Trouser Roles in Opera: Feminist Observations

Woman in Mens' Costume

Catriona Barr in the role of Cherubino, from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

Fabulous mezzo-soprano Kimberly Barber was in town the other day to do a recital and masterclass.  I couldn’t make it to the recital (I’d have to miss choir practice), so I went to the masterclass.  I went hoping to take away some tidbits of vocal technique, but the participants were all excellent singers already so that wasn’t the focus at all.  (Although she did make the singers do some of the same exercises my choir directors make us do, and for the same stated reasons.) 

Instead, the class was mainly about conveying personality and emotion while singing.  This year, the U of A opera students are performing Handel’s Serce, which is an excellent choice in a program where women significantly outnumber men.   While the dramatis personae are only slightly biased in favour of men, a good proportion of them are “trouser” roles: once upon a time they might have been sung by castrati, but these days they’re sung by women.  As an experienced performer, Barber has sung plenty of the mezzo-soprano’s trifecta of “witches, bitches, and britches“, but britches were very new to the students.  A good proportion of each student’s segment, as well as the question period after, was dedicated to “how do you portray masculinity”. 

It was a radfem reality check moment for me: these highly-educated, artistically and emotionally sensitive women lacked the language and underlying concepts to communicate about what they were doing, and were pretty much re-inventing the wheel. The first student was the female villain, and they worked on sexing her performance up.   It was easy.  Barber didn’t have to say much more than, “sex it up.  Don’t be afraid to go over the top.”  Five minutes from sweet to evil seductress.  They spent more time working on portraying contemptuousness than sexiness.  (I’m not going to touch the treatment of gender within the opera.  It was 1738.  Nuff said.) 

When we got to the woman playing the male villain, a spoiled princeling, was when it got interesting.  Since doing a masterclass with a Real Opera Singer is a big deal, the students had all dressed to impress, and for this student (a soprano) that meant short froofy dress, push-up bra, and really high heels.  No question, she looked damn fine.  But not like a prince.  And she wasn’t acting like one either.   She and Barber worked and worked at it, with Barber giving all sorts of examples from real life (GW Bush) and from film (Dangerous Liasons), and eventually physically positioning her body like she was a mannequin in a wax museum.  And it just wasn’t taking.

Everybody knows, and can describe, the body language of a “sexy woman.”  It can be described, because it varies from the Default Human.  “Being sexy” is doing something.  “Being ladylike” involves a defined set of prescribed and proscribed behaviours.  On the other hand, trying to explain to the Other, how to embody the Default Human – i.e. a man – is perplexing.  Men – especially Men in Charge – simply exist.  And if you start trying to describe how to do it, it’s easiest to make a list of feminine behaviours to avoid: Don’t be limp-wristed.  Don’t stick your pinkie finger out.  Don’t tilt your head.  Don’t wiggle your hips and shoulders.  Don’t stick your hip out while standing.  Don’t lower your eyes deferentially.  Don’t cross your legs while sitting.   Don’t cross your arms on your chest.

And if you try to come up with a set of imperatives instead, they tend to be hard to explain:  Act confident.  Behave dominantly.  Take up space.  What the hell does that mean, take up space?  Matter takes up space; in normal everyday physics it can’t help it.  How can you not take up space?  In the absence of Feminism 101, chances are you haven’t explicitly noticed how women try to shrink and take up as little space as possible, while men expand.  Airplane armrest-hogging is more than just an annoying individual quirk!

And so the poor young soprano kept on struggling, and Barber kept on giving examples, and nothing was happening.  Finally, almost at the end of the allotted time, Barber had an idea:  hey, take off your shoes.  The transformation was almost instant.  Still no spoiled, entitled princeling, but no mincing around with hyperextended knees and an arched back, either.  Barber’s parting advice to the soprano was, whenever you practice this role, wear trousers and flats.  And if you can find one, some kind of men’s jacket that makes your shoulders broad.  Feel yourself into the costume.

As a feminist, that would have been where I started.  The things women do to present a feminine appearance, constrain our behaviour.   Clearly Barber had that intuition, but she didn’t really put it into words.  I wonder how the masterclass would have gone if at least some of the people there had a few hours of reading introductory feminist and queer theory, and/or was Out about being feminist and/or queer.

About The Intransigent One

Sometimes I like to post pictures of my cat or my garden or my sewing or other stuff I made or did. Other times I like to rant.
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