Lydia Perović drops by the blog in advance of her appearance July 10 – BWS’s annual Queer Night! – with a few words about gender-bending and the opera.
En travesti: Cross-dressing for a living
I wanted to tell you about trouser roles in opera.
They’re also called “breeches” and “pants roles” and hosenrolle, and they involve women singing male roles. The young aristocrats, the soldiers, the bewitched emos, the mama’s boys, the gamut. Whatever the type, s/he will always end up courting a girl. Singing with and to her. Making out. And so on. (And it does get much better. You can’t watch some clips on YouTube without signing up and confirming you’re over eighteen.)
How is this lesbo domain of the operatic tradition even possible? It just so happened that the western world stopped snipping young men for purposes of cultivating the castrato voice, and the roles of the primo uomo were gradually repopulated by women singing in the mezzosoprano and contralto range. They fit wonderfully. So the carrying-on carried on undisturbed.
But not all is owed to the castratos. There are also roles in opera in which the character is a woman, but she cross-dresses for the plot. Composers have made a lot of roles like that for women. And they often include quite a bit of carrying on with the soprano.
Castratos or not, pretenses or not, trouser roles kept being created because it’s a Damn Good Thing Any Way You Look At It.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that opera is queer, so why do I go on about this particular department of its queerness?
Because I used the trouser role mezzo-with-soprano setup for sections of my novel, Incidental Music. In it, the retired soprano struggles with the memories of her own past affair with a mezzo — and her reminiscing often leads her to the opera scenes that she and the mezzo had sung.
But here is a selection of the s-m scenes that will give you an idea of how these things go.
L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1650s), two lovers unable to part ways in the morning. Glyndebourne production 2008.
(For a more stylized and abstract, therefore possibly more tense version of the same, head here)
What if Romeo was a woman? In opera, he always is. I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), Paris 2008 production.
Sarah Connolly’s turn as a very British Empire Giulio Cesare from the 2005 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s eponymous opera is always a joy.
When you leave an older lover for an ingénue, music can be devastatingly good. The trio from Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier (1911), in a Vienna State Opera production from 1994.
Cherubino from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) on why he can’t focus when there are women around. A Zurich production from the late nineties.
And finally, a recent Toronto Cherubino: Teiya Kasahara in Against the Grain’s 2013 production.
Lydia Perović visits the Brockton Writers Series July 10, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Brian Francis, Shani Mootoo and Rose Cullis.
Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!