Trouser Trouble

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[Josy Santos (Oberto) in Handel’s “Alcina”, Stuttgart 2016. – Photo Credit: Martin Sigmund/Staatsoper Stuttgart]

November seems to be Gender Trouble Awareness month among German opera houses – after the insightful interview in the monthly magazine of Oper Frankfurt with Cecelia Hall and Sydney Mancasola, (which I addressed yesterday,)  this tweet by @oper_stuttgart drew my attention (never mind the link given in the tweet, it does not lead to the article):

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“Who is wearing the pants here? Interview with mezzo-soprano Josy Santos on her trouser roles, including Siebel in ‘Faust’.”

The interview is this one ( I will translate it further below). It was conducted Assistant Dramaturge Johanna Danhauser, who is the chief editor of the Stutgart Oper blog, with awareness of some of the pitfalls that tend to surround thoughts and questions on trouser roles (yet also with some moments in the introduction where, if you have ever wanted to see the written equivalent of awkward squirming in gendered discomfort while chasing big discourse fig leaves, look no further).

Of course, a dramaturge’s job is not to be a gender theorist (though I would always advocate awareness), it is to address a mostly non-academic audience.
But part of my job is gender theory, and there are some patterns called forth here that we should talk about here. The theoretical introduction to the interview  struck, for me, a lot of squares on the Trope Bingo Card when talking about trouser roles – to a degree where I am now sitting here translating the whole thing to pinpoint my discomfort in biologized conceptions of ‘naturalness’ and a blurring of lines when it comes to narrative subtexts.

It is still a worthwhile interview, and I am grateful that they ran this piece in the first place. The answers by Josy Santos, who is a young mezzo with the Oper Stuttgart Studio and  has just finished a much acclaimed run as Oberto (a friend saw one of the shows and singled her out afterwards for a fantastic portrayal), are wonderfully rooted in the concrete physical challenges of portraying  gendered individuals, and arrive at layered, intriguing and less binary-driven conclusions.

As food for thought, here is the interview translated in full (one more: the original, in German, can be found here at Oper Stuttgart blog).

“Who is wearing the pants here?”, by Johanna Danhauser

Since the beginnings of theater, the natural difference of the physical and emotional gender variants have been playfully upended on the stage. In the Elizabethan age, women were played by men in women’s fashion  – the so-called boy actors – because women were banned from appearing on the professional stage. In Shakespeare’s comedies of errors, such as “Much Ado About Nothing” or “Twelfth Night”, this casting policy is driven into a confusing gender chaos and subverted ironically. With its preference for high voices, Baroque opera presents a challenge for us today: the familiar agreement between viewer and performer, the portrayed gender allays with the gender of the artist, is suspended by the aesthetics and the conditions of this epoch of opera. The main parts were frequently cast with the ethereal sound of a castrato voice or a cross-dressed woman. Bass and tenor voices were more associated with secondary parts.

Also in classic opera repertory – after the practice of castration was prohibited -, we meet several of such trouser roles, such as the one of Cherubino in Mozarts “Le nozze di Figaro”, the Romeo in Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”, or also the Octavian in R. Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”. Up to this day, these parts of men sung by women present a challenge in staging. Independent of costume and acting, the voice also speaks of the gender identity of the female singer. A frivolous or stereotypical handling of gender images can turn out to be too discriminating for both sides. In a time in which the wearing trousers is not scandalous for women any longer, the trouser role asks new questions. To examine the gender ambivalence of these figures also means to address the performativity of gender images in a society and the homosexual tensions within the role constellations of an opera plot.

Josy Santos, mezzo-soprano with the opera studio, will perform three traditional trouser roles this season: Cherubino, Oberto and Siebel. She talks about her experiences in working on these complex roles.

J.D.: At the moment, you can be seen on stage in Stuttgart in two very different male roles, as Oberto (Alcina) and Siebel (Faust).

J.S.: Well, Oberto is actually a part for a boy. In the source text for the opera, “Orlando furioso”, the character does not exist, but Handel was so taken by the voice of a boy singer that he composed three arias for him. Oberto’s father, with whom came to the realm of Alcina, was transformed into an animal by her. Oberto is a deeply unsettled orphan. His strict upbringing is obvious in his very much controlled physicality. He is neither man nor women, but still in development. Alcina awakens sexual desire within him. That is obviously something completely new for him and he is unable to handle those emotions, and his burgeoning body. Things are bubbling up within in and in his last aria, all that, the hate and the despair, explode out of him without control. He is so insecure that he is holding onto his gun for support. When he drops the weapon, he gets a new impulse, and a new facet of him breaks free and he hurts Alcina.

