Through Geschwitz’s Lorgnette: On Vocal Gender Bias

[Soprano and/or countertenor? – Philippe Jaroussky (2008). – Photo via 176…; Photo Credit: Marco Borggreve]

Watching Vivaldi’s “Orlando furioso” with a strictly cisgendered, heteronormative casting approach (and no high male voices – not higher than tenor, at least) got me thinking about casting practices and the limits companies face when they want to stage pre-1750 opera within standard opera troupes that are usually focused on 19th century repertory.

Above all, it made me ponder the gendered, heteronormative limits we still – various decades into the mainstream Early Music revival – put onto voices, not just as an audience, but also as performers. Why does the male voice in the contralto/mezzo/soprano range still so readily invite questions on masculinity and femininity, about maleness and otherness? And why – as Dr T. pointed out in the “Orlando furioso” discussion – do we more readily accept female singers in male roles, while male singers in heroic female roles (not the buffo wet nurses or witches) are still the rare exception?

The underlying notion remains the old misogynist concept of a woman as a man meaning an upgrade, while the idea of man as woman denotes a downgrade: man is better than woman. A woman portraying a man (especially a young man – with the framework of Halberstam and Connell: a concept of inferior, non-dominant masculinity) thus offers no danger of serious transgression because, since we define bodies as biologically gender-fixed (post 1800, give or take), there is a barrier the biologically female supposedly cannot cross. Western culture (and not just Western culture) does still predominantly link masculinity to biological maleness (usually of the born, cisgendered kind).

This pattern of thought puts all – or nearly all – of our beloved trouser roles in a “harmless kitten” box, despite the voices that embody those characters in opera often telling a far different story: Connolly’s Cesare, Kasarova’s Sesto, Coote’s Ruggiero or DiDonato’s Romeo (to just name a few examples) are easily blurring lines of femininity and masculinity, and also concepts of maleness and femaleness, regardless of being cisgendered women offstage.

And there is an echo to that “rattling of the gendered vocal cage”: in the case of the queer-oriented opera audience (i.e. our case), it’s cheering and swooning, in case of the mainstream gender debate, it’s the concept of “a female singer eventually grows out of trouser roles”, which is employed by singers as much as by audiences.

Now it is one thing to say as a singer “I’m old enough to relate more to Marie-Theres’ than to Octavian”, as Fassbaender eventually did, or von Otter with saying that she was tired of portraying “all those young male hotheads” – both quotes relate more to a question of age than to a question of gender (although the ‘male’ hotheads do raise gender issues again). Would either of them have sung the role of an older man if offered to them? I like to think so. Even if I still think that being older doesn’t necessarily stop you from portraying someone younger in a very convincing way. And does upping on the parts of older women automatically have to mean letting go of younger men (and women)?

Then there’s the more recent case of Elīna Garanča that Intermezzo chronicled back in June, referring to this interview where Garanča went on record with the following quote on what her plans are for after the birth of her second child (due in December):

“I want to give up trouser roles. I am 36, those roles don’t fit my age. As an opera singer, it’s important to be realistic about what your voice is cut out for. After giving birth, I want to move more towards soprano range. In my early 40s, I want to sing more Verdi and try more for just the dramatic repertory.”

Well, first of all: ungh. Yes, there are two mitigating factors: Garanča stems from Latvian culture, which tends to drive a more gender-conservative line, and a lot of trouser roles are portrayals of young men, written to be inoffensive and titillating. But still, ungh. What does age have to do with gender on stage? Isn’t that just as absurd as saying “I think I shouldn’t be singing Caucasian parts any longer, since they don’t fit my age?” Or what about “I think I shouldn’t be singing maidens anymore, since those roles don’t fit my age/voice/status?” Actually, that last one would make some sense, but nobody is asking for naturalism on that account. And we’d never manage to cast a single Isolde or Brünnhilde.

