Women in Trousers: A Very Brief History of a Bizarre Operatic Tradition

Ellen MacDonald-Kramer

[January 2014.]


Giuditta Pasta as Tancredi


The first time I heard a female voice portray a male character was on a 1970 Decca recording of Glück’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The hero was sung by none other than the meaty-voiced virtuoso Marilyn Horne.

I was 17 and had recently progressed, as many young singers do, from musical theater songs into operatic repertoire. My singing teacher had assigned me the well-known “Che faro,” Orfeo’s gorgeous lament. But it wasn’t the music alone which left an immediate impression; it was my new realization that a hero could sing in a treble range. I felt intrigued by the possibility that my young (then mezzo-soprano) voice could represent characters not only female, but male.

Opera is full of little quirks, but the trouser role tradition may well be the icing on the cupcake of its peculiarities. What fascinates classical musicians and opera lovers may appear ridiculous to those unfamiliar with the tradition, perhaps even to fledgling operagoers. For one thing, there is nothing remotely realistic about a man with a woman’s voice. This might be overlooked if all trouser roles were comedic. But most – like Orfeo – are not.

As with any longstanding tradition, the trouser role can be better understood and appreciated through a look at its history. My own fascination with the practice led to a desire to know not only its origins, but the way it has evolved.

The trouser role is alternatively known as a breeches role or pants role (the latter presumably not in Britain where pants indicate undergarments). Another term is “travesty role.” In English, “travesty” usually denotes a crude or inferior imitation or burlesque of an original. While some could argue that a woman playing a man is a crude imitation, the Italian word on which it is based is more neutral in character, meaning simply to disguise or to dress up. In Italy, a female singer in male garb is singing en travesti. The first treble-voiced heroes of opera were not, in fact, women. They were castrati, that mysterious class of male singers whose voices, owing to prepubescent castration, never deepened into those of men.

The use of the castrato voice originated in sacred music. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V issued an edict banning women from singing in churches. This had a religious basis, of course: “Let women keep silent in the churches” (I Corinthians 14:34). Soprano and alto parts were taken initially by male falsettists, but gradually replaced by castrati, whose voices were considered more appropriate to the repertoire. With the birth of opera in the early 17th century, the castrato voice was brought into secular music as well.

Many will find it more than a little bizarre that the type of role for which the castrati became best-known was the heroic male role, namely that of the first man, or primo uomo. The greatest of these roles belong to the opera seria genre: a formulaic style of opera most famously produced by Handel, with serious and noble subject matter usually derived from classical history and mythology.

When we imagine kings, emperors, princes, gods, and even villains with soprano voices, virile masculinity hardly comes to mind. Why, then, did Baroque audiences tolerate this absurdity? There are several theories, all of them conceivable. For one, Baroque opera was not concerned with realism. The greatest of the castrati were vocal virtuosos and their arias were opportunities to show off, not to lend credence to plot or character. A second theory is the idea of a vocal hierarchy. In contemporary thought, higher voices were associated with goodness and purity, while low, natural men’s voices evoked evil or corruption. This was reflected in singers’ pay, with castrati being the best-paid, women second-best, and tenors and basses paid the least. Another theorist noted an erotic fascination with the youthful male in Baroque paintings, suggesting this translated into music – into a taste for the boyish voices of castrati. Yet another theory suggests there were simply better training methods for treble voices, while those for the tenor and bass were still in early development.

Any or all of these things could have contributed to the practice of casting sopranos as heroes, and there are certainly other possibilities. Whatever the case, it is where the trouser role tradition originates.

Where exactly does the female singer come into all this? Like the castrato, she was present in opera from its earliest days, but her position was by no means as esteemed. In Rome and the Papal States, there was a period when she was banned from secular as well as religious music, forbidden from public performance. There are rumors that some women overcame this predicament by disguising as castrati. Casanova cites one such example: a tale of his encounter with a so-called eunuch, Bellino, whose beauty was suspiciously feminine. Even where there were no legal barriers, a professional female singer hardly ranked above the status of prostitute.

