Let’s talk about Opera– hey, hey, I know you now want to click off of this article, but stick around just a little longer. Most people dismiss Opera as a boring, outdated, and highly elitist artform. This belief is not unfounded as historically Opera in the western world has been overwhelmingly written for and by upper class white men. Even in 2023, Operatic spaces continue to be dominated by white men and heteronormative narratives. However, I believe as contemporary artists and musicians, it is our job to reform and reclaim this artform so it may be enjoyed by all. More specifically, as we enter Pride month, I want to explore how Opera can uplift LGBTQ+ performers and audiences through queer narratives.
One element of Opera that really speaks to the queer experience are trouser roles! Trouser roles refer to characters that are men but are written to be performed by women. This performance practice evolved from the 17th-18th century practice of writing roles for castrati, men who were castrated as boys so that their voices remain unchanged. As the use of castrati thankfully dwindled down, female opera singers took on the roles they once occupied. A popular example of this is the role of Orfeo in Christoph Willibald Gluck's Opera, Orfeo ed Euridice. Additionally, certain composers began specifically writing trouser roles for women to play such as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi, Prince Orlofsky in Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, or Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.
By the 17th century it was commonplace for women to play men on the Opera house stage. What did this mean exactly? Women playing men within heterosexual narratives produced an innately queer effect, as it allowed for two women to profess their love for one another in front of large audiences. Rossini’s 1823 Opera, Semiramide, features the romance of Princess Azcema and Commander of the Azzyrian army Arsace, both roles written for women. These two characters partake in a stunning romantic duet with harmonies and back-and-forths between a soprano and contralto. Although an 1820s audience would recognize that Arsace was a man for purposes of the story, their knowledge that Arsace’s actor was in fact a woman would subconsciously affect their listening experience. This created the auditory illusion of a lesbian love story.
While explaining the historical context of trouser roles, I used a lot of gendered language. However in the 21st century, I believe there is little need for this as we move toward gender-fluid and gender-affirming casting. When we disconnect trouser roles from gendered expectation, we open the door to so many possibilities! Transmasc and nonbinary actors can be cast in Trouser roles, as this would affirm their gender identity while remaining within their range. Another option is that the gender of the character itself can be altered so that a sapphic love story between two women could take place, or even a queer story between two non-binary characters! Trouser roles provide a venue to play with the gender of both the characters and actors so that meaningful representation can be made!
Additionally– why not just write a new opera? There are numerous up and coming composers writing roles for queer people that often go overlooked by opera houses and conservatories alike. The Stonewall Operas (Blaskie, Cavanagh-Strong, Cummines, Rubin), As One (Laura Kaminsky), Patience and Sara (Paula M. Kimper)-- the list goes on and on! It’s high time we uplift new voices and stories in all areas of media– including Opera.