I still recall a sizzling Cherubino by Teresa Berganza at the age of 58. Her voice wasn’t 58. Her voice was transcending borders, and her physique followed suit. Why does tiptoeing that border still scare the living daylights out of some people?

But before grinding my teeth, then there are singers like Sarah Connolly and Joyce DiDonato, both a bit older than Garanča, and both with no qualms whatsoever to sing male and female roles, of variying age groups. Connolly and her dashing silver fox Cesare may be the best example for a female singer portraying older masculinity in a very convincing (not to mention very hot) fashion. I had the same thought when Joyce DiDonato graced the Berlin AIDS gala last night, in a tux outfit of sorts, and gave a “La tremenda ultrice spada” that couldn’t have been more fierce or hotheaded, and the fact DiDonato herself is older than Romeo did not take from the experience in the slightest.

The “age excuse” – apart from voices changing and becoming darker or heavier or sharper, and thus a little less apt for portraying giggly ingenues – always reeks of being just a fake argument that takes away from the apparent discomfort that gender transgression still seems to cause.

Now that high male voices have kicked the door to a gender-neutral tonal space wide open (i.e. singing high doesn’t necessarily link back to femaleness any longer), is there even more insecurity, or do we finally embrace the chances of transcending and creating gendered bodies in sound (again)?

The conflicted position is very well documented in a few recent interviews of Philippe Jaroussky, arguably the male soprano who embued the ‘countertenor’ sound with a sweetness in timbre that was previsouly seen as too feminine by the largely pure-sounded English sacred music tradition.

I was a bit crabby after reading the last ZEIT interview, although I do blame the framing of the interviewer for it, too. The headline alone – “The countertenor is a new kind of man” – ticked me off. Why do we immediately have to defend the maleness of the countertenor? Shouldn’t it be a given? All it shows it that, underneath, the use of mezzo/soprano range still is seem as feminine. Then there’s the subheader with the question “Is he superating masculinity that way?” To which I say: Huh?!

I don’t even know what is meant here – transpassing gender bias in sound? Looking for an excuse because it’s still not ‘real’ (or dominant) masculinity if you sing this way?

Why do we still need to discuss masculinity when we discuss countertenors? Actually, why do we call them countertenors – just so that it sounds a bit more masculine, as bit more like “tenor”? Why don’t we call them mezzo-sopranos and sopranos, after their range?

Jaroussky himself offers a few very relaxed and thoughtful replies on voice/gender topics. I still disagree with his rejection of female parts, period, but as I stated in the comments of the “Orlando” discussion – as an out singer in a still  queer-perceived voice genre, Jaroussky faces a lot of inane questions and prejudice, so it may simply be a way to try and not get pushed farther into the queer corner.

Two questions of the interviewer seemed especially telling – for one, the opinion of “love duets between a high male voice and a female soprano often cause irritation because the visual impression doesn’t match the acustic one”. What normative pattern indicates that this “doesn’t match”? 19th century gender bias, that’s what. And we should be beyond that. The second question I didn’t like was, “As a countertenor, does one automatically think about a male role model?” Now why would the masculinity embodied by a male soprano (or a female soprano, in fact) need a special MALE role model? Because there’s not enough innate masulinity in it? Because it differs so much from traditional, dominant masculinity? Is that really still the prevalent pattern of thought?

I also find Jaroussky’s reply a little problematic since he links being a male soprano to being a woman earning her own living, marking them both as special occasions, which they shouldn’t be. Being just a kind of man (but different from others through the voice?) is an eloquent reply, very reminiscent of Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria”, but he follows up immediately with saying the countertenor can discover his feminine side and express more emotions, and then gives the counter example of the brave hero riding into battle.
And yes, perhaps it is easier to break gender stereotypes in a queer-associated field, but isn’t every man, cisgendered or not, capable of expressing stereotypically feminine-related traits? And isn’t a lot of the Baroque heroism of the castrati parts precisely about riding off into battle as the brave hero – with the high voice being no hindrance? Again: why the excuses?

