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Northern Michigan soprano portrays Jesus in new 'Passion According to St. Luke'

National Gallery of Australia

On Good Friday, a brand new musical setting of the Passion according to St. Luke will premiere at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan.

Saint Peter’s commissioned this new Passion from composer William Cooper.

In most musical Passion settings, the role of Jesus Christ is sung by a baritone or a bass.

But in William Cooper’s new Passion, Jesus will be played by a soprano.

“I thought giving the role of Jesus to a high soprano would set the character apart from the others and mark the character as being divine and other,” Cooper says.

He wanted to feature a female voice in his setting because women are largely silent in the Biblical texts.

“I was looking through the cast of characters in the gospel account,” he explains, “and all of the big speaking roles are male.”

This time of year, many churches perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or his St. John Passion.

Composer William Cooper

Typically, St. Peter’s Church presents Bach’s two Passions on alternate years on Good Friday.

Both of those pieces were too long and had too many musicians to be safe during the pandemic, though.

So St. Peter’s commissioned this new Passion setting from composer William Cooper.

Cooper scored the work for just five singers and ten instrumentalists.

Each singer will wear a mask, but they will pull down their mask to sing their part.

Cooper also never has more than one person singing at a time.

He included rests to give the musicians time to remove their mask, sing their part, and then replace their mask before the next singer enters.

Besides asking for a piece that was safe to perform in a pandemic, St. Peter’s also asked Cooper to reflect the realities of living in a pandemic.

That’s why he chose the Passion according to St. Luke as opposed to the gospels of Matthew, John or Mark.

Cooper says that St. Luke’s Passion highlights both the suffering and grief of Jesus and of several other figures, which felt more relevant.

Luke’s account is the only Passion in which the thief crucified next to Jesus expresses remorse for his crimes, to which Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“I think that’s one of the points of the liturgy of the Passion,” Cooper says. “It’s the corporal experience of suffering on a grand scale and how it can be redemptive and have a higher purpose.”

In addition to St. Luke’s account in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Cooper included two new poems by Brian Alvarado.

Poet Brian Alvarado

The poetry centers the grief of other voices, including Peter after he denies Jesus three times and Simon of Cyrene as he carries Jesus’s cross.

To Cooper, Alvarado’s poems resonate because the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare so much suffering.

“I think that Brian’s poems contextualize the piece and ask how we respond to the suffering around us and to the pain that people are feeling around us,” he says.

William Cooper had a particular soprano in mind for the role of Jesus from the earliest stages of this Passion project.

Addy Sterrett is from Wexford County, and she studied at Interlochen Arts Academy and Yale.

Cooper grew up in Kalamazoo and also studied at Interlochen, although they didn’t overlap as students.

Soprano Addy Sterrett

The two worked together a couple of years ago on Cooper’s Requiem, which also premiered at St. Peter’s and which we’re hearing right now.

Addy Sterrett thinks her voice and her portrayal will make Jesus seem more human.

“I think that can be a really nice way to bring Jesus to life,” she says, “through that human quality of the human singing voice.”

Last year on Good Friday, she was supposed to perform Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at St. Peter’s, but all performances were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cooper’s Passion premiere is the first time she’s gotten to sing with other people in over a year.

Sterrett says that when she’s told people she’ll be singing the role of Jesus Christ, the reactions have been surprised but overall positive.

“I think the majority of people are like, ‘whoa that’s so cool, a female Jesus,’” she says. “I’m glad to be able to give a different voice to the role of Jesus.”

William Cooper’s Passion According to St. Luke premieres Friday, April 2 at noon EST on the St. Peter’s Church website.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.