[Latin Oratorio Problems: When you are in love with your army commander who keeps ogling the enemy instead. – Paola Gardina (Vagaus) in Vivaldi’s “Juditha Triumphans”, Venice 2015.]
On the heels of last week’s “Juditha Triumphans” Liveblogging, we ended up talking about trouser roles (as if we ever did much else), which in this case is to blame on Paola Gardina’s Vagaus (see above), which led to thadieu digging up an August 2014 interview with Gardina from a local Rovigo (Gardina’s hometown) news outlet. It’s a small feature on Gardina’s career, in which, upon being asked which roles she prefers, she answers, „I like the roles of young men, barely more than adolescents, who arrive on the stage of life with all their anxieties and insecurities, their enthusiasm and their wish to get to know love.“
It is a lovely interview, and a lovely answer – much more about a phase in life than about gender – and as I pointed this out in commenting, it made me realize how this answer stood out as something rare to me. I examined my own relief and happiness at reading the statement, and then I turned disgruntled because it should not be a rare occurrence to find a singer who enjoys singing trouser roles and says so.
Since this post is built on a slew of comments, let me point out that it is more personal and emotional than my usual fare. And I am aware that there are many singers (mezzos and others) who sing trouser role repertory and make no fuss about it at all, or have positive things to say about it. That is wonderful, and that is not my focus here.
My focus is an attitude to the contrary, of singers distancing themselves from trouser role repertory, generally as something that they *are* singing, but that is framed with comments along the lines of how difficult it is to get into those roles, how they require a different physique, how it is such a challenge to play cross-gender.
This post is not about giving names and pointing fingers (singers are under constraints, and audiences and press can be impertinent), it is about examining my reaction to an attitude at large that we all know from the press (including social media) in some form or other, and that I have also encountered frequently in my decade of active work in opera, from singers and managements alike. My perspective here is not that of a singer, it is that of a cultural historian who is trained to look at social contexts.
[Here, have another screenshot because I have a feeling that this is going to be a lengthy rant. With far better impulse control: Paola Gardina (Vagaus) in Vivaldi’s “Juditha Triumphans”, Venice 2015.]
After smiling at that Gardina interview, I asked myself: „Why do I take so much note of this answer? Why do I feel grateful?“ And then I asked: „Why do I feel disproportionally disgruntled when I hear a female singer remark ‚oh, it’s such a relief that I don’t have to play a man in this production’, or when a management announces a show in which ‚all the male roles are cast with men!’, as if that would be a special merit?“
Those are remarks that will make me spend or not spend money on a show, on a singer’s recital, or a recording. Simply put for the managements: Those are remarks that can cost you money. My money.
And there are remarks that can make you money.
Did I look up Gardina on Facebook after reading that interview? You bet I did. Did I check out her upcoming shows on OperaBase? Yes again. Am I more likely to buy a ticket for one of her performances from here on out or recommend them to others? Yes, I am.
Singers enjoying building roles regardless of gender, and being relaxed about that fact, is an aspect that will make me be more interested in their work overall. It will motivate me to make more of an effort to follow their careers.
And it is not because I am thinking “Oh, they do queer stuff!”. Not even “Oh, this person might be an ally!” (though that might be a nice secondary effect – look at someone like Joyce DiDonato who sings all of her repertory with gusto and is vocal about queer rights).
I don’t think „oh, queer!“ because it is not about that. And that is precisely the issue I have with people who are vocally distancing themselves from (their) trouser roles, citing difficulty of connection (you play scheming murderers or sociopaths or abusers or airheads, and that’s something you won’t comment on, but you have issues with playing a young chap in love? Give me a break) or costumes or overall discomfort. Because what does a role have to do with one’s private gender identity? (here’s a clue: nothing.)
It’s one thing if people like von Otter say “I am growing out of the motivations of the very *young* men”: that puts age before gender (also von Otter is von Otter and she can do no wrong in my book. And I think if she were offered an interesting role of a sixty-year-old man written for her, she would not reject it on grounds of gender).
