The operatic repertoire features a broad range of stage roles for mezzo-sopranos. Acclaimed mezzo Joy Davidson breaks it down into three categories: witches, ladies of the night, and boys—and the latter makes up a large portion of the most challenging mezzo roles.
“Many mezzos feel that people don’t really pay attention to us,” joked Davidson, a retired operatic veteran of the Metropolitan Opera with many a trouser role under her belt. “But the truth is, many of these roles written for mezzo-soprano are wonderful and extremely challenging—particularly the pants roles.”
Pants roles, also known as breeches roles or trouser roles, have been a longstanding tradition in opera for the mezzo-soprano or contralto.
Historically in the theater, seeing a woman on stage was unheard of, and men often performed as female characters, called skirt roles. The first professional actresses appeared on the public stage when the London theaters reopened in 1660 (after Cromwell’s dour little interruption had run its course), replacing the Shakespearean era’s boys in dresses.
For audiences, seeing women speak the ofttimes suggestive dialogue of Restoration comedy and show off their feminine figures on stage was a great novelty. Soon, the even greater sensation of women wearing male clothes on stage, portraying cross-gender roles, followed.
Elizabeth Howe’s 1992 book, The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700, says that out of 375 plays produced on the London stage between 1660 and 1700, nearly a quarter contained one or more roles calling for actresses to appear in male clothing.
Nearly every Restoration actress appeared in trousers, and eventually, producers began adding pants roles to revivals of a long line of older plays. Opera was no exception and soon followed suit.
Early Italian repertoire included many leading operatic roles for a castrato, a male with a very strong and notably high voice. As the practice of castrating young male singers came to an end, these masculine roles naturally drifted into the mezzo-soprano arena, as only women were trained to sing in this higher register.
Today, mezzo-sopranos still thrive in these trouser roles, and they face a number of challenges in transitioning from the sultry and seductive role of Carmen to the boyish charms of Cherubino.
Davidson, who has portrayed the classic Le nozze di Figaro boy character on numerous occasions on stage, also has taken on the pants roles of Orfeo, the Composer, and Octavian, in concert format. She admits that in her 30-year career, putting on the pants in opera proved to be a difficult adjustment.
“I really was not a very good boy,” said Davidson. “Orfeo was such a classic Greek figure—it was easy for me—and my Cherubino was very playful and fun. I was asked to do Octavian and the Composer, and though I sang both in concert performances, I did not feel comfortable doing them on stage.
“Obviously, the great bottom line is that performers are willing and able to perform any kind of theatrical stretch. Somehow, these two roles escaped me, and if I didn’t honestly feel I could do honest justice to owning a role, I refused it. My passion was to be a singer who could act well.
“We sometimes joked that there were just too many Carmens in my hips—almost 30 years, 28 productions, some 300-400 performances, and a gazillion rehearsals,” added Davidson. “I have to say that there were some mezzos, historically—besides myself—who seemed to be better at the hosen roles than the Carmens, and vice versa.”
In preparing for the pants roles she performed, Davidson naturally took to observing the mannerisms of the gentlemen around her, as well as using historical paintings of the time period as references.
“People-watching became my mantra,” said Davidson. “My research included browsing through art galleries to study portraits of the period. The posture, the turn of the head, the turn of the hip, and the stance [in boys] is very different than in girls, and different according to period. Young singers today are so fortunate to have the Internet, where one finds absolutely everything. However, nothing replaces a visit to a great art gallery.
“People-watching is, in my humble opinion, the constant occupation for actors, no matter the character,” added Davidson. “I had a whole bag of memories, visuals, movements, and stances I could call up from my life tapestry for these roles.”
Vivica Genaux is another celebrated mezzo-soprano who has become accustomed to putting on the pants in opera. Genaux has portrayed upwards of 16 various pants roles on stage. She said that the challenges vocalists face are many, but that eventually, with thorough preparation, they will ease comfortably into the character.
“At the beginning, it was a bit difficult to use consistent ‘male’ body language, but with time it becomes almost second nature,” said Genaux. “I always know I’m not fooling anyone when I’m playing a guy. I used to try to be completely macho when I first started doing trouser roles. Now, I just aim for a degree of androgyny. I think my experience in the Baroque roles helped me to develop that.
“In the 1700s, it was common for male castrati to play women, and for contralto women to play men,” added Genaux. “In addition, if you look at the paintings and artwork of that time the faces and figures are often very androgynous. Basically, in the trouser roles, I look for the human emotion, the expectations this character could have for himself, as well as the expectations others may have of him. [I look for] what his emotional state is, given these expectations, and, if emotions and expectations are in conflict, what his options are.
“Male characters most often have different options open to them than their female counterparts. Generally, the female response is to internalize everything and, in opera, die after singing a 15-minute aria. Males more often resort to the fist/sword/firearm and have a more extroverted way of dealing with conflict.
“Beyond that, I try to keep my shoulders fairly strong, try not to smile full-out—I have really high cheek-bones, and no matter how much makeup you put on me, a good, toothy grin gives me away immediately—and imagine my hands are bigger and heavier than they are.
