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Off-topic question on "breeches" roles in operas


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 February 2002 - 11:11 PM

I hope people will indulge me here, as this is a bit off-topic.

I'm planning a new ballet for the next Dance as Ever concert and to do background research on it, I wanted to look into the "breeches" roles in opera, like Cherubino or Octavian. Are there more, and would people care to discuss them? Feel free to range outside of opera (to Shakespeare's plays for instance) if you wish - what I'm most interested in is the concept of a role done en travesti.

This is part of the fun of making a new ballet, going into "training" for it! I look forward to any information or opinions you'd all like to share.

#2 liebs

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Posted 07 February 2002 - 11:28 PM

Many of Shakespeare's comedies have "pants parts" including Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind and I believe Celia in As You Like It and Portia in Merchant of Venice. There are probably others but it is late and I'm just working off memory.

In drama school, we were taught that these parts were prevalent because all the women were played by men. Hence, it was easier for the actor. He was a man playing a woman who was pretending to be a man and spent most of his time onstage as a man.

That always seemed too simple to me. I like to think that in all these roles, Shakespeare was saying something about illusion and reality and the confusion we all find in love.

Shakespeare's characters are among the most fully rounded we see onstage and maybe having woman pretend to be men was one way of showing the full range of human possibilities, so he did not have to limit female experience to the societal norm of his time.

In Marriage of Figaro, we see the reverse - a woman playing a man pretending to be a woman. Is that true of other "pants parts" in opera?

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 08 February 2002 - 12:06 AM

We wouldn't be forgetting the two little cadets in "Far From Denmark"?

There were lots of breeches parts in ballet in the 19th century -- not the ones where a woman played a man (Frantz in Coppelia) and everyone knew, but, as Leigh mentions, where the characters in the ballet were unaware of the gender switch.

Petit did this in his "Diable Boiteux." I saw Ferri in it (I don't remember if she created the role). She was a reasonably convincing boy, not a bad fencer.

Are you looking for plot twist suggestions, Leigh?
Or something defined by technique? Would a contemporary Boy have to do double air turns, or some identifiably male step to pass? Or are you thinking retro?

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 08 February 2002 - 12:15 AM

Right now, Alexandra, the slate is very open! I want to immerse myself in as many examples as I can and see what is attractive. I admit that what's in my head at present is more like an Olivia from As you like it, a woman masquerading as a young man (of course, that was a boy playing a girl playing a boy!). But as I said, the joy right now is in examining all the possibilities.

#5 Manhattnik

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Posted 08 February 2002 - 06:21 AM

Let's not forget the crew of the ship in Far From Denmark, where, I believe, we have women portraying men pretending to be women, on pointe no less (obviously Danish sailors need a hobby more challenging than scrimshaw for whiling away those long voyages).

#6 cargill

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Posted 08 February 2002 - 01:29 PM

There are a lot of other trouser roles in opera, Rossini used them. Massenet's Cendrellion had the prince sung by a mezzo. I think it was more the composers really liked the sound of a mezzo and a soprano, than gender-bending.

#7 rg

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Posted 08 February 2002 - 02:26 PM

the women of the town where pineapple poll lives all get in little sailor shirts, hats & trousers and even, in the case of all but poll, whiskers too, if mem. serves, in john cranko's 'pineapple poll' i wasn't aware of there being a corps of travesty sailors in 'far from denmark' but then i only saw it about 2x. and to be sure the women in sailors' clothing in 'poll' do retain their poineshoes.

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 08 February 2002 - 02:27 PM

And let's not leave out Nicklaus, in Tales of Hoffman. After all, Hoffman gave us so many ballet plots, one way or another.

#9 Farrell Fan

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Posted 08 February 2002 - 02:56 PM

There's also the terminally bored Prince Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus, who throws big parties to amuse himself. The aria "Chacun a son gouts" (sp?)takes on an extra dimension when sung by a mezzo soprano wearing a pencil-thin mustache. However, New York City Opera sometimes used to cast a baritone in the part, notably Donald Gramm. There's a nice pants part in Verdi's "Ballo in Maschera" -- Oscar the page, usually sung by a perky soprano of the Roberta Peters type.

#10 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 09 February 2002 - 09:50 AM

There are so many trouser roles in opera that a good mezzo could probably build a fine career out of singing them exclusively. But I can only think of one offhand in which the woman impersonates a man as part of the plot: Rosmira in Handel's Partenope. Roles like Cherubino and Oscar (Verdi's Ballo in Maschera) were written for women because they can generally more successfully impersonate adolescent males (on the opera stage at least) than older (i.e., non-adolescent) men can. Maybe Bellini's Romeo falls in this category. Opera singers' voices generally don't develop full power and potency -- and thus the ability to really put over a difficult role vocally and artistically -- until they are a decade or more out of adolescence -- the point where a dancer may be halfway through his or her career. Stars like Renée Fleming and Susan Graham (a renowned Octavian, Cherubino and Idamante) -- now deemed to be at the peak of their careers -- are in their forties.

Some of the male roles now sung by women were orginally written for castrati; there is a genre of opera popular during the Baroque and Classical periods called opera seria that focussed on the doings of heroes from history or mythology (e.g., Handel's Giulio Cesare or Mozart's Idomeneo). In the Italian flavor of this genre at least, it was thought that high voices -- i.e., soprano or alto -- were best suited to sing noble and heroic roles, and so the male roles were written for castrati or women, though not for male falsettists. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a castrato is a male singer castrated before puberty to retain his high voice. The good ones were the rock stars of their day. The practice died out around the time of Mozart, thank goodness.) Rossini and Donizetti wrote some works in the opera seria mold, and the lead male roles were written for women (e.g, the title role Rossini's Tancredi or Orsini in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia). I think this is a good example of artistic convention and an asthetic preference winning out over mere verisimilitude.

#11 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 11 February 2002 - 09:27 AM

leigh i found an interesting repertory page for a singer who evidently specializes somewhat in travesti roles.

http://www.ffaire.co...repertoire.html

#12 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 February 2002 - 11:33 AM

Thanks, Mme. Hermine and everone else, this is a help!

#13 dirac

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Posted 11 February 2002 - 03:43 PM

I'm coming late to this thread and so the opera and Shakespeare examples I would have proffered have been taken, so, leaving aside other examples from the more recent past, here's one from the movies: Katharine Hepburn did a remarkable turn as a boy -- she spends almost the entire film in pants -- in an eccentric item called "Sylvia Scarlett," made, I think in 1936, with George Cukor directing, which also has Cary Grant in an unaccustomed role, playing a character very close to his own Cockney roots.

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 February 2002 - 05:54 PM

One of the things that inspired me to do a piece en travesti was that the first time I saw one of my dancers (Mary Carpenter) perform, she played a ballerina in a play - both dancing classically and seguing right from it into a comic role. There was also a 10 year old boy in a previous sketch. I didn't find out until she told me after that it was her.

A lot of ideas are going around in my head, but I think I am leaning to the Shakesperean conceit of a woman forced to masquerade as a man (like Olivia) rather than a man's role played by a woman. But who knows!

#15 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 11 February 2002 - 07:20 PM

like yentl?


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