J.D.: This boy in puberty, who does not yet understand his emotions, reminds me of Cherubino…

J.S.: Yes, Cherubino is also still very boyish, but a lot a lot more lightfooted. He is trying out who he is and still has to sow his wild oats. He flirts openly with Susanna and Barbarina, only with the Countess, he is a bit more tentative. He is curious and tries to understand the women, and of course he can get close to the women because everyone thinks that he is still an innocent child.

J.D.: What does it mean for you to take on such a masculine role?

J.S.: When I sang my first Cherubino, I didn’t really know how to approach this male role. My acting teacher from Brazil recommended I undertake an experiment: at home, I stuffed out a pair of underpants with socks to try out what it is like to carry around male genitals. I noticed that I had to walk and sit differently with that. A completely different sensation of inhabiting one’s body, which I could take with me into the part, but which is also a part of me, in any case. To me, it is actually easy to portray a man, I grew up with three brothers, which was of course influential. As a child, it also took a while until I felt feminine. Neither man, nor woman, just a child. With the part of Oberto, it is also the costume that puts me into ‘boy mode’: broad dress shoes, who have a big impact on my walk, and a tie that I would never wear as a woman.

J.D.: Your costume as Siebel in Frank Castorf’s staging of “Faust”, on the other hand, is more feminine, with high heels and a sequined dress.

J.S.: Siebel is very different from Cherubino and Oberto, who are both still boys and can’t handle their awakening sexuality. Siebel is of course still young, as well, but more settled. In Frank Castorf’s staging, the role takes on my natural sex: I am playing a woman. We state in the production that Siebel was born in Paris, but her father is from Algeria, and her mother from France. But since she has grown up in between these two differing cultures, she is unsettled and asks herself who she is and where she belongs. She has a very close, bordering on obsessive, relationship to the family of Margarethe and Valentin. He is torn in between the two of them. It is not just his bisexual orientation, but even more so his search for belonging somewhere within a culture, with a family, that is eating him up. The staging doesn’t try to press him into a gendered drawer. That makes it very intriguing for me. I am who I am: a woman. But in the encounters with margarethe, for example, when I dance a waltz with her or try to kiss her, I act more forcefully, more dominant. Perhaps that could be called masculine, but perhaps those are only patterns of behavior and a relation of powers that is negotiated in any form of gendered relations.

First of all, I would like to draw hearts around that very astute and aware final phrase of Josy Santos. Yes, please, exactly. I also enjoy the sudden change of pronoun in talking about a Siebel who is apparently staged as a queer woman, but retains some aspect of gender non-comformativity.

There is a notion of cultural patterns playing into fractions of identity and self that are read as gendered by others. There is the observation on dress (particularly shoes) shaping your physicality. There is an understanding of gender policies being tied in with sexual awareness, and a space of previous non-markedness that is infringed upon with growing into an adult. Those are a lot of very smart thoughts from a very young singer and I am delighted by all of it.

I am also delighted by Santos’s description of Oberto’s motivations – this production is 18 years old, and it is still so well-cued, with so much attention to detail.

Things that did not delight me were the somewhat chopped style of the introduction – jumping from general remarks to Shapespeare to Baorque opera, to blending castrato roles and roles written for women singers post-baroque. And why would a singer’s gender identity be ‘in her voice’? Have we still not moved beyond the idea of high voices being coded exclusively as feminine? It’s the attitude. – I still think of Marilyn Horne’s vocal swagger in her trouser roles, and I don’t just mean in the lower range. Her offstage gender identity didn’t pre-color her stage gender in her voice. Her voice could be a girl’s, or a hero’s, depending on what she decided to do with it.

What kind of narrative stands behind the idea of a “natural difference” in “emotional and physical gender variants”? ‘Natural’ at what point in time, for whom? Is there an assumption of unchanging, fixed traits that come already gendered, instead of being gendered?

