Yet another Cherubino blog post

I have been cast as Cherubino in the Trinity Laban summer opera scenes, not the Cherubino of Le Nozze di Figaro, however, but of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Premiered in 1991 at the Met, this ‘grand opera buffa’ has a plot too complicated for me to attempt to summarise (you can google it) which includes elements of Beaumarchais’ ‘La mere coupable’ – third in his trilogy of Figaro stories. Thus I am taking the opportunity to add to the already saturated blog post canon of Cherubino themed ramblings.

Initially, it was difficult for me to really see Cherubino in Corigliano’s music. In the opera’s story he is conjured up by Beaumarchais as entertainment for Marie Antoinette (I told you it was complicated…) and he and Rosina play out a twee lovers duet, in a pastiche of Mozart. Gone is the cheeky young boy of ‘non so piu’ fame, replaced by a kind of stiff, pure-spirited half-ghost. It’s not what I’d call thrilling. However, as I work deeper into the character and the music, I’ve come to appreciate this strange new Cherubino more. What I think Corigliano captures quite beautifully is the arrested development of a character that exists in this kind of eather of our collective imagination.

The more I think and read about Cherubino the more I start to see him as a focal point for gender and sexual awakening. Whether through embodying him or watching him, everyone seems to have a personal relationship to the character. The classic question of every ‘hetero’ opera goer – ‘what does it say about my sexuality when I am attracted to a woman who is dressed as a man?’ – follows him everywhere.[1] We love him, we laugh at him, we fetishise him, much like the other characters in the opera do. ‘The very travesty casting that claims to guarantee Cherubino’s “bodilessness” also reminds us slyly that there is a body there, and that underneath the costumes is neither an immature man, nor an imitation man.’[2]

Everyone loves this expression of unlimited sexuality and gender freedom, as long as it is confined to the stage. We can project our fantasies onto Cherubino as long as we are not forced to allow him a life beyond that. Just as Baumarchais failed to see a future for Cherubino, the audience cannot comprehend his existence beyond the performance. Heather Hadlock quite succinctly describes this dilemma in reference to the cross dressing scene in Le Nozze di Figaro: ‘When the woman beholds Cherubino’s desire without laughing, the page ceases to be a pretty toy and becomes instead a sort of monstrosity that must be cast out of the scene’.[3] What happens when we allow gender and sexual non conformity to exist outside of the context of performance? When we stop seeing these practises as subversive statements and instead allow the people behind them their humanity?

But Cherubino is also a signifier of a major shift occurring during late 18th / early 19th century operatic practices: the decline of the male soprano and thus the rise of the tenor as the operatic hero. Why do we now see trouser roles as ‘fun and entertaining’? Why do we immediately jump to Cherubino and his descendants when we discuss them? It feels like a collective amnesia over what came before him, when castrati and travesti were the norm and the gender liminality they inhabited wasn’t the punchline or comic relief, but the centre of storylines. It seems that post-Cherubino opera doesn’t have a lot of time for high voiced male characters with emotional or dramatic range.[4] Instead these voices are consigned to the ‘supposed weakness of so-called femininity’, as described by Clement.[5]

In The Ghosts of Versailles there’s a further reminder of Cherubino’s failed masculinity in the character of his and Rosina’s son, Leon. Unlike Cherubino, Leon is a tenor and he is close to marriage with Florestine, the Count’s illegitamite daughter. While Leon’s future manifests before us, un-complicated by any hints of gender liminality, Cherubino is consigned once again to his Peter Pan existence and lost into the eather.

[1] ‘Mezzosexuality, or, the Hotness of Trouser Roles – Blog – Opera Vivrà’, accessed 19 January 2021, Walder-Biesanz,

[2] Heather Hadlock, ‘The Career of Cherubino, or the Trouser Role Grows Up’, in Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera, ed. Mary Ann Smart (Princeton University Press, 2000), 67–92.

[3] Hadlock, ‘The Career of Cherubino’, 72.

[4]Freya Jarman, ‘Pitch Fever: The Castrato, the Tenor and the Question of Masculinity in 19th Century Opera’, in Masculinity in Opera, ed. Philip Purvis (Oxford: Routledge, 2017), 51–65.

[5] Catherine Clement, ‘Through Voices, History’, in Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera, ed. Mary Ann Smart (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 17–28. 25.

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