Center Stage With: Pat Cook-Nicholson

Pat Cook-Nicholson is a full time regular soprano chorister at Lyric Opera of Chicago and has been singing with Lyric for the past 35 years.  She was hired at the age of 21 while she was still working on her undergraduate degree and is the youngest individual ever accepted into the chorus. Her daughter Amy has been in a few productions at Lyric, including “Turandot” this past season.  Lyric was rehearsing “Pique Dame” at the time that Pat gave birth to Amy, and Mrs. Cook-Nicholson returned to work just 9 short days after giving birth. Pat is very well known for her nurturing nature and for being an incredibly thoughtful colleague.  She often prepares food for our stagehand crew when they are working overnight shifts and also is known for bringing in food for her chorister colleagues.  She is the person that you want to go to when you need a really good hug and a listening ear.  She enjoys fishing, cooking and spending time with her 3 dogs (2 of which are rescues) and 2 cats.  I spoke with a few choristers and would like to mention a few of the phrases that were used to describe her: “Pat would give you the shirt off her back”, “She takes care of people and pays it forward a lot”, “she is my work Mom”, “she gives the best hugs of anyone that I know”, “I immediately go to her when something bad happens to me or I’m upset about something”, “She’s so humble and non-pretentious”, “What a voice! It’s gorgeous and strong and I think she was born with it lined up beautifully”, “She is selfless and thinks about others all the time” and “She deserves the best the world has to offer and doesn’t receive nearly enough thanks and appreciation for everything she does.”  In this article she talks about her career at Lyric, her family life, hobbies, background in music and her childhood.

Q:  What is your favorite opera and why?

A:  My favorite opera is, “La Boheme”.  It was the first opera I ever saw, the first opera I ever rehearsed as a chorister musically and the first opera I ever performed in in 1983, when I started Lyric as a professional chorister!!!

Q:  What is your favorite opera production/cast/performance at Lyric?

A:  This is a toughie.  There are actually a couple.  There was a “Carmen” with Placido Domingo and Alicia Nafe that was the most sensuous, and also beautiful vocally, but I think the most moving and cohesive was the “Susannah” with Sam Ramey and Renee Fleming.

Q:  What do you do on your days off from Lyric?

A:  A day off is only a day off from the job I get paid to do.  I run errands, (grocery stores, pharmacy, vet) do laundry, catch up on poop patrol, do bills, plan meals and cook, and then try to do minor cleaning and paperwork!

Q:  Do you speak any other languages? Does this help you as a chorister?

A:  I am pretty fluent in Spanish.  My next would be Italian, then German, then French.  It definitely helps learn music because you don’t have to look everything up to translate our text, just about 1/2 of it!

Q:  Where and what did you study?

A:  I hold a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from North Park College, aka North Park University here in Chicago.  I graduated in 1983, the same year I got into the regular chorus.  I was 21 years old that March and turned 22 in May.  I actually did not receive my diploma until November, because I couldn’t memorize the opera season music and my senior recital music soon enough to get my degree in May.  I did my recital in July during our Lyric “vacation,” and got my diploma in the middle of the opera season!

Q:  If you could sing any role, what would it be and why?

A:  My voice was made for Puccini, so I could pick almost any of those roles.  I had a lot of theatre in school and was best Thespian my senior year in High school, so I’m going to say, dramatically, that I would love to do “Suor Angelica”.  It is so heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time!  I don’t know if I could keep from crying, though!

Opera singers posing in costume
Pat Cook-Nicholson posting with fellow LOSA artist Yvette Smith.

Q:  Tell me some of your most memorable moments from your time at Lyric?

A:  There are a lot of “moments” that happen over the course of 35 years!!  The special one comes to mind when I was cast in a chorus bit role as one of the virgins in Handel’s, “Samson” in 1985 with Valerie DeBartolo and Marilyn DeStefano.  Jon Vickers was Samson and Julius Rudel was the conductor.  The virgin was originally 1 role, but they split it into 3 parts and had us surrounding Jon Vickers who was on a cart that moved around on stage.  We sang to him while he was blind.  When we sang to him from different directions, he wheeled around to face us when he heard where the sound was coming from.  I hesitated for a moment to let the sound from the previous virgin’s singing waft through the house and to give him a chance to move and Mo. Rudel chided me for coming in late.  When we finished, Mr. Vickers turned to me and said, “You were exactly right, my dear.  Don’t change a thing….HE has to follow YOU!!  I’ll never forget his kind words!  The beautiful moment would have to be when Edita Gruberova sang a “Lucia” here.  It was some of the most glorious singing I’ve ever heard, spot on every night, she never missed a note!!  I think the funniest moment was when we were doing a “Don Quichotte” with Sam Ramey.  We got done singing our villager chorus just before he enters on his horse with his sidekick on a donkey, and waited for him to come out…..and waited….and waited!  The conductor folded his hands across his chest, and still no Don Quichotte!  Lynn Lundgren and I were upstage so we ran offstage left and there they were….the horse was not cooperating.  When they tried to cinch the saddle tight, he would hold his breath…Sam would try to get on, the horse would breathe out and the saddle would slide sideways.  They finally got it tight enough for Sam to mount him to ride out for his grand entrance.  Lynn and I both ran back onstage, waving our arms, trying to remember how to say, “he’s coming!” in French.  We shouted, “Don Quichotte, Vien!”  The chorus roared, Sam entered, and the Mo. started the music for the scene.  It seemed like forever, but it was probably only a couple of minutes!  Whew!

