The man to talk to about in the second half of Boston Lyric Opera's 2016/17 Season is David Cushing. The New Hampshire-born bass-baritone is the only soloist who will appear in both of the remaining productions, Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.
(Rake opens in the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater on Sunday, March 12 at 3PM, with evening performances at 7:30PM on Wednesday, March 15 and Friday, March 17, and a final 3PM matinee on Sunday, March 19. Figaro opens Friday, April 28 at 7:30PM in John Hancock Hall with repeated evening performances on Wednesday, May 3 and Friday, May 5, with matinees at 3PM on Sunday, April 30 and Sunday, April 7.)
Cushing sings a father in both operas—composers of opera usually assign fathers to a bass or a bass-baritone. In The Rake's Progress, Trulove is the doting parent of Anne, who is deeply in love with a charming but weak-willed fellow named Tom Rakewell. Trulove is worried about this situation, as doting fathers of marriageable daughters usually tend to be. "Your reluctance to seek steady employment makes me uneasy," he sings. His advice to Tom is to get a job and he gives the young man a lecture."[Anne] may take a poor husband if she choose, but I am resolved that she will never marry a lazy one." Tom does not listen and dismisses Trulove as an "old fool." Soon he leaves the idyllic countryside, and his devoted Anne, to seek his fortune and destiny in London. He falls into bad company—the devil himself becomes one of his companions—and before long his spendthrift and feckless life leads him to financial ruin, madness and death. Trulove shows up in Bedlam, the insane asylum where Tom is imprisoned, and gently and tenderly leads his daughter away. After Tom dies, Trulove sings in the ensemble that points the moral to end the opera—and to warn the audience:
For idle hands
And hearts and minds
The Devil finds
A work to do,
A work, dear Sir, fair Madam,
For you and you.
Trulove is an entirely serious character; only clueless Tom thinks he's funny. Dr. Bartolo, on the other hand, is a comic figure. An audience which is familiar Rossini's later opera, The Barber of Seville, will remember it as a "prequel" to Mozart's. Dr. Bartolo was the guardian of Rosina and his plan was to marry her and secure her fortune for himself—a plan thwarted by Rosina and her suitor, the Count Almaviva, with the help of the ubiquitous and ingenious barber, Figaro. Now Rosina is the Countess Almaviva, none too happily married. Figaro is installed in the aristocratic household as the Count's valet, he's and about to get married himself, to his fellow servant Susanna. Dr. Bartolo is still on the scene, scheming with his housekeeper Marcellina to bring Figaro down. Bartolo's aria in the first act is about the delights of vengeance. In the third act, however, the scheme unravels, and in a miraculous ensemble Figaro discovers that Marcellina is his mother—and his father is none other than Dr. Bartolo himself. Susanna walks in to discover Figaro kissing Marcellina and slaps him before she learns the truth of the situation—the ensemble which began with surprise ends in reconciliation. It has often been staged merely for laughs; more sensitive and intelligent stage directors and singing-actors try to listen to the music and use it to depict the human realities and emotions that bubble up through the farce—a mother finding her lost son, Figaro reconnecting with his lost parents, Susanna finding herself with a new family.
Cushing says one challenge of this ensemble, for him, is to convey the awakening of fatherly feelings in Dr. Bartolo—something that Trulove has felt, and built upon, for nearly 20 years and which Bartolo must do in a matter of minutes. It is also something Cushing himself has felt—he is now a father himself. With his oboist wife, Kate Murphy Cushing, he has two children, a daughter Abby, now 6 months old, and a son, Jack, now 3 1/2 years old. "It is all so quick with Bartolo," he says, "and it all happens in a sextet's length. When it begins, Bartolo thinks he is victorious over Figaro. The court has decided in Marcellina's favor—Figaro has defaulted on money he owes to Marcellina, so now he will have to marry her. But then it comes out that she is his mother, so they cannot marry each other. Bartolo has been in a one-track state of mind, and now he is jolted onto another track—now, like Trulove, he only wants what's best for his child."
Another challenge is that in The Marriage of Figaro, Cushing has sung three of the four roles that would be possible for him—Figaro, Bartolo, and the gardener Antonio; one day he may well sing the Count as well. He has also sung his three roles so far both in English and Italian, so he's jumping hurdles throughout the extended second act finale—Mozart's longest and most complicated ensemble. "I just keep having to remember what production I am in and which entrances are mine—and what language I am supposed to be singing each line in!"
Figaro is a long part, a leading role; Bartolo is a substantial role; Antonio is a pivotal role, but not one with many words or notes to sing. Cushing begins to intone Stanislavsky’s observation that has become a cliché—"there are no small roles," setting up the inescapable conclusion, "only small actors." But then he pauses, repeats himself, and pulls a switcheroo. "There are no small roles … only small fees!"
Then he goes on to point out that small roles can be significant. His debut role with Boston Lyric Opera back in 2003 was Count Monterone in Verdi's Rigoletto. Monterone makes a brief but thundering appearance in Act I, setting up the tragedy to follow. The Duke of Mantua has raped and ruined Monterone's daughter; when Rigoletto, the court jester, mocks the old man's grief and rage, Monerone hurls a curse at both the Duke and Rigoletto—a curse that will be fulfilled by the end of the opera after the Duke has despoiled Rigoletto's own daughter. Or take another role in Cushing's repertoire with BLO, the Bonze in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The Bonze, a Buddhist monk, is Butterfly's uncle; he shows up at Butterfly's marriage to denounce her for renouncing her religion and culture in order to marry an American Navy lieutenant. This curse sets up the tragedy to follow.