Plenty of Baroque female singers were nevertheless successful. Over time, their importance increased. The female singer became more than a singer of only secondary roles, more even than a heroine. She became an alternative hero – interchanged with the castrato. In opera seria, it was not unusual for a woman to replace a castrato in his primo uomo role if he were unavailable or indisposed.

As noted, Baroque audiences had little taste for realism. Just as they found nothing amiss in accepting effeminate-voiced eunuchs as heroes, they were happy to accept women in the guise of lusty men. According to some contemporary thought, there was but a single (male) sex, of which women were an inverted version. With this in mind, cross-dressing for the theater might have seemed still more acceptable. The practice of a woman playing a man was not new. Women had sometimes played adolescent boys in the commedia dell’arte theater troupes originating in the late 16th century. But the endurance of the tradition in opera is largely due to the female singer’s early interchangeability with the castrato.

Not only did women sometimes step into roles written for castrati, but some male roles were composed specifically for women. There are tons of examples in the works of Handel. Three of the roles in his opera Giulio Cesare (1724) were written originally for castrato voices, including the title role for the famous castrato Senesino. Yet it also featured the youthful male role of Sesto, sung in the first production by Margherita Durastanti. Similarly, Ariodante (1735) featured another title role written for a castrato, although the role of the villain Polinesso was first sung by Maria Negri.

As for the interchangeability of women with castrati, there are also examples to be found in Handel’s operas. The title role of Radamisto (1720) was written for Margherita Durastanti, but in the first revival it was given instead to Senesino. The opposite occurred in Tolomeo (1728): the role of Alessandro was first sung by the castrato Antonio Baldi, and in the first revival passed to Francesca Bertolli.

By the end of the 18th century, there were more female names of repute than ever, some of them contenders for the heroic roles in which castrati specialized. But the days of the castrati themselves were numbered.  Audiences’ tastes were changing. In the early years of the 19th century, the castrato became less and less a glorified novelty, more and more an archaic monster.

Despite the decline of the castrati, audiences still – for a time – wanted soprano heroes. There was a brief period, during the early 1800s, when the female singer became the hero of choice and such roles were written for her. The early-19th-century singers Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran in fact developed reputations for singing roles of both sexes. Rossini composed many important trouser roles: the title role in Tancredi (1813), Malcolm in La donna del lago (1819), Arsace in Semiramide (1823), and Isolier in Le comte Ory (1828). Malibran even stepped into the title role in Otello once, although Rossini had originally written it for her father, a tenor. But this was a flexibility fast nearing its end.

The nature of the trouser role was about to take a turn. By the middle of the 19th century, realism had prevailed. At last the tenor voice had come of age, and in its new-found power, it offered to opera the possibility of a more masculine hero. The heyday of the effeminate hero had passed.

The new audience penchant for tenors by no means put an end to the trouser-role practice. The type of trouser role now changed; instead of heroes, women’s voices could portray lesser characters – pageboys, sidekicks, lovestruck adolescents. We have Siebel in Faust, Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, Nicklausse in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and Stephano in Roméo et Juliette, to name a few. These later trouser roles, although unheroic, owe much of their ancestry to castrati and the sexual ambiguity they provide.

Thanks to revivals of early operas, we now have the privilege of hearing the heroes as well as the sidekicks. In modern Handel productions, castrato roles are sung by women or sometimes countertenors, although it is a common misconception that the countertenor voice is closely related to the castrato’s. Any trouser role could, in theory, be transposed to tenor, baritone, or bass range to save would-be audiences their bewilderment – but why?

There’s much to be said for preserving the integrity of a work of art. It’s all too easy to view opera solely through the filter of our own time, without appreciating the composers’ choices with regard to historical context. The trouser role may be one of the great eccentricities of opera, but it’s also one of the most intriguing.

We live in a society more accepting of gender-blurring than ever before. We have films like Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica and some rather androgynous pop stars. We have Gender Studies departments in our universities. Indeed, we appear to be fascinated by gender. Perhaps we still have some of the Baroque in us. If so, there’s more potential than ever for these operas to thrive.