Shoegirl educates us all with her love of a slightly queer operatic history
In the beginning of one of the episodes of the now classic L-Word, two of the lead characters (Alice and Bette, as almost every single soul reading this will no doubt know, unless you’ve been living under a meta-cultural rock for the last 10 years) attend a performance of Delibe’s opera Lakimé at the LA Opera some years previously, and as conveniently seated in a parterre box, Bette generously pleasures Alice surreptitiously as a mature lady watches on through her opera glass, smiling at the end of the duet as Alice is brought to climax by the sweetly smiling Bette. (I’m surprised nobody shouted “brava!” as our heroines and the performers complete the scene).
Hungry for opera
The music, as every self-respecting opera dyke will know, is the “Flower duet”, which is basically about a young Indian woman gathering flowers with her servant by the river. Sorry ladies, but I’m afraid it’s nothing more riveting. However, in his 1983 film “The Hunger”, Tony Scott didn’t think so, and used it to punctuate a now-legendary seduction scene between Catherine Denueve’s predatory vampire and Susan Sarandon’s trusting doctor.
However, such associations don’t reveal the rich tapestry of women-loving-women in opera. From the lighting specialist to the lead soprano to the character on the page, there is a documented trail of women-who-like-girls in opera, with a surprising number of couples (and an overwhelming bias towards the soprano voice). I only know of two actual explicitly girl-who-likes-girls roles in opera: the first of Countess Geschwitz in Berg’s Lulu, the second the role of Moira in Ruder’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale. Admittedly, Irish composer Gerard Barry did set an opera based on the 60s cult classic The Bitter tears of Petra von Kant, (and yes, it remains all-out dyke drama from beginning to end).
Had the ladies of the L-Word chose to do so, they could have gone to their local opera house to find at least 2 “out” sopranos in performance that season: Patricia Racette in Madame Butterfly, and Adrianne Pieczonka’s Marschallin in dyke favourite Der Rosenkavalier. That doesn’t even include gay/bi singers singing at that house that season who are not out! Both are happily attached to other lady singers, Racette’s partner Beth Clayton, and Pieczonka is happily attached to mezzo Laura Tucker. Jill Grove openly mentions her wife of 2 years in her artists bio, as does Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, whose also in a long term relationship. Spotting a pattern? As you though: every one of these ladies is in committed, long term relationships. Those who remain quietly (or not so quietly) in the closet tend to be the single ones, so I’d say we may see a gradual creep forward of others as they find partners and build more confidence about their lifestyle choices.
There is a convention in opera in performing certain male roles by a woman. In many cases, these roles were originally written for castrati, but not always. Some composers, for example Richard Strauss, just adored the female voice so much that roles were allocated to female singers even where the character is patently male for dramatic purposes. The most obvious case of this is Oktavian in Rosenkavalier.
A lot of the distinction is also down to musical styles. In Monteverdi’s time in the early to mid-17th century, there was no real distinction made between a higher “soprano” and middle range “mezzo soprano” voices. It is the mezzo voice that mostly covers the traditional “trouser” part, which may have been written for a castrato. The castrato voice itself fell into a range that while recognisably in boy soprano range, today correlates to anything from a male falsettist to what would now be considered a choral soprano range. There are a lot of trouser roles specifically written for a female voice – the part of Sesto in Handel’s Guilio Cesare in Eggito being a good example, despite being explicitly a male role.
After the whole idea of kidnapping great choirboys before they hit puberty and applying agricultural implements to them went out of fashion (thankfully, as there was a significant human cost to this barbaric practice), much of the music specifically written for this voice type went out of fashion. After Handel’s death in 1750, much of his operatic repertory went unperformed until revival in Germany in the 1920s.
But not all “trousers” disappeared. A small few roles were written after Mozart’s time for female singers, and the convention lingered right through the 19th century, especially in France, where roles appear right through the century.
The “Queens” of the pants roles, of course, are the mezzo sopranos. This is the voice that lies in the middle of the female range, between the higher soprano and lower contralto. To start off, here is Irish mezzo Ann Murray singing a classic “trouser” role – Ariodante – at English National Opera in 1996: and again in Handel, this time as Xerses.