In other interviews, Jaroussky links the high male voice not only to a feminine sound (citing that same “special thrill” that would stem from the overlay of male appearance and feminine-sounding voice – *insert facepalm of the gender theorist*), but, as an alternative, to the wish to remain child-like. It’s another popular trope (in fact, a contemporary trope) when it comes to castrato voices: the desire to preserve prepubescent youth. Jaroussky, as a child of the 20th century, links it to psychology, which I personally find problematic – he states that being a countertenor is a lot about psychology, but not about the desire to become a woman or at least sound like one (a statement that gives pause since it implies that he has had to listen to that kind of idiocies a lot), though rather to preserve the spirit of childhood, citing that many of his colleagues would be “young in mind and spirit”.

And I wonder: Do we still need these excuses? Do we need a voice to be gendered, and to be tied to the singer’s psyche? Cannot a man simply sing in soprano range without having to deflect assumptions about wanting to be a woman or sound like a woman, and without having to defend his masculinity as a ‘particular’ or ‘different’ kind of masculinity? And cannot a female singer simply take on roles depending on voice type, not depending on gender, without having to be a afraid of the stigma of (age-inapropriate) gender transgression?

Below, I translate most of Jaroussky’s recent ZEIT interview, plus various additional interview snippets of his. All sources (originally in German) are linked, if you want to take a look at the original context, although I am not sure in what language the interviews were initially conducted – it’s probable that the German is already derived from French or English.

Soprano Philippe Jaroussky: „The countertenor is a new kind of man“
Philippe Jaroussky is one of the best sopranos in the world. Now he’s daring to approach the arias of the castrato Farinelli. Is he superating masculinity that way?

An interview be Rabea Weihser

ZEIT: Monsieur Jaroussky, you’ve just released an Album with arias of the great Farinelli. His story is well-known because of the movie – the essential castrato opera stereotype. Isn’t that a little too easy for a choice?

PJ: I was always afraid to record a Farinelli program. But then I realized that his repertory isn’t all that bad for my voice. I liked the idea to discover another composer through it. I use the name of Farinelli to talk about Nicola Porpora. And I wanted to show with this project that castrato voices are no miracles. The singers had to work hard.

ZEIT: How does your voice differ from Farinelli’s?


PJ: He could sing a very high soprano and, in the same opera, take on an aria for contralto. And he used his chest register much more often than I do. I can’t sing all of Farinelli’s repertory. But I found many touching arias in Popora’s oeuvre, and that’s the most important thing about this project: I want the audience to feel what Porpora felt for Farinelli.

ZEIT: Porpora wrote the most artistic arias for Farinelli. How did you manage to master them?

PJ: It’s gymnastics. To sing this music, you need to train, just like for Verdi, Puccini or Wagner. You need to sing these high parts fifty times a day to hold your own on stage.

ZEIT: There is most likely no other genre within classical music that puts that much emphasis on the artistry of the artist. You step in front of the audience and show how to cross human and also masculine borders. Do you, at times, feel like a circus horse that’s merely showing a few artistic tricks?

PJ: During the concerts, the audience does of course react mostly to the virtuoso arias. The people scream, lose their minds. But when I talk to them afterwards, they speak of the emotional arias, not the artistic onces.

ZEIT: That’s an effect also present in the big pop business.

PJ: Yes, people have an odd relationship with castrato operas. Of course they don’t want to see real castrati any longer, that’s over. But there is this desire to yet hear them again. These concerts with castrato repertory are something very special.


ZEIT: Especially love duets between a high male voice and a female soprano often cause irritation because the visual impression doesn’t match the acustic one. On the other hand, there’s probably no better analogy of intimacy than lovers singing with the close distance of a third.

PJ: That’s correct. There’s this fantastic duet at the en d of L’incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi…

ZEIT: Emperor Nero is a mezzo and his lover Poppea a soprano.

