A concert hall is a magical place but unless you're Andrew Lloyd Webber, you're unlikely to believe in haunted opera houses.

Still, sometimes you wonder.

"I had a funny experience once," says Grammy Award-winning US mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who performs here with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra this month.

"I was giving a recital but when I showed up to the venue the power was out. We decided we'd go on, people had paid for their tickets; we'd use flashlights. Suddenly, in the middle of The Spectre of the Rose, the lights came on. And that's just what the song feels like: magic and light and beauty."


The Spectre of the Rose comes from Hector Berlioz's Les Nuits d'ete, six settings of poetry by Theophile Gautier (none-more-Romantic-than sample lyric: 'Oh you who were the cause of my death/You will not be able to drive me away/Every night my rosy spectre/Will come dancing at your bedside).

Cooke gives the cycle a rare New Zealand outing on her three-date tour.

Les Nuits d'ete is not the drugged-up, Technicolor Berlioz of the more famous Symphonie Fantastique. The orchestra is small by the composer's standards; the atmosphere intimate. Its challenges lie in the stamina-testing 30-minute duration and in the variety of the poetry and music, which require subtle shades.

Cooke is up to the challenge. Berlioz is one of her favourite composers. She last year performed La damnation de Faust and in June travels to Melbourne as the star attraction in the composer's oratorio L'Enfance du Christ.

"There is a certain sound world, and emotional world, that is uniquely Berlioz," she says. "You hear the characterisation in the writing expressed very clearly through the music and the harmony is so evocative. On top of that comes the vocal line, which is so lyrical and melodic and French."

The French repertoire has played a big part in Cooke's career, with the singer drawn both to the music and the way it suits the qualities of her voice. Her New Zealand concerts are packed with French music, with Les Nuits d'ete accompanied by Ravel's Bolero and Debussy's shimmering evocation of the waves, La mer.

The concert also features a watery world premiere, in the form of New Zealand composer Salina Fisher's Tupaia. The piece is named for the Polynesian navigator who helped James Cook reach Aotearoa in 1769 and is the first in a series of NZSO commissions commemorating 250 years since Cook's arrival.

NZSO music director Edo de Waart will be on the podium. He and Cooke have a musical relationship going back more than a decade.


"I have a special feeling for Edo because he was one of the first conductors to hire me," says Cooke. "I've done a lot of Mahler with him; he was the first person I did Das Lied von der Erde with. I've learnt so much from him as a musician and as a person, he's a phenomenal conductor and a phenomenal conductor of singers."

Cooke got her introduction to de Waart through a singer, Susan Graham, another marvellous mezzo who excels in the French repertoire.

"I was visiting my boyfriend [now husband, baritone Kelly Markgraf] in Santa Fe and Susan Graham was backstage. She said to Edo, 'Do you know this mezzo? You need to hear her.' A few days later I was singing for Edo and not long after I was with him in Hong Kong and Milwaukee."

Cooke returned Graham's favour by singing at her wedding last year.

"[Graham] was one of my idols growing up. She and [fellow mezzo] Frederica von Stade are people I hope to be when I get older, in the sense of being generous, open and kind, even a little bit maternal. They're very good role models. That's the beauty of the singing community, we are each other's family for the time we are together, if it's a week or six weeks or whatever, we're there for each other."

This will surprise anyone who grew up with legendary tales of diva behaviour and rivalries, like that between sopranos Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, who fought openly in the press. In one famous exchange, Callas chose a Time magazine interview to compare herself to champagne, labelling Tebaldi Coca-Cola. Tebaldi declared that she found champagne sour.

Perhaps now is not a time for that sort of conflict, there's enough of that in her homeland's air as it is. Besides, Cooke believes the artist's role in difficult times is to bring people together, not push them apart.

"Someone said to me, 'You must accept the responsibility of bringing great peace to people who need it,'" Cooke says. "One of the things I love about live performance is that we're all in the room having a human experience together. I know it's cheesy but I do think that we go [to concerts] to feel, we go to have our hearts awakened."

Who: NZSO featuring Sasha Cooke: Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel
Where and When: Hamilton, Auckland and Wellington, April 19-21