[This scene. Well, most every scene of that evening, but this scene!
Myrtò Papatanasiu (Sifare) and Patricia Petibon (Aspasia) in Mozart’s “Mitridate”, Paris 2016. – Don’t mind me, I’m just here to embarrass myself further. All caps: click to enlarge.]
I’ve been trying to pinpoint why this scene, and why “Mitridate” and Mozart seria get to me so much. I know I’ve been pondering it in relation to “Idomeneo” a while back, and much of it still boils down to the same: The elaborate hierarchies of patriarchal cultures and trying to carve out a space – of visibility, of audibility – in articulating queer desire within those cultures, while at the same time being intricately bound into its systems, resonate strongly with my experiences and my identity as a queer woman.
To see this struggle reflected, narratively rewarded, and given agency both in terms of (stunning!) visibility and audibility, is incredibly moving.
I’ve been out for almost twenty years. I’ve come into my own during the nineties, which were already a far friendlier place than previous decades to realize one’s own gayness, but displays like this still get to me every time.
I read them as representation in a niche where I feel emotionally at home. Opera has always been my go-to haven, a space where even a very confused budding baby dyke could find women to swoon over and characters to identify with, and see couples on stage that – one of them supposed to be a man notwithstanding – made sense on a level that transcended rational approaches.
Early Mozart seria in particular is what I raised myself on as a teenager. This is the kind of masculinity and heroism that still will ring a chord within me as an adult woman (now closing in on forty). Those trouser roles were my role models when it came to the kind of person I was trying to figure out how to be – someone who was good in the narrative, yet ostracized by desiring someone forbidden (not necessarily the father’s fiancée, but you get the point) and perhaps persecuted for it, but vindicated by the music and often also in the storytelling. These operas taught me that there was nothing inherently wrong with me. They were a space where a happy ending existed for me.
Queer people are used to look for themselves in subtexts: in straight love stories, or in stories that are not meant to be romantic at all. Trouser roles are a double space because on a narrative level, you are looking at a male character, while on the performance level, you are – and post 1800s, I claim that we are still unable to do otherwise in Western cultures, Butler nothwithstanding – looking at two women onstage, two women embodying a love story and reflecting back visibility to people who are usually without representation in the maintext.
On a third level, informed by those first two, trouser roles also negotiate masculinity as a concept separate from maleness. In that, it serves as a space for trans, butch and masculine-of-center people, but also for everyone who is struggling with assigned patterns of femininity and/or masculinity. It has a lot to do with relating to space, and to power, and this brings me back to the very specific case of the Paris “Mitridate”, because two things that absolutely get me about it are, for one, the approach of casual sensuality when it comes to the trouser role of Sifare: it stages masculinity as a relational set of patterns to be adapted onto any body and does not try to emulate biological maleness.
And, two, the staging of relating to power that clearly separates Sifare’s masculinity (which, within the narrative, is the heroic one, even though in a patriarchal order, Mitridate and his violence are the dominant model) from chauvinist violence, which is a fallback device for staging trouser roles far too often (“Let’s make him a bit of a jerk, that’s sexy, that’s a real man” – Ugh.) It’s even about more than just masculinity there: in this figure, it’s also about staging (mainstream) desire towards female bodies as unviolent (which should not be a novelty, but that is a rant for another day).
Look at how this Sifare treats Aspasia: never without respect. Staging ‘masculine’ desire as balanced between partners (just check above how those two look at each other, and on a second note, look how Ismene is threatend by Farnace here, but refuses to be victimized) and without inherent domination might be the most beautiful thing about this production, and it happens completely low-key.
Of course it does not hurt that both leads are very compelling in their acting (Petibon in particular is turning into a relevation for me – go rewatch that scene where she contemplates poisoning herself. It is bone-chilling). Or that they are not at all difficult to look at. But that’s just the sugar on top of this production and, yes, while that might be the thing that has launched this avalanche of screencaps, that does not explain why this staging is resonating so strongly with me. That, really, is due to how (female) bodies, how power and how possible masculinities – and the broader landscape of negotiating self in relation to desire – are being staged here.