But the all-too-frequent pattern in distancing oneself from a trouser role is not that, it is another thing. It is (and I am paraphrasing in hyperbole because I am on a roll): “Ah, no, guys, sigh, such a drag” (only without the pun), followed by “*high giggles* look how pretty I look in this dress!”
And my reaction to that tends to be, in the following order, a) “oh, someone has views on gender that are rather unreflected” and b) “oh, someone is struggling with gender/bordering on transphobia when – other than for marketing reasons, which is an issue I will get to below – taking on a cross-gender role (which is your job, just as it can be your job as a singer to play a fox or a fish in a pan) prompts them to repeatedly frame their offstage gender identity and call attention to it”.
In both cases, I will be less interested in a singer’s work overall and assume it to be less artistically challenging and thought-through.
If someone who sings trouser roles complains about them for being trouser roles (and, on a sidenote, that reason is almost never ‘I have to play someone who is having male privilege and disrespects women, and that is hard for me to get into as a woman’), my first thought is: “But why would you feel the need to distance yourself? Do you think your singing cross-gender onstage would influence, or have me make assumptions about, your offstage gender identity or sexuality? Which, by the way, is none of my f***ing business to begin with? – How do these two things even relate? Why do you link a professional fact to a private stance?”
And then my grumpy, sarcastic second thought tends to be, “Oh, right, and it would be SO horrible to be thought of as (gender)queer or be linked to anything other but heteronormativity for a moment, so *of course* anyone should hurry to distance themselves from that, and, no, that is not queerphobic or transphobic in a wider social context AT ALL.”
Because that is the underlying message of these ‘Look at our flagship singer finally in a dress again!’ or ‘I am so relieved I don’t have to sing a man this time!’ comments in a wider social context, beyond the personal scope: that it is shameful and negative to – even within a fiction upon a stage! – cross gender lines or, gasp, take a step away from heteronormativity.
As someone who is queer, and who loves opera (you may have noticed on both counts), I don’t pay money to have this kind of discrimination leveled at me, even implicitly. And again: I am not talking about individual attitudes or singers here. I am talking about the pattern such remarks form in a broader cultural context. Because private opinions are just that, but we enter a zone of “the private is political” when such comments are made to the press, or by the press: they do not exist without context.
I am aware that much of this attitude is owed to the market: Opera has conservative audiences to a large degree, and the opera market, for shows and recordings, is overwhelmingly heteronormative. And interviews are a tough species to begin with – they are a marketing tool for a largely conservative demographic, plus what you say and what someone will actually write up as a ‚story’ are two different things. But I admit, from my own experience, that I do take notice if I find someone repeatedly making distancing remarks even when not prompted for them, just as I take note of someone not hurrying to scream “heteronormativity forever!” from the magazine rooftops at every given chance.
There are a few more aspects to this, of course (it is politics. What did you think?). On a political level, I do of course not expect singers to change the market on their own time. It is never the job of the oppressed to stand up against the oppression, and much as I as a queer audience member may feel put off by some press releases, the same applies to singers who have to bow to a conservative marketing stance to earn their living.
Then there is the simple technical and physical level of singers aging out of roles and into others – both male and female. Kasarova retiring Romeo was about vocal demands, not about gender. What may be about gender is the physicality. Saying “I don’t feel up to this young male part any longer due to fading fitness” is a valid reason I would never take issue with.
I may still take issue with the framework for such an argument, however, which is a specific kind of sexism in how there is very much a standard of how female singers are expected to look and move in a male part (a lot of it ties back to youth, and that is a set of expectations that is very much gendered). In comparison: How many 50+ or even 60+ Isoldes say they don’t feel up to singing a supposedly 17-year-old princess anymore because of the role’s age and physical fitness?! (yes, I know it would be impossible to sing Isolde at age 17. Other interesting question: why did Wagner write it for such an age gap?) How many aging tenors retire the roles of young military leaders due to fitness concerns? And what does all this say about how Western culture frames women’s (not men’s) aging?
