Opera’s Greatest Trouser Roles

‘Trouser role’ is a theatrical term used to denote a role which is portrayed by a performer of the opposite sex.

Although in the 21st century female roles played by men have become uncommon, women in male roles (sometimes referred to as ‘travesti’ roles) are still commonplace across the art form. In English National Opera’s 2019/20 Season, we have some of the all-time greatest trouser roles, which we’ll take a look at alongside some other characters which deserve a highlight.

Cherubino is perhaps the best known travesti role in the repertoire, and is a prominent role in Mozart‘s The Marriage of Figaro. Although titled as ‘the Count’s page’, in his first appearance Cherubino bursts into the room, enlisting Susanna’s aid to be reinstated to the role – the Count discovered him with the gardener’s daughter and dismissed him. Despite being sent to Seville in the Count’s army regiment, Cherubino remains, leading to farcical situations hiding from Count Almaviva.

The page has a reputation for falling in love with every woman he comes across (including the Countess, leading to more outrage from the Count), leadings to increasingly ridiculous situations – dressing as Susanna in an attempt to trick the Count (a case of a woman portraying a man portraying a woman).

 

Humperdinck uses a mezzo-soprano to play the titular young hero in his Hansel and Gretel opera, highlighting the youth of the character and cementing the role as that of a child. Prior to the events of the plot, the siblings live a simple (if boring) life in the woods with their parents.

As the opera begins, Hansel is making brooms for his father to sell, and Gretel is stitching a stocking. Their unexceptional life is shaken up when the duo wanders into the wood, quickly becoming lost.

Giving their nightly prayers, the siblings sing the most popular aria of the opera, the folk music inspired ‘Evening Benediction’ (‘Abendsegen’).  Once captured by the Witch, Hansel is chosen as her prey, caged and fattened up, before the children make their escape, killing the witch and freeing her captive children in the process.

Interestingly, Hansel and Gretel features several characters which have been played as travesti roles in its history. The Sandman is played by a soprano when he puts Hansel and Gretel to sleep in the second act, whilst the Witch (originally a Mezzo-Soprano) has been quite often portrayed by a male tenor, including in ENO’s 2019 production.

Hansel was played by both Rachel Kelly and Heather Lowe, whilst the Witch was played by Alasdair Elliott and John Findon, in the ENO and Regent’s Park Theatre’s production of Hansel and Gretel in Summer 2019.

Although originally debuted with a male castrato, Orpheus has become a role that is often played by a woman, due to some interesting historical developments. ‘Concert pitch’ was uncoordinated across Europe prior to the 19th Century, with cities across Europe varying up to 5 semitones (in current tunings). This lead to Gluck‘s original writing becoming increasingly hard to be sung by men, during the time when concert pitch was being standardised. The French government passed a law in 1859 to introduce diapason normal, stopping the upward moving tendency in pitch trends.

When Giacomo Meyerbeer proposed the renowned alto Pauline Viardot should perform as Orpheus, Hector Berlioz arranged a version of the opera with Viardot in mind for the role. With the standardised pitch newly introduced, Berlioz’s version (widely performed in modern times) puts the role comfortably in the range of a female contralto.

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice is perhaps the ‘classic’ Orpheus opera, giving a pure iteration of the story we all know, and incorporating dance heavily into the staging. Orpheus takes centre stage as the tragic hero, with the most famous aria of the opera ‘I have lost my Eurydice’ (‘Che farò senza Euridice?’) acting as his emotional climax.

Orpheus was played by Alice Coote in the ENO’s October-November 2019 production of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Richard Strauss‘s Der Rosenkavalier, billed as one of the most popular operas of the twentieth century, concerns the tale of the 17-year-old Count Octavian Rofrano, played by a female soprano. As the curtain rises, our handsome homewrecker has just finished his love making with the ‘slightly’ older (32-years old) Princess Marie Thérèse von Werdenberg, whose husband is away hunting.

