The Marriage of Figaro returns to Royal Opera House with a twist

Male choice of Kangmin Justin Kim for role of Cherubino is a first in opera house’s history

In 70 years there have been six productions and 347 performances of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House, but on Saturday the latest revival will offer audiences a fascinating first: Cherubino, the desperately loved-up page boy, will be played by a man.

The role is almost always played by a mezzo-soprano or soprano passing themselves off as a man, but the Korean-American countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim will make Covent Garden history when he takes up the part in David McVicar’s revived production.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who will conduct and argued for Kim to play Cherubino, said the current debates over gender politics gave the casting an interesting topicality. “I think this is a rather intriguing turning point,” he said.

“Justin Kim is a remarkable singer and a remarkable actor too. I call him a male soprano … he has got an extraordinary top to his voice and he is very masculine.”

Gardiner said it was interesting to cast a man in a role steeped in gender fluidity – the woman playing the boy is disguised as a girl before reverting to being a boy. “Here you’ve got a double take on that which gives it an extra depth. He does it so convincingly I find it a really enchanting twist on Mozart’s opera.

“There is no political statement, nobody is trying to pretend this is authentic. Mozart did not cast Cherubino as a boy … but I think Mozart would have been intensely amused and would smile and have a really good chortle at the idea of Justin singing Cherubino.”

Kim, who is making his Covent Garden debut, has played the role previously, something he described as “a very good entry-level experience” for getting to know the character.

Kangmin Justin Kim will be making his Covent Garden debut.
Kangmin Justin Kim will be making his Covent Garden debut. Photograph: Mark Douet

“It is a great honour and I’m very humbled by being able to bring this character to life as a man and perhaps show a side of Cherubino which people don’t often get to see … like the more masculine side which is not necessarily fabricated, it’s actually driven by testosterone.”

Cherubino is one of opera’s most famous “trouser roles”, a young male character played by a woman whose voice could convey youthful exuberance.

In recent years there has been a trend towards countertenors being cast in the roles – a joy for Kim, who remembers auditioning for opera courses about seven years ago and being told he should not have them in his repertoire.

“I had many people tell me that my repertoire choices were completely wrong because these roles were not being cast with men. That just because I can sing it, it doesn’t mean I should have it in my repertoire. Those were the exact words given to me. Since then I’ve sung four of them on stage.”

Kim, who grew up in Chicago, said performing at Covent Garden was a dream and that opportunities for countertenors had come a long way. “The possibilities are endless and I’m very lucky to be living in a time when people are willing to see a male singer singing Cherubino.”

McVicar’s much-loved The Marriage of Figaro is getting its sixth revival since its premiere at Covent Garden in 2006 with a cast including Christian Gerhaher as Figaro, Joélle Harvey as Susanna, Simon Keenlyside as Count Almaviva and Julia Kleiter as Countess Almaviva, the object of Cherubino’s infatuation.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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