The convention in opera is that a part sung by a female singer is understood to be accepted by the audience as a male role, no matter how much discordance there happens to be with the physical embodiment of the role on the stage. So you quite regularly have women in their mid-40s (and older) playing the role of a 17 year old boy onstage, quite accepted by audiences. Even romantic roles have been (sometimes uncomfortably) accepted also – although up until about 10 years ago it wasn’t unusual to hear singers in interviews discuss the “problem” of projecting a romance between what was actually two same-sex singers on the stage. This quietly disappeared from public dialogue, though opera-goers (even gay ones) being notoriously conservative, there are thinly-veiled homophobic grumbles.
Handel wrote extensively both for castrati and women-wearing-pants, and his legacy includes many great roles, more frequently performed nowadays since they demand quite small resources and are enjoyable and demanding for singers. Orlando includes no less than 4 parts suited for female voices, with a mixture of sopranos and alti. Ariodante, already mentioned above, is a truly exciting opera, riveting in its drama and cruelty. Because of the high range of the part, the lead (male) role is usually played by a mezzo.
Another Handel opera worth a look is Alcina. Like Orlando, this is based on the same set of poems (Orlando Furioso by Ariosto), tales of chivalrous Cursade-era knights, which served as many a basis for various baroque operas. Alicina concerns the machinations of the sorceress Alcina, who strives to keep the bewitched Saracen knight Ruggiero in her enchanted island for herself, while he is sought out by his lover Bradamente, herself disguised en travesti as a knight under the name Ricciardo. If this seems like too much cross-dressing, consider the production that began in Stuttgart in 1999.
Played out in a dilapidated salon, the production ruffles feathers with the gender transgressions of cross-dressing, resulting sexuality dissonances, themes of enchantment and illusion and a sense of knowing irony. Alicina spends much of the production in a see-through cocktail dress, Ruggiero falls barely short of making love to her onstage, other characters strip, hit each other, attempt to seduce each other and play every gag possible, all in the knowing wink of Alcina’s enchantment. It just works. The production was revived with most of the same cast a few times in subsequent years (as recently as January 2013, albeit with a local cast) and accounts suggest that it both improved and became more provocative over time. I’d suggest watching both the clip of the scene which originally caused most offence, “Di’ cor mio” and a lovely “Verdi prati”. Should you have 3 hours to spare, some kind bootlegger soul has put the lot on youtube, though the DVD was recently rereleased and worth watching.
Guilio Cesare in Eggito delivers no fewer than 2 potential trouser roles, one of them the title part of Cesare, and the second of the boy Sesto, son of the murdered former Roman ruler. Yes, that is a woman:
Sarah Connolly can make other mezzos look like girls. Her costuming is particularly fascinating, no doubt helped by a tall, slim and more androgynous demeanor. Her singing, however, is equally brilliant. In this amusing prom the music needs no introduction, but dressing as Admiral Nelson was a stroke of genius.
Falling in love with opera
I recall in mid-1990, as a 17 year old, happening across this BBC studio broadcast of Cesare from Peter Sellars with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and landing on the memorable moment that Sesto tries to cut a vein, before caressing an Uzi, vowing revenge for his father’s murder in Cara speme.
A popular trouser part is that of Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. All the more fun as the words sung include gems such as “I don’t know whats happening to me … every woman makes me tingle” Cherubino also gets dressed up as a girl as part of the farcical element of the plot, though unlike Oktavian, he doesn’t get the girl.
Another juicy mezzo role in Mozart is the more serious role of Idamente in Idomeno, and Clemenza di Tito gives us not one, but 2 potential trouser roles, Sesto and AnnioGaranca and Kasarova are a particular treat together on stage.
A few years ago I was reading the Gramophone, when I came across this welcome apparition. “Has DG, Gramophone and opera finally gone gay?”, I thought. But then again, I was unfamiliar with recent trends, outside of Kasarova, von Otter and Hunt Lieberson, not realising it’d moved on a decade from these.
