When I was age 13 and 14, I made quilts. I was taught by a woman from the mountains of Maryland at the Catoctin Folk Crafts Center in the national park where we lived and for which my father worked. (I was also taught to spin wool into yarn and make candles. More importantly I learned to get up in front of strangers and talk about what I was demonstrating, thus learning to be "on stage.")
Recently, as I was packing to head out-of-town, I came across a blue grosgrain ribbon in a box of sewing notions along with a few other little scraps of fabric I was saving. When I first started singing professionally I thought it would be a cool idea to take a scrap of every costume I would eventually wear and sew it all together into one big blanket as a sort of road map of my career. It was unfortunately a short-lived idea because many costume shops were reluctant to share. The ribbon was from the 1983 production Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in Cologne, Germany, in which I sang the role of Cherubino for my European debut. Memories came flooding back.
Some would say Cherubino was "my" role. I made my debut in many opera companies singing the part. My portrayal is preserved on YouTube and DVD. It was a "person" with whom I lived for about 25 years. I consider it my lucky role.
For those who are unfamiliar with the character, Cherubino is a pubescent boy, taken from the French writer Pierre Beaumarchais' trilogy of stories. In The Marriage of Figaro this impish, very trouble-making and hormonally charged boy steals a ribbon, which belongs to the Countess with whom he is enamored and ties it around a wound on his arm to get as close as possible to her.
I once read about a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in which a well-known actress was playing a male. There was a lot of publicity about it and I remember thinking, "Why the big deal?" The same thing happened when the film Yentl came out. I truly did not understand why everyone felt it warranted such attention to see a woman portraying a man, or in some cases a woman portraying a man portraying a woman.
I made my living doing that, not only as Cherubino but also in numerous other "trouser" roles. It is an accepted everyday occurrence in opera.
My first association with "Figaro" was at age 18 as a chorister with the Hidden Valley Music Opera Ensemble in Carmel Valley, CA, where my boyfriend was portraying the leading role. I would commute each weekend from the University of the Pacific in Stockton. I was given the alto part in a short duet during the wedding scene. I felt so privileged to be there. During each performance I sat backstage in the big prop armchair from Act I and listened dreamily to the final act. I was falling in love with opera and, of course, my boyfriend.
The first time I sang the role of Cherubino was with the Kentucky Opera in Louisville. The production was sung in an English translation. I was 24 years old. It was a dreadful failure. I had to stay in the YWCA so that my then threatening and estranged husband could not find me. Perhaps that contributed to my less that stellar performance.
The next time it was a success, thanks to the wonderful direction by the late, legendary Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. I was in a remount of his production in Cologne, Germany and was suggested to him for a new production in Paris. I had to travel to Schwetzingen, Germany to audition and get his ok. The theater in which I auditioned was one where Mozart had performed as a child. I got the job, at least as far as he was concerned, but I was sent on an overnight train to Paris to sing for Maestro Daniel Barenboim. He gave his stamp of approval. (Years later I was told by an administrator in Paris that Maesto Barenboim had been quite distracted during the audition by the cancellation of a great artist for that evening's concert and he really just picked the first person who walked in. So much for thinking I had conquered the world of opera).
Back to Jean-Pierre... I did everything he asked including jump barefoot into the scene from a window that was 6 feet off the ground. I did it repeatedly until I had blood blisters on the bottom of my feet. At the very end of Act I Cherubino gets roughed-up by Figaro. As Jean-Pierre was demonstrating, using me as a prop, I went flying across the room like a limp doll. Hazard pay might have been nice but as a young singer one has to do what is asked. It was worth it and it made my career. I was 28 years old.
At 31 I sang the role with Houston Grand Opera right after I had my son, breast-feeding at intermission. Needless to say I was a roly-poly boy, not feeling particularly masculine. A few months later I made my Met debut as Cherubino and performed having never rehearsed on the set or with the orchestra. It helped that I knew the part so well.
As a toddler my son was allowed to sit backstage by the mattress onto which I would land after swiftly leaping through a window mid-way through Act 2. After that, his nanny would take him back to our lodging and put him to bed. I always wonder about this odd image burned in my kid's mind of a lanky, unwieldy person hurling out of the window, who happens to be his mom but dressed as a man. I suppose there will be much therapy for him in the future.
Perhaps the most idyllic performances were in Salzburg, Vienna and Paris. The first two are the birthplace and homes of Mozart so the emotional connection to history was intense. I made a pilgrimage to the house in which he composed "Figaro" and to Mozart's presumed resting place in a mass grave. Paris was the home to Beaumarchais so working there was also particularly poignant.
with Dawn Upshaw as Susanna at the Salzburg Festival.
I toured "Figaro" to Japan with the Bavarian State Opera and also performed in Munich. One night, unbeknownst to me, I caught my knee on a nail while crawling around on the deck. (Adrenaline keeps one from realizing these things). I was hiding under a sheet in the armchair, waiting for the Count to reveal me by removing the cover. When he did so, he not only did the double-take he was required to do but added a fabulous triple-take which made me look at what he was gaping at... my knee gushing with blood. During intermission, I suffered the humiliation of a handsome doctor dressing my knee while my trousers were down around my ankles.
A few years, when my own son hit the "Cherubino stage" of life, I was armed with much ammunition to add to my portrayal. My final performance of the role l was at the Met on Christmas day a few years ago. I "grew up" as an artist with the part.
Yes, that pale-blue ribbon brought back a lot of memories -- over 150 performances of them. I found it while was packing to go to the Santa Fe Opera where I am presently in performances of "Figaro" in a different role...the one of the older woman Marcellina. I watch with admiration as the Cherubino here sings beautifully and so convincingly does the same antics I once did and wonder where I got the energy.
As for the quilt, it is now a mental one.
My son is soon to be 25-years-old and is an actor. He still talks to me.
I now sing predominately female roles, a relief after years of smashed boobs under an ace bandage, but a part of me will always be Cherubino.