PJ: And the two are always very closely together. There are many productions with tenor and soprano, and there it does make a very different impression.

ZEIT: As a countertenor, does one automatically think about a male role model?

PJ: To be  a countertenor is one way to express what a man can be. He can discover his feminine side and express a large variety of emotions. The romantic idea of the brave hero who rides into battle has long since been overcome. I can be a man and sing high. Where’s the issue? I can just as well be a woman and go work.

ZEIT: It’s been said that we live in a post-gender-era. Is this related to the success of the countertenors?

PJ: Of course. And there is a completely new school, many young colleagues. A few of them are just as good as mezzo sopranos are. Perhaps that’s a bit pretentious, but I believe that most of the new school of male sopranos have listened to my voice. I believe I’ve contributed across the past decade to move the countertenor voice into another direction. Not towards the contralto repertory, but towards the mezzo and soprano repertory. Today I hear singers with a bigger range than I have. A few years ago, that wasn’t the case.

ZEIT: Who were your role models?

PJ: We have to be grateful to singers like Alfred Deller. They came out of nowhere and decided to sing a repertory that nobody cared about. When I started out, I listened to Andreas Scholl, David Daniels, James Bowman. And I wouldn’t have thought so, but it’s really easier to sing with those examples in your mind’s ear.

ZEIT: Has the audience changed?

PJ: Yes. It isn’t content with hearing a countertenor. He has to sing clear and loud. Now there is a veritable competition among countertenors, different timbres and personalities. That is very good. Some do their best work in sacred music. Others have developed a technique for [19th century] belcanto.

ZEIT: And where is your personal spot? Eternally within baroque opera?

PJ: I took an 8-months-break and thought about what I want to sing in the future. This Farinelli project might be my last venture into the castrato repertory. I’m not that athletic, sometimes I don’t feel like gymnastics. Also for that reason I’d like to sing something else. There are so many interesting parts for countertenors in the sacred music of Bach, Purcell or Dowland. They’re not about artistics, but about interpreting a text. That is becoming more important to me.

I could have sworn there was a bit about taking on women’s roles in the ZEIT interview, but I couldn’t find it, so I dug around other interviews to find the quote I was looking for. Take, for example, this bit from an interview with the WA (Hamm)…:

Your voice teacher had you practice as if you were a woman…

PJ: That’s right, I take lessons from a woman. She uses the same exercises she would use for a female singer. She says it doesn’t make a difference since we are moving within the same vocal range. In the end, we need to tackle the same difficulties in a score. Most of all she taught me to maintain my voice as natural. She said: Don’t make your voice bigger than it is. In opera, I sing male roles with my high voice and am a man, in my appearance, in my demeanor. But there is the difference between my physical appearance and my feminine-sounding voce. That is a special thrill.

… or this bit from ARTE magazine (interview by Teresa Pieschacón Raphael):

PJ: […] Some patterns need to be automatized, only then a voice will sound free – and, that way, fresher and younger.
ARTE: It’s experience that makes your voice young?
PJ: Yes. That may sound odd, but every day, I hope that the voice sounds younger.

ARTE: That sounds a bit like Peter Pan syndrome.
PJ:Yes. A countertenor doesn’t merely define himself by his vocal capacities. There is a lot of psychology behind it. Many people believe that one sings this way because one absolutely wants to be a woman, or at least sound like one. I believe it is the desire to remain a child. Many of my colleagues are very young at heart. We want to keep our ingenuity, conserve our childhood.

ARTE: What’s your take on the theory that it was Michael Jackson who made countertenors socially acceptable?
PJ: I don’t believe that, that’s much too short-lived. There were others before him him popular music, e.g. the BeeGees who were successful with their falsetto singing. There are different reasons for us classical singers. Bit by bit, many traditions disappeared, in modern music just as well as in Early Music. Much has changed in the relationship between man and woman. Today, men are allowed to be more honest, to cry and express their emotions. A countertenor does find a spot here far more easily.

