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Sasha Cooke and John Churchwell appointed Co-Directors of the Lehrer Vocal Institute

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and pianist and vocal coach John Churchwell have been announced as the new Co-Directors of the Lehrer Vocal Institute at the Music Academy. They will lead the long-term planning for the Institute’s curriculum, performance, and teaching roster, and have already shaped a 2023 Summer Festival that coincides with the launch of their positions. This pair of current professionals with international careers will act as a compass for exceptional talent that will propel classical music boldly forward. These historic appointments are fueled by a launch gift from the G A Fowler Family Foundation and The Toppel Family Foundation. 

Sasha is a two-time GRAMMY Award-winning artist who sings on the major opera, festival, and concert stages worldwide. A Music Academy alumna, she attended the Summer Festival in 2002. John is the Head of Music Staff at the San Francisco Opera and a former assistant conductor with the Metropolitan Opera.

“This is a dynamic trajectory of leadership for the 21st century emerging artist. John and Sasha will create the creators who perform at the highest level and champion change in the field of opera and vocal music.”

“Music Academy made a profound impact on my life. Being surrounded by such incredible talent and discipline instilled those values in me. I look forward to sharing with the fellows all of the knowledge I have continued to gather since my time there as a student. Now more than before, being a musician is about so much more than performing. Music Academy uniquely offers the space and freedom to find those new pathways and personal mission statements. I hope to inspire our fellows and alumni to make their impact far-reaching.”

“Together, we’re building the ideal institute for the artists of tomorrow. Every musician has a unique journey to pursue. With this new leadership, we’ll help our fellows recognize and develop their true potential with a program that is designed for their individual needs."

John and Sashas expertise as industry influencers will translate to trailblazing training for future fellows. The Co-Directors will oversee: 

2023 Summer Festival Highlights

  • An Industry Day with managers and casting agents 

  • A New Studio Artist program to create a pipeline of rising talent 

  • An all-Spanish language performance actively pursuing diverse voices with Opera News Award-Winner and Mosher Guest Artist soprano Ana María Martínez and chamber music and zarzuela specialist, pianist and coach César Cañón  

  • A unique vocal performance with a guest stage director that will incorporate artists’ input in the creative process 

Long-time pillars of the Lehrer Vocal Institute that offer tremendous opportunity for the fellows and studio artists: 

  • A fully staged production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, conducted by Principal Opera Conductor Daniela Candillari and directed by Mary Birnbaum 

  • A Directing Fellowship for operatic stage directors 

  • Weekly masterclasses featuring Sasha Cooke, John Churchwell, and Summer Festival teaching artists 

  • Weekly private lessons and coachings

  • Chamber music performances with instrumental fellows

  • The Marilyn Horne Song Competition

These Co-Directors have been passed the mantle from legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who served as Voice Program Director at the Music Academy for two decades from 1997 to 2017. She transitioned to Honorary Voice Program Director in 2018 and is now the Mercedes Millington & John C. Mithun Emeritus Program Director. 

“There’s no greater thrill than to see these consummate artists take the helm. I hired John on the faculty in 2000 and mentored Sasha here as a young singer. It’s been rewarding to watch them grow as outstanding performers and educators. They’re the ultimate pair to guide the way ahead.”

“I am thrilled for the Music Academy community to have two such extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, and communicative musicians at the helm of the Lehrer Vocal Institute. Both Sasha and John’s commitment to the care and stewardship of the next generation of artists is commendable, and those young artists will benefit immeasurably from their inspiration and example.”

“These two brilliant, creative, and incredibly nurturing artists are the perfect pair to champion the new and diverse music that will impact the fellows and the community.”

John and Sasha’s new titles are effective immediately. The pair will adjudicate auditions taking place this month in New York and Houston to create the roster of 2023 Lehrer Vocal Institute fellows and studio artists. View the entire roster of 2023 Lehrer Vocal Institute teaching artists here.

Sasha Cooke

Two-time GRAMMY Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has been called a “luminous standout” by the New York Times and “equal parts poise, radiance and elegant directness” by Opera News. Sasha has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, English National Opera, Seattle Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux, and Gran Teatre del Liceu, among others, and with over 80 symphony orchestras worldwide frequently in the works of Mahler. This season marks Sasha’s appointment at the Music Academy as Co-Director of the Lehrer Vocal Institute.  

Sasha Cooke opened the 2022-23 season with a return to Houston Grand Opera in her role debut as Thirza in the company’s new production of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers conducted by Patrick Summers. On the concert stage, she performs throughout the U.S. and abroad: in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with Wiener Konzerthaus, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Houston Symphony conducted by Juraj Valčuha, Michael Tilson Thomas’ Meditations on Rilke with the New York Philharmonic conducted by the composer, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with New Zealand Symphony Orchestra alongside Gemma New and Mozart’s Requiem with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Klaus Mäkelä and later with Nashville Symphony. She debuts with Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano and the Utah Symphony in Mendelssohn’s Elijah which she later performs with NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under the baton of Alan Gilbert. She makes returns to Chicago Symphony for works by Vivaldi, to Philadephia Orchestra for Handel’s Messiah and to Kansas City Symphony for Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Special collaborations on the recital stage include Jake Heggie’s Intonations: Songs for the Violins of Hope with Music of Remembrance; recitals with guitarist Jason Vieaux at San Francisco Performances and Round Top Festival; and a recital at Kaufman Music Center, alongside pianist Kirill. 

