As a lyric mezzo-soprano, I take great interest in pants roles. These roles could easily be considered the bread and butter of the medium-voiced female opera singer. Besides that though, I find them extremely fascinating. Although opera is not known for its moral upstanding, I find the roles subversive in a subtle way. These personal and intellectual reasons inspired me to investigate these roles further.
For sake of clarity, when I refer to pants roles, I am using the definition, “a male role played by a woman”. There are lots of cool instances of female characters who play men within the context of their storyline. However, I am not referring to these roles. Instead I am referring to roles where the audience should suspend its disbelief and believe that the actress on stage is, in fact, male. These roles are also often known as “trouser roles” or a “breeches part”. For clarity’s sake, I will simply refer to them as pants roles.
It seems that when many people are asked who or what they think of when presented with the term “pants role”, many will point to characters such as Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro), Siebel (Faust), or Hansel (Hänsel und Gretel). I’m pleased to report, however, that there’s a bit more to pants roles than that. So please let me share with you today a brief history of pants roles in the form of the hero’s journey.
Baroque Pants Roles
Fun fact: women playing male roles was originally an accident.
Once upon a time, a horrific practice created castrati singers (if you don’t know what that is, I’ll let you read it here. Be warned though, it’s pretty horrible). Although the castrati supposedly had incredibly unique and athletic voices, the practice was rightfully banned. This led to a surplus of roles written for the voice type that needed to be filled. Seeing as opera as the time was primarily about vocal quality, mezzo-sopranos and contraltos fit the bill.
These were often roles of strong, heroic men of high status. No one really questioned the gender bending though. Audiences understood that women were simply filling a vocal void.
Eventually though, Handel wrote the first intentional pants role, the part of Sextus in his opera Giulio Cesare. Not long after that, many castrato roles were rewritten to feature tenors rather than women. Finally, heroic pants roles diminished and comedic boys emerged in their place.
Buffa Pants Roles
This isn’t actually what the pants roles that developed after the Baroque period were called. I’m using the term here because that is the nature of what pants roles became during the Classical period. Gone were the days of heroism. Instead, we find comical depictions of childish boys.
When others are asked to name pants roles that they know of in opera, they’ll usually name roles in this category, such as the roles I listed in the introduction. Many argue that it made more sense for women to play prepubescent boys vocally and dramatically. There’s probably some truth to that. And they certainly were popular. Seemingly deemed the “comic relief” characters of the operatic world, pants roles can be seen even in dramatic operas of the Classical and Romantic period.
The Return of Heroism
It is said in the popular trope of the hero’s journey that the hero always returns home in the end. This seems to be quite true for the history of pants roles. Thanks to composer Richard Strauss, women were once again given the role of the heroic male lead. More than that, Strauss even gave women the role of the romantic lead through the role of Octavian in his opera Der Rosenkavelir.
He seemed to do this not only for vocal reasons, but also to be purposefully defiant of the social norms. Whatever his reasons though, the heroic pants role unfortunately didn’t seem to stick. At least, not as well as its prepubescent counterpart. Still, mezzos everywhere are glad to have the pants roles of Strauss to add to their repertoire. At least, this mezzo is glad.
This history is clearly brief, so I encourage you to do more of your own discovery. I would recommend the following list of books for your own reading on the subject. I will note that these references contain a lot of gender and sexuality studies as well due to the nature of the topic. I’m happy to express more of my own opinions on that if there’s interest.
En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera edited by Corrine E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith
Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera by Mary Ann Smart
Do you have any books you think should be added to the list? What do you think of the “hero’s journey” of pants roles? How do you see or experience pants roles? Can you name any popular pants roles after Strauss’ works?
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