…or this bit (I think this is the snippet I remember) from

“…Singing in women’s costumes:

I’ve never done that, I think I would find it uncomfortable. Last year, we did Artasere by Leonardo Vinci, with five countertenors, and I was offered a woman’s role, but I preferred to take on one of the male parts. The countertenor voice, to me, is not about portraying a woman. I never try to imitate a woman, either. I have chosen this voice because I can sing if comfortably, it’s simply easier for me than singing bass or tenor.”

17 thoughts on “Through Geschwitz’s Lorgnette: On Vocal Gender Bias”

  1. Very interesting. I don’t know what one is to do about the reluctance to cross dress. Often I think they are just making up excuses for why they just don’t want to.
    A male soprano designates a man whose voice lies naturally in that Fach, in short is not singing falsetto. Maniaci. Countertenor lives on for the specific meaning–man singing falsetto.


    1. Valid point – making a difference based on tehcnique: falsetto or use of full chord. But how do we differentiate range, then? For the longest time, the countertenor (over here, also called “Altus” – that was the go to in sacred music concerts in the 1990s/2000s) clearly only moved in a mezzo range, but now with larger and more sensuous voices and quiet a few getting into soprano range, what do we do – call them countersopranos? 😉

      Or if we take the “soprano” (as a neutal, ungerendered denomination) out of the equation, why do high male voices get PR as “countertenor” and not as “falsetists”?
      I think there’s still a bias in there – perhaps even two: trying to situate the high male voice in a semantically more “masculine” field, and also shying away from “falsetist” not only because falsetto to many still reeks of Cage aux folles, but because of the true/wrong debate on sound – e.g. what you called out as “natural soprano” (Maniaci, castrati) vs. falsetto as a ‘fake’ (Implied: less valid) sound.
      While the technique differs, and often also the sound result (athough it is my observation that the supposed sober and pure counter-sound is turning more operatic and sensuous in recent years – think Jaroussky, think Bejun Mehta…), the range can be the same. It will be interesting to see how the designations will change (or not) with a growing number of male soprano-range voices.


  2. Stupendous post! It got me thinking, even though my brain has been blunted during the last year or more.

    Nevertheless, here are my muddled thoughts: Though gender identity often calls for a stable and confident projection, when it has its foundation in the space between the notes – so to speak – it stands in a space which may be more ambiguous, fragile, and more difficult to defend.

    This might be the situation in which Jaroussky finds himself. One’s stage presence, after all, is a persona, though it may be coloured by aspects of one’s ‘real’ personality. A gay man who does not wish to be perceived to possess female traits because of his chemistry of attraction (because he does not wish to attract gay males who are attracted to feminine men) will wish to signal his sexual presence to the kind of male he himself wants to be attractive to.

    In my opinion Garanča has similar reservations. Her Salzburg Ennio was played very purely and convincingly, her Met Sesto did not carry the same punch – not even close – as Kasarova’s Salzburg Sesto. Garanča, I think, perhaps prefers her ‘real’ identity as a beautiful heterosexual woman, to remain central to her projection. She is not comfortable with shading it, which is why I think she is justified in thinking that Verdi roles like Violetta and Lucia would suit her better psychologically, even though her femininity (and voice) is of a different sub-species than a Fleming or Netrebko, both of whom are perfect for these rôles.

    As for older women playing trouser rôles, I see no problem as far as voice is concerned, but if their bodies have filled out and their jaw-lines softened, I can see why they would not wish to be seen as parodies of themselves when assuming these rôles. Though Alice Coote’s Ruggiero (to Naglestad’s Alcina) was wonderful, frankly, though I am ashamed to admit it, I felt a bit uncomfortable with her appearance as Sesto in the Met’s Giulio Cesare, though this was not on account of her age.

    Of course if one has even a fraction of the acting gifts of The Divine Sara one need not give a damn about playing trouser roles deep into old age even if one is missing a leg.

