Meet the Women Who Play Men at the Opera: Secrets of the ‘Trouser Role’
‘We all have masculine and feminine in us,’ says Elizabeth DeShong, one of a group of women playing five lead male characters at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
Having played animals onstage, the concept of merely switching genders isn’t quite as complicated to American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.
Mezzos lie in a mid-space vocally, just lower than sopranos, and roles available to them reflect this. Outside of Carmen, mezzo-sopranos have few options other than one of the many “trouser roles” in opera — when women play men onstage.
New York City's Metropolitan Opera, whose season began in September, is featuring five major trouser roles this year, in the operas Semiramide, Tales of Hoffmann, Hansel and Gretel, Cendrillion, and Marriage of Figaro.
As the nation grapples with the increasing visibility of trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as pressures to break out of traditional gender stereotypes, these centuries-old roles are incidentally pertinent to how we consider gender and sexuality.
“As a culture, we’re becoming far more enlightened about what defines us as human beings, and the enclosed boundaries that have determined what is masculine and feminine are being broken down,” DeShong, who is singing Arsace, a male soldier, in Rossini’s Semiramide, says. “Ultimately, the fewer barriers we place on ourselves and others outside of the theater, the fewer we place on performers inside the theater. That goes a long way to, I think, opera feeling relevant.”
DeShong hopes younger generations will push the art in a freer direction, and in the meantime, she’s enjoying the gender exploration. “We all have masculine and feminine in us, and it’s just fun to not feel any restrictions on parts of yourself that maybe in your every day you don’t get to utilize.”
Before it was widely acceptable for women to perform onstage, opera composers wrote characters to be sung by castrati, men who were castrated to keep a higher vocal range.
By the mid-1800s, people realized castration was maybe not a great idea, and with fewer castrati, female singers took over those roles. Meanwhile, composers like Mozart began writing male characters specifically for female singers.
Just as opera audiences accept that a couple that met 30 seconds ago is now madly in love, they accept that a female singer is a man onstage. Often, trouser roles are young boys and adolescents, so the feminine voice represents youth (to the point that Elīna Garanča, deferring to her age of 41, declared this spring’s Rosenkavlier her last trouser role). Other times, well, it just sounds and looks good — and there’s a certain amount of forced eroticism.
Irish mezzo Tara Erraught made her Met debut in September in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann singing the role of the personified muse to Hoffmann, a writer.
The role starts female, but the Muse turns male to get into Hoffmann’s head. It’s a role Erraught has been preparing for since her college days, when she was “infiltrating the lads,” which included watching the school’s football team to see how men move.
“It’s really easy on the body,” Erraught says of performing male. “They’re looser in their hips; they’re looser in their shoulders. It’s a more relaxed stance all the time — which is also so good for the singing! Their clothes are also very comfortable, let’s just be honest.”
Erraught will also sing Hansel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel this winter. She bases him partially on her younger brother, who she envied because he could run wild while she “had to keep your stupid dress clean.”
“You get to slump around, slouch, be annoyed with people, and you’re hungry, and you’re tired,” she explains of Hansel. She finds this freedom across trouser roles, and she finds it empowering. “You’re just allowed a little bit more physical freedom. It makes for better singing just because you’re super relaxed, you don’t worry about how you’re sitting or how you look. Boys just don’t care, especially the younger ones.”
Although physical adjustments are central to acting as a man, mezzos insist those changes come from considering the character himself first, not his gender. Alice Coote, veteran British mezzo, is literally playing Prince Charming in Massenet’s Cendrillon — Cinderella — and even there considered his humanity first.
“He’s supposed to be a romantic archetype, but it’s much more interesting [to] see him on a similar journey to Cinderella as a human being who’s very, very, very, very unhappy, very, very lonely, very, very isolated, as is she,” Coote says. “We’re all human beings, we’re all the same; I don’t work from the outside, in, I work from the inside, out.”
Ultimately, Coote says, “The fact of whatever I’ve got or haven’t got in my trousers is not the most important thing.” Still, more than two decades of trouser roles has taken a toll on Coote, making her “a bit schizophrenic.”
“When I really believe I’m a man, I really am attracted to women, but it doesn’t make me necessarily as clear as that in real life,” Coote says. “When you’re an actor, you can get completely in the mindset of believing, utterly, whatever you’re doing, if you’re killing somebody, whatever. So it’s not very helpful for 25 years to spend my life a lot of the time being a man. It makes you very thoughtful, but confused.”
After over two decades of playing outside gender lines, Coote says she identifies with “everybody” and is “much more accepting of absolutely everything.” Ultimately, she’s found that sexuality is “pretty immaterial.”
“We put ourselves in boxes, and society puts us in boxes, and I think [we’re beginning to] just release ourselves from this sexual box. But as a job, I do that every day. I’m neither one thing nor another when I’m playing male roles,” she says.
American Isabel Leonard is performing perhaps the most popular trouser role as Cherubino, the adolescent boy raging with hormones obsessed with all women — Countess Almaviva in particular — in Mozart’s comedy Marriage of Figaro. Leonard has dominated this role for the past decade with a delightfully charming performance, despite the character’s crassness.
“My idea for Cherubino is that he is nothing but full of love, hormones, and impulses that he just cannot control, but they’re never malicious or negative impulses,” she explains. And, because he’s just a young boy, Leonard reasons he can’t intimidate the women he presses himself on. Instead, there’s a sense of safety.
Leonard worries that getting “tangled up in all of the millions of things that society is having so much fun with right now — for good and for evil” may distract us from simple, vital human concepts opera brings out.
“[Cherubino] is driven by love, day in and day out. He says it, he sings about it, and that’s what he’s about,” Leonard says. “I think if we were to ask people on the street, and we were to get to the core of all of it, that’s all it’s about.”
Opera has long served as both political commentary and a fantasy escape, and it seems mezzos hope that the fantasy influences the politics offstage, with the audiences of reality accepting people for who they say they are.
“I just wish — not even just in opera world, but in society in general,” Lenoard says, “and call it a cliché, call it hopeful, call it whatever you want to call it — but I wish that we could all get back to what the real core value is, which is just about love, and doing things to make other people feel safe and loved. And that’s it.”
Tales of Hoffmann, through Oct. 28; Hansel and Gretel, Dec. 18-Jan. 6; Semiramide, Feb. 19-Mar. 17; Cendrillon, Apr. 12-May 11; The Marriage of Figaro, Dec. 6-Jan. 19; all at the Metropolitan Opera, NYC. Book tickets here.