Cushing is tall and boasts Broadway leading-man looks; these days that means a five o'clock shadow. Broadway was a direction he might have headed in—a direction Broadway fans might wish he had. His speaking voice is as resonant as his singing voice; he takes his work seriously but his manner is good-humored. Although his job requires him to talk about himself in interviews, he never seems full of himself.
Cushing was born in New Hampshire and later his family moved to Mashpee on Cape Cod. Through his public school years Cushing played trombone in the band and sang in the chorus. He says his voice began in "no man's land" but finally emerged as a bass. He attended the University of New Hampshire because an older sister had enrolled there. It was then that he heard of the University's only all-male a Capella group, the Gents, a group which would help pave his a Capella career. "I thought that I would go into some kind of communications, and maybe do a minor in music. I didn't think I'd become a voice major, but that's what finally happened."
At UNH in 1995, Cushing met the voice teacher he still works with, another bass-baritone, David Ripley, who has had a long career as a "Boston singer." Ripley's father was a longtime cellist in the Boston Symphony, and the younger Ripley was active in the Boston Camerata for decades, sang in the Cantata Singers, premiered a lot of new music, sang oratorio and recital literature, explored folk music, and toured the world with the New York-based early music ensemble, the Waverly Consort. Cushing also pursues a variety of musical interests—he is the only professional opera singer, for example, in an a cappella group called Similar Jones that performs mostly blues and rock. Samples of the group's work are on YouTube including Cushing's stunning solo in "29 Ways."
Ripley directs the opera workshop at UNH, where Cushing made his debut portraying Elder Ott in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. The next year, when he was still an undergraduate, he sang the major role of Sarastro in Mozart's The Magic Flute—he's one of the youngest singers ever to tackle that formidable challenge. "I dove into the deep end," he says with a smile. "But I believed David [Ripley]—there is nothing a singer needs more than a trusted set of ears, and I have trusted his for more than 20 years. God knows what I sang for him the first time I met him or what he thought of how I did it. But he says he heard a resonance that could develop into something."
After graduating from UNH, Cushing came to New England Conservatory where he had a full scholarship; following that he studied in the Opera Institute at Boston University, where he sang the title role in Donizetti's Don Pasquale, as well as roles in Mozart's Idomeneo, Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.
While he was still at B.U. he began appearing professionally in Boston and in fact all over New England. He has performed at Opera North in New Hampshire since 2001, with the Boston Academy of Music and its successor Opera Boston, Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga), Emmanuel Music, then adding opera companies in Colorado and Florida. With most of these organizations he has been invited back, which is always a good sign. He has performed large roles and smaller ones, shifting from comedy to tragedy with aplomb, and even adding spoken dialogue to the mix in The Magic Flute and Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Earlier this season he made his debut with the Boston Symphony singing the Police Commissioner in Der Rosenkavalier, a part in which he succeeded in diverting attention from Renée Fleming and Susan Graham for a moment or two. "It wasn't easy because I was facing the conductor's back and I had to count like crazy."
The steadiest of his employers has been Boston Lyric Opera, where he has probably sung more roles over a longer period of time than any other artist in recent years. So far his biggest and most demanding part was Osmin in Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio. But he has appeared in a dozen works composed in many periods and styles. He particularly enjoyed singing in The Lighthouse by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies—a role he will sing again with another company next season. And he'll be back at the BLO next year, in one role from the standard repertory and in a world premiere, The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare by composer Julian Grant and librettist Mark Campbell. In a recent workshop and showcase, Grant heard Cushing for the first time and was so impressed that he said, "You deserve an aria," and set about writing one.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege for Boston Lyric Opera audience to experience Cushing's steady vocal and artistic growth over nearly 15 years now. And it should be noted that the quality of performances in smaller roles is as accurate a measure of a company's stature as the quality of the lead singers, the chorus, the orchestra, the settings, costumes and staging. Two years ago Cushing was the best Masetto in Don Giovanni this writer has ever experienced. This was Cushing's third role in Mozart's opera, after Leporello and the Commendatore—and the title part is surely standing in the wings. With BLO he put Masetto onto the same level as the other principal roles. He was not a paradoxically prancy or dimwitted country bumpkin—instead he was rough-edged, quick to anger, jealousy, hurt and forgiveness. He was also hormonal and hot, a counterpart and counterweight to Don Giovanni himself, a contender and rival, and he sang it splendidly.
Bass-baritones like Cushing tend to choose one of two tracks—the serious, mostly tragic roles of Italian, French and Russian operas and the nimble-tongued comic roles of Rossini and Donizetti. "I enjoy it all," Cushing says, "but I'm only 40, so there is still plenty of time for the primo basso roles. Right now I have way more fun in comedy so I want to keep on doing it—at least for as long as my knees and back are working!"
RICHARD DYER is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.
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Images (top to bottom): David Cushing, bass-baritone; costume sketch for the character of Trulove in The Rake’s Progress, by designer Neil Fortin; Cushing (center) with Christopher Burchett (left) and John Bellemer (right) in The Lighthouse (photo by Erik Jacobs).