    Lastly, and for a whole host of reasons, I deeply appreciate your presence on the blogging scene.


    1. thank you, inkbrain – your suggestion of projection, and the wish to control said projection (which leads us immediately to anthropolgical questions of how we define the self, and how a stage persona has or doesn’t have to be congruent with it because of that definition) makes a lot of sense to me. It’s an angle I hadn’t looked at yet. I shall be brooding over it…
      I also think that you strike a chord about “older women in trouser roles”, and it brings be back to how much trouser roles (at least the pageboys and then the later 19th ctry ones) are defined by youth and looks over voice — it seems society hasn’t changed much since the day you went to the opera for a trouser role to see a pair of shapely legs, and not to experience a vocal portrayal.
      And if you compare that – a position of “I don’t want (her) to portray this young man because my/her body doesn’t fit due to age” – to other casting conventions, I do again see a gender bias. Take the 1990 Scala Aida with Pavarotti, or any of the 1990s Pavarotti MET performances (was the Elisir with K. Battle also in the 1990s? What about the Ballo in maschera with Millo?): it was all about his voice, and nobody would have dared to say “oh please, he is too old and his physique doesn’t fit the heroic young warrior that Rhadames is supposed to be any longer”.
      And while I believe that male singers – tenors, notably – do get to play the hero far longer than female singers get to play hero or heroine, it may also be about the repertory. A lot of 19th century opera, especially later 19th century, cannot be cast “age-appropriate”. Would any of us expect a Brünnhilde on the younger side of 40? Would any of us bat an eyelash at an Isolde in her 50s? (Despite the “maiden” concept in both cases?) Of course we wouldn’t. Dramatic voices get a lot more freedom in this case than lyrical or coloratura voices, or that’s what it looks like to me.

      Perhaps equality will be a one-legged, stout, 50-something mezzo belting out a young war hero and blowing everyone away, with nobody reducing the performance to her physique (well, cut out the one-legged, and there might be examples…)


      1. Nobody had any issues with dame Janet bakers legendary Caesars at ENO a couple of decades ago either. The current trend for svelte, tall elegant looking performers is the result of imposing commercial marketing into the equation.

        Last time I had this argument with somebody (who I won’t shame by identifying) they ended up suggesting such roles “should be played by someone young and pretty… Like Katherine Jenkins”….. Says it all really about the musical values and subconscious cultural reasoning of those who make this argument.


  3. Oh!!! All of the above. Thank you so much for putting down your thoughts, will read it again later and share it everywhere. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was the only one who was getting the creeps at this kind of biased and prejudiced questions. Oh and btw, he played female roles on stage. I asked him about it when I saw him last; it was really important to me, and I couldn’t understand the statement he gave for Die Welt there, almost unasked for. He was all charming, after getting over the initial shock, I guess. “You can share it on the internet now, it’s not a secret any more!” So I do. 😉


    1. Thank you so much for pointing that out, Lankin – I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the interview bit (and Die Welt is, well… not really the flagship paper for liberal intellectualism), but it felt strangely at odds with his other statements. Although given the kind of flak he has to take, I would accept his stance. It’s unbelievable what high male voice singer still get asked/assumed to be these days.


      1. Yes. Also, the way he is spoken to and about is almost transgressing a line. E. g., once in another paper he was asked if he didn’t feel he was appearing too masculine – on the Heroes cover – and stuff like this. The thought that expectations are entirely on the recipient’s side never occurs to journalists, it seems, they always take their own point of view as an abstract. Or, they assume a consensus of society, and instead of taking a stance against it, they turn to wash him clean of a perceived stain that is not a stain at all. He might not like to crossdress, but hell, NO he does not look like Thor, and it’s totally fine too that he doesn’t!

