SFOpera - Sasha Cooke’s “Sasha Sesh” Series Dives Into Size Discrimination in Opera

Sasha Cooke’s “Sasha Sesh” Series Dives Into Size Discrimination in Opera

The first thing mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke wants you to know is that you’re not alone. The two-time Grammy winner has experienced firsthand what it is to feel scrutinized, sized up, and ultimately dismissed for how you look.

She also knows what it means to internalize that criticism. So on April 25, she went on Instagram with a message.

 


Sasha Cooke in 2019. Photo by Stephanie Girard.

“About two decades ago I was 90 lbs heavier,” she wrote in a post accompanied by portraits of herself in high school. She detailed how she started dieting at age 8 — and how the pressure to lose weight has dogged her ever since. 

The United States was entering its second month of quarantine measures and lockdowns at the time. The World Health Organization had declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, and the following month had brought closures, travel restrictions, and layoffs across the country.

But for Cooke, the financial uncertainty mingled with other fears. “Now with the gym closed and this extended time at home, it feels like a recipe for disaster,” Cooke wrote. She announced she would be holding a “couple conversations” live on Instagram to talk about weight, eating, and the “inner demons” she faced.

Fast forward eight months, and those conversations have turned into a full-fledged series: what Cooke calls her “Sasha seshes,” short for “sessions.” They feature some of the biggest names in the opera industry — singers like Christine Goerke, Jamie Barton and Lisette Oropesa — speaking candidly about body image.

“The word ‘fat’ was something I would avoid in the past,” Cooke explained in a recent interview with San Francisco Opera. But speaking to her colleagues has helped her confront the negative stereotypes associated with the label.

It’s also led her to discuss a range of experiences tied to body image, experiences that often go unspoken: everything from eating disorders to alcoholism, pregnancy to discrimination on stage. 

“One by-product of talking to everybody has been feeling better, feeling internally stronger,” Cooke says. She compares her interviews with the home improvement projects that have become so popular during the quarantine: “I kind of thought, ‘Well, I also want to clean house with myself.’”

In this interview, she relives some of her own experiences with size discrimination and shares her approach to interviewing her fellow artists.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What spurred you to create this Instagram Live series specifically about body image and our relationship with food and weight?  

COOKE: Well, actually it came from fear. As someone who's lost a lot of weight in the past, in my early 20s, I have benefited from the structure of performing because it always kept me accountable. I always had to be in a costume or a gown.

So suddenly to lose all these jobs and have no sense of structure and this close proximity to food? And then to have kids and the way kids eat and their schedules of snacking? It was just this pressure and this fear.

I just wanted to reach out to someone and say, “How are you balancing this new world? Particularly when it comes to body image and weight loss?” But then that evolved into discrimination in the opera business and those pressures: the pressure to be a certain size, the competition, the HD culture. You see more and more this inclination to cast people based on how they look and not how they sound. And oftentimes race gets into that picture.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did size discrimination manifest itself in your career?

COOKE: Well, it's interesting. Because there are so many singers and there's fair amount of competition, there's this feeling that you're expendable. You don't want to mess anything up, but you also feel like you're the property of the industry, the property of the opera houses.

So they will make comments about your appearance or what a certain role should look like and how much they should weigh. I've been told by directors how suddenly I'm more cast-able because I just lost 10 pounds. There are just little things said all the time that I guess I would call microaggressions.

But at the time that they happened, I didn't even know they were. It’s like: Isn't this expected in the opera business? That people can treat me like I'm fair game to say anything personal?

It’s kind of like sexism. When I started singing, I just assumed people were allowed to sexually harass people and you just had to suck it up. When I started, especially being alone with conductors or directors, things can get a little bit awkward and a little bit too uncomfortable. You didn't tell anybody, and it was just mind-blowing to me when the #MeToo movement started and people were outed.

And race also. I think race is one of these things that we know is a problem, but we just assume it goes with the territory and we shouldn't. It's so sad.

We have diversity in real life. We want diversity on stage. We have people of all sizes in real life. We want people of all sizes on stage. As [soprano] Rachel Willis-Sørensen said, “Does anyone go to the opera and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I really hope I don't see a fat person.’” And if that is a thought, should we really entertain it?

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you first become aware of how body image was shaping your career?

COOKE: It’s always been there, and I've seen the judgment of my heavier colleagues and what has been said and the pressure that they go through.

When I was 18, I went to the Music Academy of the West where Marilyn Horne is the lead mentor. It was such a gift to work with her. But within the first week, all of the women were asked to have a conversation about weight with her.

So we all went in for a private conversation about weight. And I thought, “Oh, this is a thing. We’re just supposed to have these conversations.”

