Hugues Cuenod, operatic tenor with six-decade career, dies at 108

Hugues Cuenod, in costume for his New York Metropolitan Opera debut - at age 84.
Hugues Cuenod, in costume for his New York Metropolitan Opera debut - at age 84. (Courtesy Metropolitan Opera Archives)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 8:29 PM

Hugues Cuenod, who died Dec. 3 at age 108, was a Swiss-born tenor who won favorable reviews over more than six decades for his performances in concerts and operas. At age 84, he became the oldest singer to debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where his performance as a crotchety emperor in Puccini's "Turandot" won acclaim.

He insisted that he never lost his voice - a light tenor critics called "reedy and penetrating" and "high, dry and white" - because there hadn't been much of one to begin with.

"It's important not to take oneself too seriously," he said, "particularly when you are around people who do just that."

Mr. Cuenod first gained attention in the 1930s while working with the noted French conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger.

He was a featured singer on Boulanger's renowned 1937 recordings of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi, which reintroduced the 16th-century composer to the world.

Such obscure work, Mr. Cuenod said, was his favorite.

"I leave Beethoven alone," he told the New York Times in 1987. "It always seemed such unnecessary music."

Six-foot-five and irrepressible in comic opera roles, Mr. Cuenod performed on both sides of the Atlantic. He was known for regular appearances at the British Glyndebourne Festival Opera, including what the New York Times described as "a delightful drag part as a bad-tempered nymph" in Cavalli's "La Calisto."

Mr. Cuenod's recording of lamentations by French Baroque composer Francois Couperin had impressed composer Igor Stravinsksy, who enlisted Mr. Cuenod to sing the role of the auctioneer Sellem in the 1951 world premiere of Stravinsksy's "The Rake's Progress."

Several years later, Mr. Cuenod was lauded for his interpretation of the music teacher in Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro."

"Towering over everyone else on the stage is the supremacy of Hugues Cuenod's Basilio," Washington Post critic Paul Hume wrote in 1964. "Here is a vibrant object lesson in the meaning of Mozart."

Hugues Adhemar Cuenod was born June 26, 1902, in the Swiss village of Corseaux-sur-Vevey, where his grandfather was mayor.

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