        I guess for women it is widely more acceptable to play with gender roles, because – and you are completely right there – female to male still means an upgrade. Another point: The prevalent feminine ideal is almost child-like. Child-like with boobs, as in supermodels slimmed down more via photoshop until the point where it interferes with bone structure even. Women come in all shapes and sizes, and this is not to shame the naturally slim ones now but … this modifies the natural power women have, the power of giving birth that is. The whole system of patriarchy is structured towards harnessing this one power, to give the women as little autonomy and say on the topic as possible, to make them property. So, if the ideal of a woman is supposed to be pre-pubescent this of course suggests virginity, cluelessness and harmlessness. Let’s enhance the boobs too, because our readers like boobs … And don’t get me started on the poses even. (This I have yet to finish, just a harmless face-swap to highlight what I mean …

        I also like to butch it up at times, but this is not, I insist, because I would think as a woman I am worth less than any man as such. I get a holy fit of righteous fury if someone aligns femininity to submission. The way PJ is put these questions, they align femininity to weakness. As if it would be a flaw that has to be set right, mostly in the headline already. As a female, I almost feel personally insulted by that behaviour of journalists. Being female or feminine doesn’t mean anyone is allowed to do whatever they like with me. If a boy happens to be feminine, no one is allowed to align this to weaklness. But it’s the key issue of society really. What particularly outrages me is that so many females play along with that, e. g. with slutshaming others. When did you last hear a straight man call another straight man a slut? For them, sexual encounters are an achievement to be proud of, not a potential handicap.

        I see much of this misogyny diffuse into the gay scene, so basically PJ has to put up with the sh*t I know very well. I can align in that respect. Random example: I am an engineer, electrotechnics, in the field sound and vision. In German, “sound” is the same word as “clay.” In the meantime, I just say I am an engineer of electrotrechnics. I used to say it totally correctly, “Toningenieur,” and about 90 % of the males kept asking me “Can you study that?” and thought it was something like pottery. Also, I used to get questions all the time, well-meaning mostly, if this field of study was really right to express my soft side as a female, and stuff.

        Oh and Garanca … you summed up my reaction perfectly there. What do you think, does this have anything to do with Russia and potential engagements there, plainly put? And just by the way, maybe you know, what about the opera schedules there, is Octavian/Marschallin, or Octavian/anybody really now filed as propaganda? Is two females making out on stage okay if one is crossdressing? I’d be seriously interested if you could tell me anything on the topic.


  4. A very interesting post. I’m not sure I agree about trouser roles being by definition “harmless kittens” – though I do agree there are lots of people who want to see them that way and who perhaps prefer to cast young and pretty singers who do not come off as too powerful or threatening. But there’s a reason for the casting and for the idea that singers are supposed to “grow out of” trouser roles i.e. the fact that they are not necessarily “harmless”. Apparently a mature star with lots of stage presence and authority in a trouser role might be a bit too far from harmless for the mainstream opera stage.
    The idea that trouser roles are supposed to be played by young women must come from the pageboys with pretty legs of 19th and 20th century opera, and then be mistakenly applied to Baroque opera where trouser roles are heroic (or villainous). And yes, I say trouser roles because they were not all sung by castrati. A lot of Händel’s 2nd men – Arsamene, Polinesso, Goffredo, Ottone, Medoro… – were originally sung by women, and I doubt they were supposed to be cute and harmless. As for the heroes who were originally sung by castrati it seems a bit absurd to cast pretty young things since they require such vocal skills, and I don’t think it’s done a lot – there, the trend is for countertenors instead.
    I personally don’t think most countertenors are suited for heroic roles, not because a high voice makes a man too effeminate to play heroes, but simply due to the quality of the voice being (to my ears) inferior to a good mezzo or contralto. Countertenors can rarely play with the same effective contrasts between head voice and chest voice, for example. In general, their high notes are less clear and bright and their low notes less powerful. There’s a particular evenness to the voice and a sort of “closed” or even nasal timbre which I find more suited to church music than opera.
    I would really like to see more older mezzos in trouser roles! Particularly to create a better, more believable, dynamic in the mezzo-soprano couple. As the trouser role usually makes the mezzo appear younger, and she is often shorter as well, casting older mezzos with lots of authority would really help even out the balance. It’s not just about age of course, it’s just as much about authority and confidence. Kasarova and Connolly have this perfectly comfortable and natural, virile masculinity. Some other singers their age just don’t, perhaps for fear of appearing unattractive as women or too convincingly butch/lesbian or because they don’t have the confidence and don’t get proper encouragement or direction. And there are lots of suitable trouser roles for older mezzos in the Baroque repertoire, not just young hotheads or pretty pageboys!


