Friday, February 11, 2011

Who Wears The Pants Around Here?

Girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls, who do boys like they’re girls, who do girls like they’re boys. – Blur

Sounds like a high-falutin’ comedy of errors, doesn’t it?

It’s not unusual to find trouser or breeches roles in many of today’s popular operas. This refers to the opera’s male character being sung by a female who sings in the mezzo soprano or contralto vocal range. Instead of hip-swaying crinoline skirts and bust-popping corsets, these female singers are binding their breasts and donning on trousers, men’s jackets, vests, wigs, facial hair and adapting male mannerisms.

Audience members who may or may not know this prior to curtain (surprise!), have to suspend their belief and accept the woman who’s playing the male part is a “man”, who may even be romancing a woman onstage.

So how did this all come about?

Back in mid-16th century Italy, these now “trouser roles” were written for and sung by a castrato, a young man who was castrated before puberty and as a result was able to maintain singing in such a high vocal range. At its peak in the 1720s-30s, it was estimated that 4,000 boys were castrated. All in the name of opera. Thank goodness that practice has died out. In 1861, castration for musical purposes was officially declared illegal.

Nowadays, women or men who have been trained to sing in the counter-tenor vocal range are employed in these roles.

Let’s not confuse cross-dressing roles such as Leonore in Fidelio or Gilda in Rigoletto as trouser roles. They’re just women disguised as men. True trouser roles include Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, Orpheus in Orpheus and Euridice, the title role of Xerxes, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, and VO’s current production, Sesto and Annio in La Clemenza di Tito.

LA Opera's beautiful and provocative poster for their 2005 production of Der Rosenkavalier

Vienna Classic's Der Rosenkavalier, ENO's Xerxes and Opera Atelier's Opheus & Euridice

Julie Boulianne (right) as Cherubino in VO's The Marriage of Figaro

Another La Clemenza di Tito trouser role: Norine Burgess (left) as Annio

It may be confusing at first to suspend your belief and not think girl-on-girl action, but we’ve seen examples of trouser roles on tv and film:

Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously, Tilda Swinton in Orlando and Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There

Not trouser roles:

Barbra Streisand in Yentl, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Angelina Jolie in Salt and Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria

Definitely not trouser roles: (women portraying men portraying women)

Kathleen Turner in Friends, Rebecca Romijn in Ugly Betty and Famke Jensen in Nip/Tuck

On the flip side, there have been skirt roles, where a man portrays a female character in opera, theatre and film, for so long that the audience accepts what they’re seeing without even a bat of an eyelash. So why the hang-up with women portraying men?

An opera patron told me last night that, at first, he was distracted by how physically attractive Krisztina Szabo was, singing the role of Sesto, Vitellia’s would-be male suitor. But after a while, any hesitation subsided and he found himself sucked into the story of La Clemenza di Tito. (even as he was hoping for an on-stage kiss between the women)

It might take an aria or two, but the audience should keep in mind that writers and composers have always played with gender and in the case of opera, it should always come down to the singing. Be it a man or a woman’s voice.

~ Ling Chan


The Wanderers' Daughter said...

This is my favorite post. Maybe because I was always an outsider, maybe because I've always felt split between girly-girl and tomboy, but I've always been fascinated by this kind of contrast. Orlando (the book) has been my lifetime favorite, and I never tire of its attractions. I worshipped Linda Hunt in TYOLD. And Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria was a great love of mine in my early teens. Not to even mention Midsummer Night's Dream. I always wished that I could dress as a man and get away with it. Thanks for this've hit close to home for me!

Ling said...

thanks and you're very welcome maia!

i had a lot of fun writing this post :)

orlando was the first movie where i first knew of tilda swinton and i thought she was so beautifully androgynous. she was also perfectly cast in constantine as the archangel gabriel.

i agree - those actresses were unforgettable in those performances.