Tuesday, December 14, 2010
He lived for just over 24 hours. Hospital staff marveled at how his father could sit with so badly injured a child and speak to him calmly, encouragingly and sweetly, breaking down only when he was out of the room. But the burns and other injuries were too severe and the medical staff knew from the beginning that it was only a matter of time. In the end, the chief physician said, Stephen just smiled and "went to sleep. "
Brooklyn has always had closely knit communities. For the day that he lived among them, Stephen became everybody's foster child and his death hit hard. He was mourned as one of their own along with those of their own they lost when destruction rained down on them fifty years ago this Thursday.
Hughes Cuenod (pronounced Kwe NOH), Hughie to his friends, was born in 1902 and had a false start by training as a baritone. Eventually he found his true voice, a high, clear, elegant tenor perfect for French and French-influenced music. He became the darling of composers and musicians at the top of the profession. Nadia Boulanger, one the most influential and prolific musicians and music educators in history, chose him for a series of recordings of late medieval and Renaissance vocal music to spearhead a rediscovery of "ancient" music. On the other hand, he sang Alban Berg's twelve-tone opera Wozzeck in Italian at La Scala in Milan, and living composers loved writing for him. Igor Stravinsky insisted he appear in the premiere of his 1950 opera The Rake's Progress, and Benjamin Britten wrote a number of songs for him.
Despite the wide range of styles and eras that Cuenod mastered, he was not interested in all composers by any means: "I leave Beethoven alone," he revealed in a New York Times interview. "It always seemed such unnecessary music."
But Hughie wasn't about to be limited to just "classical" music; he did a hundred and twenty or so performances of Noel Coward's musical Bittersweet on Broadway -- in a role especially written for him, of course.
But Cuenod himself never became befuddled and he staved off frailty for another couple of decades. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1987 at age 85 as the ancient Emperor in Puccini's Turandot, becoming instantaneously the oldest artist ever to sing there. A member of the chorus at that time spoke of how amusing it was to see him working to play a doddering old man as he himself was lithe and energetic off stage. A year later he met Alfred Augustin who was 45. The two fell in love and settled down together. Well, "settled down" might be a bit misleading. Three years ago Opera News did an article on Cuenod who said he liked to go for rides in Augustin's convertible sports car at high speeds, letting his long white hair fly out behind him. That was also the year that same-sex marriage was begun in Switzerland and the two men married after twenty years together.
Cuenod was active pretty much to the end. Cause of death hasn't been announced. Perhaps after such a long, rewarding, varied and amazing life, he decided it was time to try something else.
Press comment here on Maitre Cuenod's passing has been universally admiring and rather awestruck at his great longevity and vigor in advanced age.