Q:  Do you have any interesting stories or events you were involved in from before you started at Lyric or not pertaining to Lyric (related to opera or otherwise)?

A:  Nothing spectacular.  It just seems like fate that I ended up there.  I didn’t take freshman chorus in High School because I had a full load.  The counselors told me that I could take it if I got good grades the first semester.  I did, so I went to the choir director, Daniel Tkach, and asked if I could take it 2nd semester.  He said, “No, you can’t join halfway through the year.  Why didn’t you start earlier?”  I explained the situation and he said he would like me to meet him to “audition” for the A Cappella group for the next year.

A side note here is that I would drive my parent’s nuts sitting at the piano at home, singing “The Old Grey Goose Just Ain’t What She Used to Be!”  when I was little.  My mom made all 4 of us take piano lessons when we were little.  Whoever continued them got the piano.  I still have it to this day!

So, I stayed after school and went to see the choir director for my audition.  He had me pick a key and sing the “Star Spangled Banner”.  I did, then he started to play some notes on the piano and asked me to sing what he played.  He started with 3 or 4 notes, I’d sing them, he’d add more, I’d sing them, etc., until he gave up after a dozen or so.  Then he vocalized me a little.  He stopped and asked me to learn “The Hills Are Alive”, from “The Sound of Music”.  He told me to come back in a couple of weeks and sing it for the kids in the A Cappella group and that I could join it the next year.  I sang for them, thinking it was a routine thing to do.  No one else ever had done that before or since!  I think he was “showing me off” a little!

He was an amazing choral director.  He had been a drill sergeant in the Army and used that same kind of discipline in our group.  We did breathing drills every morning when we met at 7:30 am for 5 minutes before singing.  We met for sectionals 1 day a week at 6:45 a.m. and we had to meet with him privately once a week to “go over” our music.  It was essentially a voice lesson, or coaching, although I didn’t realize it at the time!

We did college material…Mozart’s, “Solemn Vespers”, Mendelssohn’s, “Elijah”.  All sorts of college arrangements of pieces.  His uncle was Peter Tkach, who did a lot of arranging of college music.  It was a fantastic experience!

When I was in college I got to do the solo in the Brahm’s, “Requiem” on a college tour.  I participated in the Monastero competition several times and got something from that, not the grand prize, but one of the monetary awards.

Q:  What composer would you want to write the opera of your life and why?

A:  I don’t know if I’d want the story of my life turned into an opera!  It’s pretty boring!!  Again, I’d probably have to pick Puccini!  Drama and more drama!

Q:  What are your favorite hobbies outside of the Lyric?

A:   I love to cook!  Not baking so much, but cooking.  I can make just about anything and run and cook for a lot of the dinners we have at our church.  We do fish frys, Mardi Gras, Italian Nights, Oktoberfests, Corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day and we’re doing a pulled pork Dinner in May for the first time.  We’re smoking the pork shoulder and making homemade cole slaw and baked beans.  YUM!!

Pat and her Husband posing with their prized Pointer, enjoying their recent catch, and posing with the Stanley Cup.

Q:  Tell me a little about your family (partner, children, close relatives) and their significance in your life and career.

A:  My dad used to tell me when I was practicing to sing, “solo, ……SO LOW that I can’t hear you!”  I’d roll my eyes and sigh.  My parents didn’t want me to pursue a singing career.  My mom was a nurse and my dad was a sheet metal worker.  I have no idea where I got my gift from.  They wanted me to pursue something with my languages.  To make a long story short, my aunt received a Lincoln Laureate Award from Governor Thompson in 1979.  My parents went to Springfield to see her being presented by the Governor and attended the banquet afterwards.  During the banquet, 2 opera singers went table to table, serenading the guests.  When my parents returned, they gave me the green light to go ahead and audition for music in college.  After that, they were my biggest fans!!

My husband is a jokester and an extremely hard worker.  He is a truck driver.  When we first met he used to joke with his coworkers that he thought I said I sang for the “Opry”, not the “Opera”.  He came to 1 opera and fell asleep halfway through it!  (In his defense, however, he gets up at 4:10 a.m. to go to work!)  He brags to people about what I do, so I know it makes him feel good.  We have 1 daughter together, Amy, who has supered in a number of operas at Lyric.  I LOVE working with her. She is supportive and a very good musician and actress in her own right!

Q:  Do you have any performing/ opera related things coming up?

A:  I don’t do a lot outside of Lyric anymore…don’t have the time or energy!  I’ll sing an occasional solo at church now and again!

Q:  If you weren’t a singer, what would you be doing and why?

A:  I would be involved in the medical field somehow.  I’ve always been a fairly nurturing person.  I helped take care of my mom when she had cancer that eventually took her life.  All of the aptitude tests I took in school pointed towards nursing.  So maybe that could be phase II!?

Q:  Do you play any instruments? If you don’t, which one would you want to play?

A:  I play piano and guitar.  I wouldn’t play them in front of anyone, though!  I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the violin!

Q:  What kind of music do you listen to outside of the opera house?

A:  I rarely listen to opera outside of the opera house.  We listen to a variety of music, but on trips, we play country music in the car!

Q:  What do you do in your down time backstage in the dressing room?

A:  When we’re not onstage, I like to read cooking and homesteading magazines and play a couple of games on my phone!  I put my feet up on my desk if I can in my costume with a glass of ice water and rest my brain!!

Q:  Do you have a sore throat remedy?

A:   When I have a sore throat I like to drink a variety of teas with honey and lemon and sometimes some ginger in it and suck on herbal throat lozenges!