It shouldn't come as a surprise that Sandra Piques Eddy has made Cherubino, the precocious pubescent pageboy of Mozart's classic opera The Marriage of Figaro, a staple in her repertoire. After all, the character was the focus of her master's thesis in music performance at Boston University, where she decided that moving from soprano into the lower range of mezzo-soprano would better fit her voice.
"Before I switched, I was auditing some classes, and I remember hearing one of the [two] arias by Cherubino," the Boston native says of the 18th-century opera's famous "pants" role, where a female plays a male. "And I thought, what a great aria. I even thought it was a soprano aria at first. But I thought to myself, 'That would be so fun to sing an aria like that!'"
Eight years into her professional career, Eddy probably knows Cherubino as well as any working singer: The Atlanta Opera production that opens Saturday will be the sixth time she's taken on the role.
Unlike with other acting styles, it's a blessing, not a curse, to become "typecast" in an opera role. Most who work in the business live a vagabond existence, so proficiency in a role can be a source of career advancement.
Clearly, the pants fit well for Eddy, who has used Cherubino to become something of a rising mezzo-soprano star. She's played the role, as well as others, with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and has received notice for her work at the Chicago Opera Theater. She's blessed with a rare trifecta of physical, acting and singing dynamism. Her dark hair, brown eyes and lithe frame have evoked comparisons to Vivien Leigh. An LA Times critic described her voice as "coffee and cream."
Eddy's acting seems perfect for the soul-bearing zeal of Cherubino – if a recent visit to a Figaro rehearsal is any indication. Mozart's sequel to the Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro follows the romantic complications of the Count, the Countess and their valet, Figaro. Cherubino serves as a romantic foil whose flirtations affect every woman around him.
In a scene in which Susanna and the Countess try to dress Cherubino as a woman, Eddy is all nervous energy, cracking sly grins, fidgeting with hands that ball up into fists, tromping around the floor in reaction to the two women her character is dying to woo.
Well, Cherubino wants to woo everyone, which is one of his many charms. He is, by all accounts, in love with the idea of love. As he sings in his first aria, "I don't know what I am anymore, or what I'm doing. / Now I'm on fire, now I'm freezing. / Every woman makes me change color, / Every woman makes my heart flutter."
Sounds like a teenage boy, all right.
"He is energetic, ardent and so lovable," Eddy says. "He's tormented and confused, but at the same time he is discovering love and all these new feelings that excite him. Haven't we all had those intense crushes in our lives? And haven't we all felt we were going to just die if he or she found out?"
Eddy seems suited to tap into those charms. "I would single her out as one of those reasonably rare singers who is utterly lacking in self-consciousness," says Chicago Opera Theater general director Brian Dickie, who cast Eddy in the company's 2005 production of the opera. "She gives the impression of being so completely into it that you can suspend your disbelief instantaneously. She's one of those with the extraordinary ability to get inside the role and the character and detach herself from the reality of being an opera singer.
"Being that Cherubino is a boy, it's quite a feat."
Eddy had sort of an inside track on Cherubino, considered by many the most popular of the pants roles. Before she switched to performance, she taught junior high, which included more than its fair share of horny male teens.
"I was lucky to work with kids that age," she says. "All that hormonal rage, and everything's either really great or just horrible. There's no middle ground with them.
"When I first played a pants role, I was obsessed with watching men and observing their mannerisms," she says. "I remember performing in one role in a toga, and so I told my husband, 'I'm not going to shave my legs for two months.' I just figured I needed to look at how men move, how they react. At that point I didn't even know how men cry, how they wipe the tears off their face."
Sometimes there's a temptation for singers playing Cherubino to overemphasize the masculinity of the role, and "butch it up," something Eddy tries to avoid.
"In that period of time back then, there was not a huge difference as far as the feminine and the masculine in teenagers," says Trevore Ross, Figaro's stage director and a longtime friend of Eddy. "Sandy is able to step into the role and appear like a teenage boy without being so masculine that she's trying to play a mid-20s man. She doesn't take it to an adult-male level."
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