Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Long lived Hugues Cuenod!

Hugues Cuenod around the time he came to the U.S., on the recommendation of Mary Garden, to sing in the American premiere of Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet (1929)

The legendary Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod, or Huguie, as he was known to friends and family, was 108 when he died on Friday.

Huguie was a great musician who was famous for several astonishing achievements. One had to do with his extraordinary longevity - he not only lived to a spectacularly advanced age, but sang in public into his 90s.

Hugues Cuenod with Placido Domingo and Eva Marton in Puccini's Turandot at the Met, 1987

He made his Metropolitan Opera debut, singing the Emperor Altoum in Zefirelli's 1987 Turandot production, when he was nearly 85 years old:

He came to America at the urging of Mary Garden and sang on Broadway, in the premiere of Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet in 1929. Back in Europe, he was part of Nadia Boulanger's circle and is heard on her pioneering recordings of the work of Monteverdi. He was a member of the Princesse de Polignac's celebrated salon, where he frequently performed. He was the first person to record the vocal music of Couperin. He created five roles for Stravinsky, including Sellem in The Rake's Progress.

I knew Huguie through our mutual friend, my Juilliard mentor Albert Fuller (star and muse of Apparition of the Eternal Church). 

Zoltan Ovary, Albert Fuller, Hugues Cuenod

Albert, a harpsichord virtuoso, toured and recorded with Huguie, and toward the end of his life he translated Hugues Cuenod: With An Agile Voice: Conversations with Francois Hudry (for the record, Albert's translation had it "with a nimble voice"). I just opened the book to this passage, which perfectly represents Huguie as I remember him:
H.C.: I've never taken myself seriously, except, of course, when I have to work seriously. Above all, it's important not to take oneself seriously, particularly when you are around people who do just that.
F.H.: And at school, did you take that seriously?
H.C.: Never! I never liked school. The truth is, I never liked to work. I loved music, but I always wanted it to come straight to me without my needing to grasp whatever it might be. Even when I was in kindergarten it seems someone had already noticed I was musical. That was because I was able to pick out some songs I already knew on the piano with one finger. I could also be ill-natured. Once, when the teacher made a tactless remark to me about my family, I became enraged and threw my inkwell at her head. Happily, she stepped aside and the inkwell went through a pane of glass and crashed into a wall. All of a sudden my fellow students thought I was Luther who did something just like that to the devil!
I've posted words about Albert by Huguie, and about Huguie by Albert, on Albert Fuller's Rendezvous Lounge, along with pictures of the two of them. 

My first attempt at filmmaking was to fly to Switzerland, in 2000, to interview Cuenod on camera. I recorded several hours of our conversation over the course of five days or so, at his ancestral home at the center of Vevey, on the shore of Lake Geneva.

I returned twice more--once in 2003 to interview him for Apparition of the Eternal Church (he said the music sounded like someone rolling rocks around the bottom of a tin pan [Huguie's not in the film]), and once before that, with Albert, for the 100th birthday in the summer of 2002. Half of Switzerland showed up for the party, of which Huguie was the life. At one point the emcee handed Huguie the mike and had some difficulty getting it back. Here are some pictures I took of the event, at the Theatre de Vevey:

I spent Huguie's birthday week creating a scrapbook of images from the party and from his own archive, which people signed at the party:

Before leaving Vevey I presented it to Huguie, who spent an hour going through it, telling anecdotes evoked by the photos, while fielding calls from around the world and giving some fairly lacerating descriptions of what he endured at the birthday party (he left the event famished, since every time he brought a fork to his mouth some old lady appeared at his side and started spraying her appreciation and gratitude right into his food). There's a videotape of this conversation, also these pictures:

Huguie wasn't one to rush things. He made his Met debut at 84 and waited still two more years to meet his first longterm romantic partner, Alfred Augustin, 41 years his junior. They were, according to this Washington Post obit, joined in a Swiss civil union three years ago (though they exchanged private vows many years before that).

On Friday with friends I will raise a glass to Huguie's memory, pouring a bottle he gave me from his vineyard in Morges.

Albert and Huguie in Morges (it sounds like a Poulenc opera):

I've been meaning for years to crack open those MiniDV tapes and edit them into something watchable. I wish I had the time to do it now, but since I don't I will leave you with these images from Huguie's archive, and, courtesy of YouTube, a radio interview (at the end of which Albert gets a mention), and Huguie's recording of some Poulenc songs.

As M. Triquet in Eugene Onegin

"Cavalli 1970"


Help support this blog! Get your own Apparition of the Eternal Church and Glitter Emergency DVDs -$20 apiece or $30 for both, plus $5 shipping and handling. Email your order to


mjwal said...

Thank you so much for this. I idolise Cuénod - surely his recordings deserve to be properly transferred to CDs - I will only mention his Dowland (once on Turnabout): the best ever, despite Alfred Deller!

Rick Robertson said...

Would like to link to this from my blog soon - probably just a mention and a link, as there is really not much I could add to this. I have a few of his 78s - the Brahms recordings he made with Nadia Boulanger. When he died I kept staring at that name thinking it was familiar - I no longer collect vocals, but bought these because of the Boulanger / Lipatti connection.

Mark Ainley said...

I first met Cuenod in 1990, on my first trip to Europe to research Dinu Lipatti, and met him several times over the course of 14 years. I last saw him in 2004, when he was 102, and I was so happy to see him as bright and chipper as ever, still with an outstanding memory and joie de vivre. I will never forget his answer when I asked him how he was able to remember so much detail (how a certain event took place in 1946 as opposed to 1947): "I always had a great time, so why would I want to forget?" He was an exceptional human being and I am delighted to have known him. Thank you so much for your lovely tribute.

About Me

My photo

Paul Festa’s first film, Apparition of the Eternal Church (2006, 51 min), captures the responses of 31 artists to the apocalyptic music of Olivier Messiaen (with Justin Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Harold Bloom; screenings: Grace Cathedral, Barbican Centre, Library of Congress; “Remarkable”The New Yorker; “Stunning”Chicago Sun-Times; “Sublime”Globe & Mail; numerous awards). Festa performs the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, opposite members of the San Francisco Ballet and The Cockettes, in his award-winning second film, The Glitter Emergency (2010, 20 min), a silent-film drag ballet comedy (“Enormous visual and musical inventiveness…full of pleasure and joy...Festa gives a bravura performance."—Film Threat). He produced, wrote and edited, with director Austin Forbord, and was chief archivist, for the Emmy-nominated documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (2010, 80 min: with Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Peter Coyote; screenings: Geary Theater, KQED; “Intriguing...entertaining...a valuable record”—Variety). Performances as violinist and actor: ODC Theater, Center for Performance Research, Kunst-Stoff, TheatreFIRST, North Bay Shakespeare, Albert Fuller's Helicon Ensemble (Merkin Hall, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall). US, Boston, NYC, SF, LA and DC (Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on the “Betts” Stradivarius) premieres of Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano. He is the author of OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on Apparition of the Eternal Church, and several anthologized essays, and has written for The Daily Beast, Salon, Nerve, and The New York Times Book Review. Current projects include a novel and Tie It Into My Hand (2014, ca. 80 min), a documentary feature that has screened as a work in progress at the Cannes film market and at ODC Theater in San Francisco (with Alan Cumming, Gary Graffman, Peter Coyote, Mink Stole, Robert Pinsky; "A fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring."San Francisco Bay Guardian). Education: Yale (B.A.; prizes, honors, distinction), Juilliard (Cert., Adv. Cert., scholarships). Residencies: Yaddo, MacDowell, ODC Theater, Centre des Récollets.