    1. Good call on the harmless vs. casted to be harmless! I didn’t think about that.
      And it’s not just Handel’s 2nd men, quite a few of Vivaldi’s primi uomini (well, Venice WAS different) were originally written for female contralti, with the secondi uomini being taken on by castrati.
      Much of the harmless (or not casting an older female singer for fear of ridicule – something that doesn’t apply to male singers, as pondered out with inkbrain above) I think stems from later repertory: as of 1840, trouser roles were basically conceived as harmless pageboys (operetta, like in case of Fatinitza, being a an exception at times due to genre roots). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happens just at the same point the dramatic tenor takes over for good as the primo uomo hero.
      And yes, applying that trouser stance when it comes to pre-1750 repertory is just dead wrong.

      Usually, I prefer mezzos and contraltos as primi uomini as well – sometimes, as recently discussed in the “Orlando” thread, out of very shallow and not even sonal reasons. And I still have to listen to a countertenor who can pack the punch of, say, Podlés. But I also believe that the sonal image of the male falsetto voice is shifting (or at least expanding), away from the somewhat nasal, pure and rather asexual sound that may be owed to its long hibernation in sacred music only, towards something more operatic, dramatic, sensuous and “sweeter”. A few years ago I watched a videotape of La Gran Scena with a male singer as Amneris that was an eye-opener (ear-openeer) to me. I don’t recall the singer’s name, but with my eyes closed, I would have sworn he was a female dramatic mezzo. And I remember thinking “what if counters sound like counters because of style convention, and not because of vocal limits?” Granted, it may not apply to all countertenors, but I do think that there could be a lot greater sound variety – if not for fear of “sounding female”.


      1. When male and female altos sounded alike, female altos could plausibly sing transgender disguise roles. As you say–among so many other things; this is one of your great posts–with the end of the castrati and the dominance of the tenor, those disguise roles lost credibility. Fidelio overwhelms the problem, but otherwise there are Meyerbeer, Gilda, Zdenka, and who else?
        The alternative travesti, in which the audience suspends its disbelief in transsexual casting, has a strong element of the Ungeheuer and the fetishistic. Agreed, the partriarchy relishes that sort of thing, publicly, only in the direction of added status. (Just how does Octavian get to be so good at being Mariandl? Don’t ask. What is so pleasurable about these ‘boys’? Don’t ask. But it is often an emotion less prompted by older women than by younger ones.)
        The patriarchy requires a society defined by chromosomes, it owns the newspapers and opera houses, and it polices the boundaries. “There are laws — conventions — it’s just not being done!” A man who challenges these limits to performance, unless in clowning, risks a career.
        Women’s power, female power, is tabu to men; if Rofrano had not already shown himself the better swordsman, one would expect Ochs to attempt violence upon the revelation. If Mariandl went too far, the Salzburg audience might well throw more punches. But matters do improve. Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit–I hope.


    1. Thank you, Ann, I wasn’t aware of that production!
      While I do not know von Otter personally, the intelligence she usually displays in repertory choice and overall demeanor of artistic persona does fit a lot better with this casting than with a simple rejection of *all* trouser roles. She doesn’t strike me as someone who would feed into a gender bias (particularly not after all the choices she made in song repertory!)


  5. The best thing about writing posts like this are the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. This blog is lucky to have you all as readers!


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