The lady on the right is Elina Garanca, a Latvian mezzo, the Annio to Kararova’s Sesto above. Until a couple of years ago she nearly had it all to herself where masculinity is concerned for a while, aside from golden-toned English mezzo Alice Coote (I find it difficult to write about Coote without religious ecstasy, because her voice, technique and interpretative style is for me, simply sensational). Garanca did a particularly liked Sesto inClemenza di Titoat the Met in December 2012, leaving ladies worldwide literally swooning in her wake through the HD broadcast.
One fine Bellini Romeo is Joyce DiDonato, a harder sound than the eastern Europeans, but visually arresting and especially good in ensemble sections. Special credits for wearing leather!
Di Donato was also rather fetching in Le Comte Ory, a rather fun opera involving cross-dressing, disguises, nuns, etc, but also a very fine vehicle for good bel canto tenors.
There is also a rather satisfying Massenet Cendrillonwith Coote playing Prince Charmant opposite DiDonatos’s Lucette.
By the 19th century, soprano roles had expanded into what we now consider “true” soprano roles – Queens of the Night expanding into the upper octave and tragic heroines up against the boundaries of a cruel male society. But before Lucia, Tosca and Mimi took precedence, there were still some good trouser roles, especially in France.
In the 1830s Orsino in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia was written for a contralto (the Orsino in the production below is Coote). There have been some rather odd stagings as Maffiso Orsino pledges his loyalty to death to his friend Gennaro, early on in the opera. This has led some directors to interpret the relationship as a same-sex commitment and others to even stage the role as a woman. Neither is satisfying: it misses the rich tapestry of same-sex friendship in an era of political/arranged marriages. Nevertheless, it’s a good vehicle for a trousered contralto or mezzo.
Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier
This is where the convention goes dangerously close to transgressing the social norms of gender and sexuality of its time. Oktavian is one of the main 3 characters in Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, but played by a mezzo in trousers. The character is that of a 17 year-old boy of the nobility, who is having an affair with the older Marschallin. If you can youtube or DVD any of the very many recordings, you won’t be disappointed by it: from scene 1, it’s roll-in-the-hay stuff between the female leads. Invited to be the “Rosenkavalier” (or rose bearer) for another man who loves a young woman, Sophie, instead, Oktavian himself falls in love with its intended recipient, and much comedy ensues as Oktavian hides from various visitors, disguised as a maid (yes – it is the girl-playing a boy-playing a girl trope), and eventually succeeds with Sophie in the end (effectively it does mean the girl gets the girl, even if indirectly) while dumping his middle aged Marschallin without ensuing dyke dramatoo many tears. Here, Brigitte Fassbänder’s Oktavian presents the rose
With the subjects of both Fassbänder and Rosenkavalier, it’s hard not to encroach onto the subject of where life actually meets art. There is no point in pretending that music in general and opera theatre in particular is not a place where you will find many people who are off the heterosexual spectrum.
There are several out singers as I’ve already pointed out. Fassbänder herself is a little more complex – and part of a continuum which I think is common – while she was pretty much outed in the 80/90s, she did deny identifying explicitly as lesbian in an interview with Norman Lebrecht in 2008, but made no denial of her relationships with women. This may seem strange to those who follow conventional norms of sexual identity, but it isn’t strange to anybody who prefers to live without categories and rigid labels, which is, I think, an awful lot of people. It is understood that Fassbänder has been in a long term relationship with her female partner, and she’s apparently made a fine job as Indentant of the Tyrol opera house in Innsbruck.
It’s somewhat notable that otherwise, most tier 1 mezzos (or sopranos) playing trouser roles, tend to iterate their opposite gendered marriages or long term partnerships. There are, of course, exceptions, and notable silences from some. Speculation – particularly – curiously – of singers of the past – is rife, if mostly wishful thinking.
It goes without saying that a hetero woman does just as fine a job at conveying the chemistry between herself and her female co-lead as anybody else. The quaint notion that what you do on stage necessarily relates to your actual life and loves is as nonsensical here as it in on conventional stage or film. A notable feature of recent years is the firmer emphasis placed on acting and physical embodiment of character: this does lead for additional pressures on singers. However, this is just a very brief introduction to what is a rich treasure trove for anybody who does like a bit of great singing, so I’ve listed some websites below that might be of additional interest.