“The hardest thing for me to negotiate as a man is stairs, as most men seem to keep their feet parallel when walking down stairs. Years of ballet training in one’s formative years, teaching one to have a lovely turn-out, are not helpful in this case.”
Like Davidson, Genaux also found observation and period paintings helpful in developing these trouser characters.
“My first trouser role was in Seville, Spain,” explained Genaux. “I went out to the park every day for about an hour and a half and just watched guys—how they interacted with girlfriends, wives, lovers, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, little girls, little boys, grandfathers, brothers, fathers, uncles, and guy friends. I observed all different kinds of physical and emotional interactions, and then I tried to emulate that on stage. I began by copying what I saw, and then began relaxing into it and finding my own dynamics.
“I would advise anyone doing a trouser role for the first time to go out and do some major people-watching, if possible in a Latino country or neighborhood where there are still some very strong male-female dynamics,” added Genaux. “TV and movies also are good sources of information. Watch how different actors move. Watch how one actor might move differently from one role to another. It’s fun!”
Genaux said that along with the enjoyment of getting into the role, female singers face several challenges for the voice when taking on such characters.
“Normally, the male roles require a little more vocal strength than the female ones, and you have to make sure your body is strong enough to support that,” she said. “When you sing the female roles, there are some places where you can kind of hold back a bit and pace yourself. With the male roles, I find you don’t get as many opportunities to hold back, because you’re busy being heroic all the time.”
Perhaps the largest of the challenges mezzos face when portraying these boyish figures, Genaux and Davidson agreed, is taking on the physicality of the role, a demand that can either make or break the character’s portrayal and believability.
“Physical differences are absolutely challenging in these roles because of the difference in structure of the male and female,” said Davidson. “Boys somehow always seemed to be ‘straighter,’ or without curves. When costuming, the breasts are usually bound, and when this happens, I immediately feel a different posture: hips’ downward movement seems more restricted, gait is wider and stance definitely seems more parallel.”
Genaux added that calls for fight scenes are one of her biggest challenges in a pants role and said a little training in the art of stage combat never hurts.
“For physical demands, the fight scenes are always my nemesis,” she said. “I’ve never taken any kind of martial arts or self-defense courses, and the little combat training I’ve had has been provided by opera companies for specific scenes. I suppose it could help to have some actual sword fighting experience, although what one does on stage is very choreographed. A little suspended disbelief is called for in the audience more often than not.”
Physicality is an important facet of any pants role, but most directors and coaches emphasize not letting it stand in the way of your ability to portray the character believably.
“Women’s hips are built differently than men’s, so one of the biggest adjustments to make is in your walk,” said David F. Ostwald, a stage director, author, and educator with more than 160 operatic productions and more than 30 years of teaching to his credit, including at the Juilliard School.
Ostwald specializes in acting for singers. His book, Acting for Singers: Creating Believable Singing Characters, outlines several suggestions to help singers achieve good characterization in their respective operatic roles.
Physically, for pants roles, hold yourself in an upward stance and avoid the natural female tendency to settle into the hip with each step, Ostwald said.
However, singers who take on these roles can easily fall victim to over-focusing on the physical aspects of the male, neglecting characterization and natural motivation.
Ostwald also noted that these Western-European male figures in opera often assumed a sense of empowerment and dominance.
“The most important thing to consider is the goal of the character and that character’s function within the piece,” Ostwald said. “Many singers get in their own way and allow themselves to lose focus of the basic reality that the male is a human figure.
“It’s easier than many singers think. If you always think in terms of the character and commit to what drives the character and why the character says what he needs to say, spontaneously living in that moment, many aspects of playing a man fall into place naturally and convincingly.
“Believability is what ultimately drives your work. Obviously, you’re a woman, but you need to create a believable character in order for the audience to gain the full emotional experience of the piece.”
Ellen Rievman, another director and opera coach, agreed.
“If the vocalist is committed to the character, physically and emotionally, I should be able to see it and believe it,” she said.
Rievman’s background includes 24 years of professional dance experience with the Metropolitan Opera, making her an ideal resource on the aspects of movement and male characterization for mezzos in pants roles.
She has been coaching these types of roles for the past 11 years.
“I work a lot with the singers to help them understand more about the character and use their powers of observation,” Rievman said. “The more the singer understands about the character, the more they are willing to experiment and translate that to the stage. It’s about recreating a physical image.”
Rievman, who has been known to put her mezzos in ankle weights to give them the sensation of the male physique, said much of learning how to characterize pants roles comes in the beginning for the singer. Young mezzos should begin thinking about the various dimensions of their male characters as early as when they are first learning the aria, Rievman said.
“I don’t think there is any way for a singer to deliver an aria appropriately without having a good understanding of the character and everything the role entails,” she said. “Singers should not only know the role, but also where that character fits into the story—what comes before and after—and why they find themselves in the moment they are in.”
Ostwald, Davidson, and Genaux advise that for preparation and auditioning purposes singers should wear slacks, but Rievman feels that if the vocalist is truly committed to the role, they should be able to pull it off successfully, regardless of their attire.
“Many singers hope that elements such as costuming and makeup will transform the role for them,” Rievman said, “but I feel it’s just the opposite. The singer has the power to transform the elements of that role.”