The opera continues to follow the comic mishaps of the young Count, as well as the Marschallin (Princess Marie), her dullard cousin Baron Ochs von Lerchenau, and his fiancée Sophie von Faninal. Much like the previously mentioned Cherubino, he segues through a set of farces, including dressing as a chambermaid to escape the punishment of Baron Ochs when he barges into the room – a case of a woman playing a man masquerading as a woman.

Marschallin knows that Octavian will eventually leave her for a younger, more beautiful bride, and Octavian’s contact with Sophie leads to the youth falling in love with her. Marschallin relinquishes him to Sophie so he can be truly happy, while she is left alone.

Octavian is (arguably) the central role of the opera, as well as the titular Knight of the Rose, and was played by Sarah Connolly in the 2012 production of Der Rosenkavalier.

Whilst a relatively minor role, Offenbach‘s depiction of Cupid in his Orpheus in the Underworld is performed as a travesti, acting alongside Minerva, Venus and Diana to mock Jupiter and his pursuit of Eurydice. The gods complain at length about Jupiter’s tyrannical ways, and his various disguises he uses to woo mortals (despite being married to Juno).

In Act 2, Cupid also helps to convince Eurydice to sing the aria ‘I saw the god Bacchus’ (J’ai vu le dieu Bacchus), when she is disguised as a Bacchante (a priest of Bacchus).

Perhaps the role is most famous for having been performed by the courtesan Cora Pearl in an 1867 revival of the opera, sparking intrigue and outrage. This being said, the uproar didn’t last long, with Pearl relinquishing the role after only 12 days. Evidently, the role is known for being portrayed with femininity, despite being classically male.

Cupid was played by Ellie Laugharne in our production of Orpheus in the Underworld, which ran during the 2019/20 season.

A relatively minor character compared to others on this list, Prince Orlofsky is nevertheless integral to the plot of Richard Strauss‘s operetta Die Fledermaus. Usually played as a travesti role, occasionally the part is played by a male tenor.

Orlofsky is an eccentric young Russian prince, endlessly looking for something to amuse and interest him. Hearing about how Eisenstein (the protagonist) had played a practical joke on Dr Falke (the local notary), Orlofsky throws a grand masquerade ball to help Falke get his revenge as a source of entertainment.

With Act 2 of the opera set at the party, Orlofsky insists that his guests drink champagne with him, fuelling more alcohol-related shenanigans, and leading to the beginning of Act 3 – where the characters wake up in prison, struggling to recall the events of the previous night.

Our Prince Orlofsky in the ENO’s 2012 production of Der Rosenkavalier was Jennifer Holloway.

In Antonín Dvořák‘s opera inspired by Slavic mythology Rusalka, the duo of the burly Gameskeeper/Forester and the spry Kitchen Boy are recurring characters, acting in places as audience surrogate – but also reflect the views of the lower castes of the Prince’s kingdom. The Kitchen Boy is frightened by the mute Rusalka, who he believes to be a witch as he gossips with the Forester about Rusalka and the Prince’s relationship, and how the Prince tires of her silence.

In Act 3, the pair return, approaching the witch Ježibaba about the Prince, who has, in their eyes, been betrayed by Rusalka. Ježibaba restores the Prince’s confidence, then she scares the Kitchen Boy and the Forester off.

In his Faust (based on the play Faust et Marguerite), Charles Gounod depicted Siébel as a ‘lovesick boy’ in the village, who acts as the romantic rival of Faust for Margurite’s affection. Siebel is very much a small part, but is important enough to have a wonderful aria written for him. Siébel is adapted from Goethe’s character of the same name (who is a bartender in Auerbach’s Cellar, a restaurant/bar Goethe frequented in Leipzig).

Gounod’s use of Siébel seems to show that mortal men cannot stand up to those twisted by Hell’s thrall. Siébel brings Marguerite (who is the sister of his friend, the soldier Valentin) flowers, only for Méphistophélès to bring a greater gift – a box of ornate jewellery. Even after Faust’s betrayal, Marguerite still does not reciprocate Siébel’s feelings.

In the ENO’s 2010 production of Faust, Siébel was portrayed by Anna Grevelius.