Monday, August 12, 2013

"Trouser" roles

I came to opera rather late. Not too surprising as I grew up thousands (and later hundreds) of miles from the nearest opera house. Opera houses are rather thin on the ground in northern Alberta, even nowadays. As a matter of fact, I am still fairly ignorant about opera, but adding to my understanding bit by bit. Those of you who are opera aficionados might be surprised to learn that the first I heard of a "trouser" role was when I was taking a graduate seminar on opera and comedy. Others of you might be asking, as I did at the time, what the heck is a trouser role?

There is a wonderful example in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Figaro is a valet (formerly a barber) who is about to marry Susanna, maid to the Countess. Another character is an adolescent page boy, Cherubino, who desires the Countess. The thing is that the role is played (sung) by a soprano en travesti ("in trousers") that is to say, dressed as a boy. The role is both immensely funny, as Cherubino's emerging desire for all women and especially the Countess is what he (she) sings about a lot. But it is also rather sexy and provoking because he is really a she, which makes it all a bit perverse (by the standards of the time).

The Guardian has an excellent music section and part of it is streamed operas from Glyndebourne. You can watch, for example, an excellent production of Le nozze di Figaro until Aug. 31. Here is the link. The part of Cherubino is played by Isabel Leonard who is charmingly boyish. Here is a photo from the production. Isabel Leonard, in character, is on the left, Susanna, played by Lydia Teuscher is on the right:

And here is a link to part one of the video. Cherubino enters at around the 23:20 mark.

But how did this odd tradition begin? Originally travesti roles were actually sung by male castrati. Dating from the 16th century and dying out in the 19th century, young boys were castrated and as they grew up, their voices did not change and they were able to sing soprano or mezzo-soprano parts, but with great power and flexibility. Thus there was the odd situation of a male leading role sung by a male soprano. By Mozart's time the castrati were being replaced by women singing the same roles and dressed as men.

In the history of theater (of which opera is a part) there are many other examples of actors playing roles of the opposite sex. In Shakespeare's time, for example, the parts of women were played by boys as it was considered immoral for women to appear on stage. In Monteverdi's Orfeo, one of the earliest operas, the leading female roles of Eurydice and Proserpina were both played by castrati. But from the 17th century on, it has also been common for women to portray male roles on stage. One famous example is the actress Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Hamlet:

There is a recent collection of essays by musicologists on travesti roles that looks quite interesting. One of the papers is by Mitchell Morris, with whom I took an excellent seminar on Shostakovich. One hopes that it goes beyond the ideologically predictable position that, as Amazon says, "addresses the ways in which opera empowers women by challenging conventional gender hierarchies." Ah yes, those pesky conventional gender hierarchies that people have been nattering on about for the last forty years. Just looking at the history of travesti roles in opera and theater shows that things are a bit more complicated and interesting than that.

Let's end with a modern example. In Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos the role of the composer is sung by a soprano, originally Lotte Lehman. In this clip, also from Glyndebourne, the composer is sung bKate Lindsey.


Rickard Dahl said...

I couldn't find a good sentence to start this comment with so I will just dive right in.

I'm not a big fan of opera yet although I'm in general a big fan of classical music. I've only heard three opera lives and there's a very good reason why so few. So, about a year and a half ago I went to see and listen to Richard Strauss' Salome in the opera house in Gothenburg. The music was great but the scenery and acting was terrible (the actors/singers were probably great but the whoever decided they should act like this wasn't). Instead of something looking like it was from Jesus' times (as it is supposed to) I had to watch a freak show in modern times that made no sense at all. Why can't they just stick to the original (if possible) libretto instead of trying to make things "relevant" or to depict modern times? I wish the whole HiP movement thing would spread to opera and put an end to this freakshow. I'm not saying that reworking to make things different is necessarily bad, it's just that it can turn out really terrible instead of really amazing. The audience out of habit obviously clapped at the end of the performance but I doubt that most of them were satisfied. A man from the audience even standed up and screamed that it was terrible.

The other two operas I've only listened to and not seen any real acting. The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra were playing Wagner's Götterdämmerung together with soloists (I don't remember if there was a choir or not). That was much more interesting because it wasn't a freakshow but some acting and scenery according to the original intention would be nice.

Rickard Dahl said...

Had to make a second comment due to the character limitation.

Finally today I've watched an outdoor performance (once again no acting & scenery) of Ca Ira which is actually an opera written by Roger Waters from Pink Floyd. The opera was a part of Gothenburg's culture festival (which started today and goes on for a week) so it was all for free. Roger Waters himself was there and did some of the narrating (the opera had to be shortened down a bit to fit the festival schedule). This was not only interesting because it was an opera (although I have complaints I find opera interesting in general) but because by who it was written and the attention it got. The crowd was pretty big (although nothing compared with rock concerts and such) but most interestingly with many young audience members (at least compared with regular concerts with the orchestra involved). It might have been the first classical concert (or at least opera) for many people. I found the opera very melodic, harmonic and enjoyable but I don't know how it compares with other operas as I haven't really listened to many of them. I was curious how a rock composer handled composing classical music. It turns out that it sticks very closely to what you might expect from classical music. The child choir was singing less operatically and there was a short section with an uprising by slaves in Saint Domingo (the opera is about the french revolution and gives a (hopefully accurate) history lesson) where the singing style was more gospel (I guess). Here's a completely performance of the opera (turns out it has only been performed in Poland, Ukraine, Brazil and now today in Gothenburg in Sweden):

Other than live performances I haven't gotten into opera that much because it requires extra attention from the eyes and not only ears. I listen to alot of classical music when studying but with opera if you don't see the action and don't listen closely to the lyrics/read subtitles you miss out on the plot. I also found opera to be one of the hardest things to read about in The Oxford History of Western Music because I've easily got lost (confusing the characters and not really understanding the plot), it's probably better to listen and watch operas rather than read about them and try to understand what they are about. If you're curious: The hardest thing for me to read about in The Oxford History of Music was the part describing Bartok's use of symmetry and trying to follow what happens in the score examples with those symmetry things.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, thanks for sharing your opera experience, especially the report on Roger Waters' opera. What was the plot/story?

You might be interested in these posts I did on Joh Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Here is part on and part two:

Some of my most interesting opera experiences were playing in the pit. On one occasion I played in a Rossini opera where there is a guitar part in act one. On another, in Don Giovanni, where there is a mandolin part accompanying an aria. I learned mandolin just for that occasion. There was a third occasion, but I can't remember the opera. I just remember there was an aria accompanied by just guitar and cello.

Bryan Townsend said...

That should be Jon Lord.

Rickard Dahl said...

The plot/story, well, it was quite mixed. It felt like a history lesson and it that sense the plot/story was somewhat mixed. The main plot/story was that people started demanding freedom while the king and queen lives in luxury, the king and the queen get locked up, slaves in the colonies rebel, they (the king and queen) escape, they return to the crown but the mood hasn't changed and the people kill the king and the queen. So it's like a history lesson as I've mentioned above but I don't know it's historically correct as I haven't read about the french revolution.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, certainly sounds a bit like the French Revolution.

You might check out the Guardian classical music site as they have links to some excellent Glyndebourne opera productions.