 Last season marked the release of Sasha Cooke’s new CD on Pentatone, entitled how do I find you, now nominated for the 65th GRAMMY Awards that will be held in February 2023 as Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. The recording, which features 17 newly written songs by Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Jimmy Lopez, and others, is intended as a tribute to both the struggles and hopes of artists that have been wrought by the pandemic. The album can be listened to on all streaming platforms. 

 As a dedicated recitalist, Sasha was presented by Young Concert Artists in her widely acclaimed New York and Washington debuts at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall and the Kennedy Center. She has also appeared in recital at Alice Tully Hall, The Wigmore Hall, the Kennedy Center and the 92nd Street Y. Her recordings can be found on the Hyperion, BIS, Chandos, Pentatone, Naxos, Bridge Records, Yarlung, GPR Records, and Sono Luminus labels. Most recently she appears on recordings including Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer on Pentatone, Michael Tilson Thomas’ Meditations on Rilke with the San Francisco Symphony with won the 2021 Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium, L’enfance du Christ with Sir Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony on Chandos, Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs on Pentatone which won the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra on BIS, and Sasha Cooke LIVE, a collection of her performances from the Music@Menlo chamber music festival released on their label. 

 A graduate of Rice University and The Juilliard School, Sasha also attended the Music Academy, the Aspen Music Festival, the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute, the Wolf Trap Foundation, the Marlboro Music Festival, the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and Seattle Opera and Central City Opera’s Young Artist Training Programs. She has given masterclasses throughout the United States, Australia and Canada. Sasha lives near Houston, Texas with daughters Evelyn and Julia, and husband baritone Kelly Markgraf.

John Churchwell

One of the leading collaborative pianists of his generation, John Churchwell enjoys a career on the concert stage as well as in the nation’s leading opera houses. In August 2011, John was named Head of Music for San Francisco Opera. Previously, he was an assistant conductor for both the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera for 14 years. He has assisted on more than 140 productions and has collaborated with some of the world’s leading conductors including James Levine, Nello Santi, Nicola Luisotti, James Conlon, Donald Runnicles, Sir Charles Mackerras, Marco Armiliato, Fabio Luisi, and Eun Sun Kim. John Churchwell has been a Music Academy teaching artist since 2000.   

A champion of American music, John was involved in the world premieres of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. In recent seasons, he has prepared the world premieres of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier, as well as the Philip Glass opera Appomattox, the Stewart Wallace/Amy Tan collaboration The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne, as well as the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West by John Adams, all for San Francisco Opera. From 2005-2008 John was the official accompanist for the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. 

 This summer saw John appear in recitals with Renée Fleming, Sasha Cooke, and Susanna Phillips. He has partnered with some of today’s most sought-after vocalists including Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Diana Damrau, Larry Brownlee, Lisette Oropesa, Isabel Leonard, Frederica von Stade, Dawn Upshaw, and Carol Vaness. Recent appearances include San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California with tenor Michael Fabiano and the Hollywood Bowl for Prairie Home Companion with soprano Ellie Dehn. In addition to song recitals, John is an active chamber musician and has appeared regularly with members of the Metropolitan and San Francisco’s Opera Orchestras. 

A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, John studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and Tufts University where he earned a Bachelor of Music in Piano and a Bachelor of Arts in French, respectively. He continued his studies at the University of Minnesota where he earned a Master of Music and a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Accompanying. John studied song literature at the Banff Centre for the Arts and remains the only pianist to be invited for three summers as a Tanglewood Fellow. He is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program.

Music Academy

Located in Santa Barbara, the Music Academy creates a space where exceptional talent can thrive by encouraging artists to stretch, experiment, improvise, and play. We give artists the tools they need to become not just great musicians but great leaders. With the sun shining brightly on possibility and potential, we unleash the creators who will reimagine the future of classical music. We catalyze the change that will propel classically trained musicians boldly forward. 

The Music Academy’s year round programs are: Sing!, a children’s choir free of charge for all participants that performs with local, national, and international partners; the annual Summer Festival for 136 fellows with more than 120 performances and events, Solo Piano, Duo, Fast Pitch, and Marilyn Horne Song Competitions; the Keston MAX partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra; the Innovation Institute’s Alumni Enterprise Awards; and the new Mariposa Series of concerts by Academy-affiliated artists.


Lead image and Churchwell portrait: Zach Mendez
Cooke portrait: Dario Acosta
Campus: courtesy of Santa Barbara Magazine


Kate Oberjat (she/her/hers)
Director of Marketing & Communications
Music Academy
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