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Have you ever heard negative feedback from the audience either to your Instagram series or, as a performer on stage, to your looks?   

COOKE: Yes, yes. All the above. It's similar to that comment I made about how presenters think you are their property. So does the audience. So do critics. They think it's okay.

It’s what's so interesting about being a singer or any kind of performer. Because you share yourself freely and vulnerably on stage, people think they can say anything to you because they think they know you. But you don't know them.

I remember one time I did an event for The Dallas Opera and a woman said something like, “That dress really wasn't flattering.” I just wanted to throw it away. Post-performance, you’re in an interesting state. Usually you're a bit too open, I find. So people can hurt you.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: One of the things that you mentioned in a recent Instagram Live conversation was that you were here in San Francisco when you found out you were pregnant for the first time. And you cried. Why, when you found out, did you stop and cry? What were your fears?

COOKE: Huh! Well, it was not expected. The simple answer is I was just imagining this little baby coming into a life of two singers and all of that unrest and uncertainty. [Cooke is married to fellow opera singer and baritone Kelly Markgraf.]

I just was emotionally not prepared for that. Really the biggest thing was the singing. I was scared because little things had been said about singers who became parents, little things that had told me that it was a threat to being a performer.

So I was both scared for the child to have this world in which there was a lot of travel, a lot of change. And I also was scared about whether that meant I was out of my jobs.

The manager I had at the time gave the best advice. He listed off a dozen singers with kids, including Renée Fleming and Anne Sofie [von Otter] and just really big singers. He said, “The notion that you can't be a singer and a mom has been ferreted out. No one thinks that anymore.”

I've had a couple bad experiences with companies that decided not to cast me after they heard I was having a second child. Little judgments here and there. But then again, I've had other companies that are like, “Where are your kids? Bring your kids!” So lots of people are very excited about the fact that I'm a human with a human life.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How do you go about approaching interviewees? A lot of them are your colleagues.

COOKE: I ask what you asked [before recording the interview], which is: “Is there anything you don't want to talk about? Or that we shouldn't bring up?” And every single person says “no.” You kind of feel the moment. I find that some are a little bit more aware of the camera and others are not. Some are a little bit more private, others are not. You can just feel that out.

I've learned to not really script these interviews, not plan them too much because there's no point. The path will just evolve. Those are really the best moments, when things surprise everybody.

Something about the venue to talk about vulnerable stuff is special. Just saying: “Here's a space where I'm not going to ask you about music. So what might we talk about?” People really want to go there. They want to have interviews about being a human, not just a singer.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You were speaking to an artist about how your perception of body size impacted your personal relationships. And you brought up an anecdote about your husband sending you flowers when you first met. Could you revisit that story?

COOKE: I lost a bit of faith in men when I lost weight, because suddenly I was seen. Suddenly I received attention and I resented that because I thought, “Well hey, I've been on this earth for 20 years. Why am I suddenly worthy?”

That whole thing of invisibility and visibility still comes up for me. As recent as today, I had to go to a friend's class that she was teaching. At the end of the class, she asked us to go around and reflect on our thoughts.

And I really didn't like being visible, because there is a part of me that was always used to being invisible, that owned that role of being the fat girl that hid, trying to recede into the wallpaper as much as possible. So there's a bit of irony in the fact that I'm a performer, which is the opposite of invisible.

When my husband sent flowers, I found it very forward because he didn't know me. He just saw me in a sushi shop. So he sent flowers. It sounds very fancy, but the Met was flying me to see Doctor Atomic in Chicago that day, because I was going to do the show the next year in New York.

The flowers arrived and I was just like, “Oh, that's so forward.” My sister, she thought it was awesome. We actually didn't know at first who sent it. He messaged me on Facebook: “Did something arrive to your house? Do you have a roommate?” And I just kept avoiding, avoiding.

The next morning I was still in Chicago and I went to the Art Institute and I was in the Kandinsky room. I thought, “I’m just going to send him a message.” I wrote again, just saying, “I think talking to someone is like art. It’s better in person.”

That was my way of saying, “Let’s wait until we can talk in person, rather than on the phone.” Again, I was being shy. And he said, “Yeah, we can just talk a little bit.” So then we started playing phone-tag. Then my flight was late. I missed his call. He missed my call.

Finally, I get to my apartment really late in New York. And we talked for five hours. The first thing I said to him was: “I have a confession. I got your flowers. But I used to be a bigger girl, and when I lost weight, I kind of resented the attention I got. So I lost a bit of trust in guys.” It was, like, the first thing I said to him. And he just listened.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was his reaction to you saying that?

COOKE: He just accepts that's part of who I am. That it’s a big part of my story. 

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