Also, what tacit ‘agreement’ between ‘viewer and performer’ on cis-casting? At what point in time? In what type of theatre? Talking about later 19th century opera is not enough of a base to generalize, no matter how much that repertory informs the central output of opera houses: if we stage different traditions, we must be very aware of the subjectivity of such assumptions. (it links to another question I would post a few lines further own, about what ‘classic opera repertory’ is supposed to be, and if it is supposed to be fixed (and not dynamic), and if so, what authority presumably derives from it)

I don’t go to the theatre expecting cis-casting, by the way. And why should I? I hope for a narrative I can relate to, I hope for communion, and if Lear is played by Glenda Jackson, to cite a current example, that is certainly not detracting from it.

Another point I keep returning to is the description of castrato voices as ethereal, which, by all accounts, they were not, at least not predominantly. There is an overall ideal of sweetness in Baroque singing, but that is not linked to the castrati. ‘Ethereal’ speaks much more of later 20th (and early 21st) century listening traditions.

And then – yes, I know I should not be tearing into a blog post by a young professional out of academia, and I don’t mean to do that. It’s a good post. Good enough, in fact, that it was a starting point for me to look into ways we make arguments when we talk about crossing gender lines on stage. Yet there are a few strands I simply don’t get: yes, a superficial staging of trouser roles can be annoying, but in what way is it ‘too discriminating for both sides’? What are the sides? Femininity and masculinity? Is male identity discriminated against when a woman presents it in a way that is read as somehow insufficient? Is female identity compromised if a female singer performs a male role without being able to pass completely? (also, what are the new questions the trouser role asks these days? Is it those?) I think this bit irks me – while the argument that a stereotypical cross-dress performance can turn into an unwilling parody of male and female gender concepts is solid – because of the follow-up in an automatically assumed ‘gender ambiguity’ of trouser roles. There is a huge difference in attitude between parts written for ‘whoever can sing this I don’t care what they do or don’t have in their pants’ and parts written for ‘ah, this kind of sensitivity really can only be a expressed by a woman and, really, we can’t ask guys to be doing this’.

And, finally, what are the ‘homosexual tensions within role constellations of an opera plot’? Is that supposed to be a sufficiently academized version of ‘uhm, there’s the fact that is looks kind of gay when a female singer, in a male role, is romantically addressing a woman’? Which, yes, to our eyes, it often does – because we have learned to gender by body first -, but what does that have to do with the plot? It has to do with the audience perception of gender offstage.

I’m sorry. I may be truly impossible to please here – here is someone addressing queer subtexts and pointing out that superficial drag is doing a disservice to cross-cast parts, and who is doing it pretty well, I am still sitting here ranting. Perhaps because I feel that the extremely elaborately worded text is, in that, somehow still hiding, still taking on a patronizing stance, still perpetuating too many of the old stereotypes of both gender and opera. I will probably delete this entire rant come morning and only leave the translation, anyway. Meanwhile, enjoy the interview, and the photo material on the Stuttgart Oper blog, and if you have a chance to hear Josy Santos: don’t miss it.

2 thoughts on “Trouser Trouble”

  1. Reminds me of our discussion a while ago on „masculinity“ in the timbre of women’s voices and how I found Christiane Oelze’s voice so convincing as Sifare despite being high and lightweight. However, I wonder how much of such a perception of a voice „adapting“ to the gender of the role is subconsciously shaped by our knowledge of the role (we would need a blinded experiment with unknown music here, any singers volunteering?). Maybe Horne is an exception, I don’t know her work well enough to judge, but in most singers I do not hear a profound change in timbre depending on the gender of the role, actually some hero swagger in the voice can make a female role much more interesting (may I mention Prina’s Clarice in La pietra del paragone with this horrible costume, but still….). This was not really the question raised, I know, but it is in line with your argument of attitude being more important than the type of voice in character display.

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    1. Oh, that are two very good points, thank you. Does the knowledge of a role’s gender shape our expectations? I also vote for the blind-listen experiment! Horne has said in interviews that she does intentionally sings differently. I think I would hear it even without having read that explicit statement, but you are so right about that second point: that it becomes interesting when singers look at differently gendered expressions within one role (like Prina in the Paragone, or also Richter and Petibon in the Geneva “Manon”) – when gender aspects become dynamic, relational and move beyond gendered bodies, or fixedly gendered voices. Which is a bit what Santos says about power being negotiated individually, in every relationship, and a lot of that power throws into light expectations and patterns of gender.

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