Hugues Cuenod, the “World’s Oldest Tenor”

Swiss opera singer Hugues Cuénod (at age 107) with Dutch violinist Jeroen van der Wel at Cuénod's apartment in Vevey, Switzerland in 2009.(Photo: Lodewijknapoleon)
Swiss opera singer Hugues Cuénod (at age 107) with Dutch violinist Jeroen van der Wel at Cuénod's apartment in Vevey, Switzerland in 2009.(Photo: Lodewijknapoleon)

I doubt the sobriquet, “world’s oldest tenor,” mattered much to Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, who gave his final performance at age 92.

When asked how he kept his voice intact for so long, Cuénod always replied, “That’s easy. I never had a voice to begin with.”

Cuénod died last week, at the age of 108.

I was present when Cuénod made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1987, at the age of 84. He debuted as the Emperor Altoum, the ten thousand year old father of the icy Princess Turandot in Franco Zeffirelli’s magical staging of Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, Turandot.

Eva Marton and Placido Domingo were the stars of this performance. But, if they, and conductor James Levine, were applauded to the walls, Cuénod’s curtain calls were given to rousing cheers after a firm voiced, impeccably sung debut. He was brought forward at the final curtain call by Domingo, who kissed his elderly colleague as the crowd went wild.

Cuénod’s career

Cuénod didn’t have the vocal glamor of many other famous tenors, but he communicated the essence of everything he sang. His musicianship and sense of theater made him ideal for nearly everything.

His years as a protege of the French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger introduced Cuenod to Igor Stravinsky’s music; he sang in Stravinsky’s premier of his Cantata and his opera, The Rake’s Progress (as the fantastic auctioneer Sellem).

Cuénod began being noticed in the states sometime in the late 1930s, with his recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigals for Nadia Boulanger.

In addition to these performances, his career would included a run on Broadway in Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet; an opera debut in Ernst Krenek’s twelve-tone opera, Jonny spielt auf, about an African-American jazz violinist; the Italian premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (with Tito Gobbi); and recordings of music going back a thousand years — including lute songs from the court of the first Queen Elizabeth, which are considered Romantic gems to this day.

His other role in history

At the age of 105, Hugues Cuénod made history of a different kind: He married his long time partner, Alfred Augustin, in Switzerland.

 

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