Then there is the cultural fact of onstage/offstage relation. I get irked at singers or press who feel the need to explicitly ‘balance’ a trouser role with extra-conventional femininity offstage, but I get downright mad at audience members and, most of all, press members who do that same kind of confounding and link a singer’s repertory to their private appearance, fitness, gender identity or sexuality. That is a) not related at all and b) NONE of their business in the first place. Project onto a singer’s performance all you like, but not onto a singer.
When I worked in opera and happened to be in productions that had trouser roles, I heard every sleazy comment directed at the singer – from colleagues, from artistic departments, and (my favorite!) from management and audiences at the premiere outings (I wasn’t kidding in “Stages”. Those were nearly all verbatim quotes.) – and people don’t even get how offensive that is, both for the singer, and also for the queer assistant with the coffee tray behind them.
It’s seemingly harmless remarks, starting with how good someone’s legs look in pants. Then there’s the low catcalls at a costume. The comments on how a female singer looks draped over a female colleague, up to suggestions whether they’d do that offstage, too. When the baritone says “Oh, can we do that scene again? If I watch that, I’ll have nice dreams tonight”, it’s not funny. It’s sexist, chauvinist crap. But there’s awkward laughter, and nobody calls it out – not the singer, who does not want to be difficult and still needs to work with that baritone, and not the closeted assistant, who also still needs to work with that baritone.
So, yes, I get that sometimes a “Oh, I am so happy I don’t have to sing a man this time!” comment may be a knee-jerk reaction to ward off all those comments that I know every trouser role singer has heard more than enough of.
But, beyond that, there are also audience members (and cast and crew members) who have had more than enough shade being tossed at their queerness, closeted or not, and who in turn are put off by the implications of those same protective remarks.
A few years ago, a singer came by these pages – we had talked about one of her performances where she had given a fantastic portrayal of masculinity, and we were lauding her for that – and frantically commented that she was straight. Not gay. NOT GAY.
Now Eye Bags is a fan space, not a professional music outlet, and I doubt that many singers ever end up here (which reminds me, I need to look up Natascha Petrinsky’s schedule and see if she is singing in the area next season. I would love to hear her again), so it was a single incident, but it rattled me. Because none of us had commented on anything else but the role portrayal, yet the singer felt the need to ascertain her heterosexuality. She apparently felt her gender identity was tainted or threatened by the fact that a few queer women were enthusiastic about how she had played a role, and found her attractive in that role.
It is an incident I still think about now and then because of course I do not want to make anyone uncomfortable (and, yes, I know one of my main tags is ‘hot mezzos in pants’, but surely every one gets that it is a joke? Right?!). But I do not want to feel guilty for looking at opera with a queer eye, either. I get told to be ashamed of whom and what I feel drawn to enough in other spaces.
I will not apologize for having built a queer space for queer people who are welcome to talk about performances and voices they love. Or for swooning at appealing trouser role portrayals. Fine, swooning at them *a lot*. I simply don’t think that that should feel like a threat or an insult to anyone.
On the other end of the scale: I don’t believe for a minute that journalists for classical music outlets, much less singers, think a lot about minority politics when there are interviews to be done (that minority thing is my job, not theirs), and I don’t expect them to do. But there are things that can so easily be done on a very simple level.
If I return to the sample remarks above of the “this will cost you my money” variety, it is easy to rephrase them in a way that is more inclusive and does not feel offensive: ‘Look at our flagship singer finally in a dress again!’ is easily amended to ‘Look at the range our flagship singer has! Having done trouser role X, now taking on role Y!’ And a ‘I am so relieved I don’t have to sing a man this time!’ in a quick sidestage interview could just as well be ‘After the trouser roles X and Y, it’s also great to work on a female role again’ (implied statement: Look at my impressive range. Feel free to book me. Get you a woman who can do both.)
Inclusiveness and awareness are a continuous learning process, for all of us, myself very much included. Yet at times, it is so very easy to make a difference (and to draw a few more people to shows or recordings or singers. Just sayin’).