In the last few years blogs have proliferated around the subject, most of them very informed and well-written. The world falls over itself with former musicians who’ve kicked the bucket and gone on to other careers (I know: I’m one of them), but who still take an interest and can write with good understandings of the subjects at hand.
EyeBags is a veritable shrine to trouser roles and mezzos in general. Good, informed writing, lots of asides about food, academia, and fictional writing as well as good, informed writing about singing.
Definitely the opera is beautifully written, from Canada, and again discusses many other topics. Lydia’s articles are worth a read for the beautiful writing as much as informativeness.
Eyesometric is another good one, with a strong bias towards Kasarova (honestly, who can blame her – the lovely Bulgarian can do no wrong!)
Finally, we cannot go without mentioning the ruthless, hilarious, gossipy and genius Parterre.com. The brainchild of La Cieca, the alter ego-ette of a New Yorker, the site originated as a fanzine stuffed surreptitiously into flyers and under seats at the Met. It’s since become both a magnificent resource and rich pool of information, gossip and opinion of every kind, but hilarious, if a little unrepentantly merciless.
But of course, the one disadvantage of living in Ireland is that aside from wonderful Wexford, opera tends to be a little limp. Small festivals, one-offs and visiting productions are the fodder these days, and the trend is (as it always has been) biased towards sopranos and tenors, leaving trouser-friendly parts lacking.
Another unfortunate trend is that early roles for castrati here are almost always performed by countertenors (here in Ireland we’ve far less of a “principal boy” tradition on the stage). However there are alternatives:
- the very odd concert performance: Cecelia Bartoli and Jennifer Larmore both performed in Dublin last year. Angela
- Met Live in HD, Royal Opera House, Opera Paris and Opera Australia live streamed performances in cinema. For cinemas showing Met performances, see here. There is a performance of Guilio Cesare planned for 27th April. Don’t go to a “local” house if you’re in Dublin: the Screen in D’Olier street has a more cosmopolitan (and dare I say it, “gay”) crowd. Usually drinks before/after in Chaplins pub opposite – most of the “opera” crowd drink down the back. Movies@ in Dundrum and Swords no longer show Met, but are good for the other houses.
- One offs – though these tend to focus on the ABC productions – Carmen, La Boheme, Traviata etc. Wide Open Opera are a company to particularly watch out for, as one of their aims is to introduce opera to new audiences.
- Streaming media – some European houses are excellent for putting up video online. Two of note are La Monnaie in Belgium and Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The former stream most productions for 3 weeks after the recording was made. You can often find more at the World Concert Hall website.
- Radio broadcasts, both local and streamed, remain an excellent source. RTE Lyric FM broadcasts many of the Met matinees on Saturdays, usually starting at 5 or 6pm, and often live or recorded versions of other opera houses productions. One I particularly like is Italian state broadcaster RAI - there is an Italian-centric bias, and trouser/mezzo traditions are slightly different there, but its a fresh approach and they broadcast a HUGE amount of opera from their own expansive archives.
- BBC Proms – almost always on radio, often simulcast with TV on BBC3 or 4 also. There are often treats from Glyndebourne, who also stream from the Guardian website, not just live, but usually available for a few weeks.
- If you live in Dublin, there is the City Music library in the Ilac Centre, a magnificent resource. They have DVDs and blu-rays as well as CDs to hire.
- Lastly, travel. We have lots of excellent opera houses in Europe, including Eastern Europe (very cheap seats!) – go take advantage of them.
Shoegirl was once a church organist, choral conductor, accompanist and music teacher before embarking upon a highly personal and decadent blog in 1999/2000. No doubt this (and an accompanying party lifestyle) probably helped put an end to the aforementioned career over 2000/2001. She has proper jobs now, but still remains fond of music and occasionally emerges from “retirement” to do the odd piano or organ accompaniment somewhere. Shoegirl likes Sunday mornings in bed with a huge pot of Barry’s tea, the radio, and something good to read.