singing spirituals at St. Mary Church in Charlestown on March 25th at 3:30 in memory of Robert Honeysucker)
Something of a nightclub act, the show compressed a 20-year-journey to just over 45 minutes with lots of personal banter and song. That she wooed and won me with arias like “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess, along with a soaring spiritual, “Balm in Gilead” came as no surprise. She also hooked us with a convincing Sara Vaughn style in “Lullaby of Birdland.” Pianist Alexander Johnson gave big support with the lid up, engaging appropriately in every style Cook called forth.
The closer, Margaret Bond’s fine spiritual “You Can Tell the World” inspired everyone in the lively crowd [save this stiff] to clap and sway.
Though feeling a bit confined by Pickman’s tight space, Cook’s encore as a vividly flirtatious Musetta in “Quando m’en vo” from La Boheme, could have waltzed across the footlights and soared to the highest opera house balconies.
Opera may be a third act for Cook, but I expect many more will follow. Sirgourney, keep your eyes on the prizes…all of them.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer