Monday, 24 August 2020

Is the opera world ready for a Lesbian Cherubino - how opera remains rather tame when it comes to exploring some areas of gender and sexual relations

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos: Julia Sporsén, Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Julia Sporsén (the Composer), Jennifer France (Zerbinetta)
Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)

Nerone kisses Poppea in Monteverdi's opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea, but what are the audience really seeing, a male character kissing a female character or a woman kissing another woman. At the premiere of the opera Nerone was played by a (male) castrato but nowadays it is common for the role to be played by (female) mezzo-sopranos and when I interview mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman she talked about the frisson that can come from the audience when the two characters kiss, again man and woman or woman and woman. What do we see, exactly?

There has been a trend in recent years to aim for greater realism in the staging opera, which has led to male characters being played by (male) counter-tenors, and (female) mezzo-sopranos convincingly playing male characters. This wasn't always the case, and I can remember in the 1970s and 1980s that when female singers played men, they still looked in some way feminine. 

Of course, issue of cross gendered casting has in the past been addressed by having tenors and basses playing roles intended for sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, though this leads to transpositions in the vocal lines and alterations to the the balance between voice and orchestra. The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded the title role of Handel's Giulio Cesare, transposing it down an octave, and I don't think anyone would regard this as one of his greatest recordings.

But there is one area of realism that remains under explored, having female singers playing male roles as women and introducing a greater element of homo-eroticism into some opera. If it is acceptable for us to see two women kissing on stage and be aware that whilst one is playing a male character, she looks undoubtedly like a woman in men's clothes, then surely it is reasonable and dramaturgically intriguing to play the male character as a woman?

Donizetti: Anna Bolena - Carolyn Dobbin (Smeton) - Longborough Festival Opera 2019 (Photo Matthew Williams Ellis)
Donizetti: Anna Bolena - Carolyn Dobbin (Smeton) - Longborough Festival Opera 2019
(Photo Matthew Williams Ellis)
In short, is the opera world ready for a Lesbian Cherubino?

The theatre has long had a tradition of cross-gendered casting, and we still have a vestige of it in pantomime. The fact that in opera, heroes were originally played by high-voiced castratos led to a 19th century tradition of women playing men on the operatic stage. Some of this simply fed from the desire to see an attractive young woman in tights, but also a reflection of the idea that young men have high voices. And if we cast a Baroque opera today, the hero might either be played by a (male) counter-tenor or a female mezzo-soprano. But in this latter case, for instance when Janet Baker played Gluck's Orfeo she was playing a man; you were seeing Baker being Orfeo rather than a female Orfeo.

In the straight theatre it has become more common to have female actors playing lead roles such as Shakespeare's Hamlet, or gender blind casting as in some recent productions we have seen at Shakespeare's Globe, but again the women play men. I don't think that we have had Hamlet with a woman playing Hamlet as a woman. Now what would that do to the play I wonder! The Royal Shakespeare Company did a gender swap version of The Taming of the Shrew, but everyone swapped, thus keeping the sexual politics heterosexual. 

The problem in opera is however that you cannot blindly swap sexes, because usually you have to transpose the roles accordingly. To continue the Hamlet analogy, to have a mezzo-soprano singing Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet would mean transposing the vocal line up an octave (or more) and risking unbalancing the orchestration. Massenet did this when creating a baritone version of Werther; he simply transposed the tenor part down an octave and left the orchestra as it was, it sounds terrible.

But idea of having a singer playing their correct gender in a role whilst keeping the vocal line correct seems to be woefully under explored. That we might have a female mezzo-soprano playing a male role but performing it as a woman. It does happen, there have been female and gender fluid Oscars in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (including at Opera Holland Park last year), or the page in Verdi's Rigoletto (for instance in Jonathan Miller's famous ENO production). A recent production of Handel's Giulio Cesare at English National Opera featured a female Sesto and so on. Quite often these changes are to children, servants, or sidekicks such as Micah in Handel's Samson and even when we come to Sesto there is no love interest. And there is the nub, productions rarely explore what it might do to an opera's dramaturgy, how the relationships might be put into a different context if the hero simply becomes the heroine. So we might play Orsini as a woman in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (as happened at the ENO production), but Orsini has little love interest, and it would be far less likely to have female hero in other bel canto trousers roles such as Aurelio in Donizetti's L'Assedio di Calais or Arsace in Rossini's Semiramide.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matteo Lippi (the Duke), Alison Langer (Oscar) - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matteo Lippi (the Duke), Alison Langer (Oscar) - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
I raised the idea gender switching on Facebook and developed a fascinating thread of ideas, but news of only a few real ground-breaking productions. The most radical that I have seen was the Scottish Opera/Opera Holland Park production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with the composer as a woman (and snogging Zerbinetta), and there have been a few others such as Glyndebourne's production of Massenet's Cendrillon (which debuted on the tour and then moved to the main festival) which had a sexually fluid Prince Charming, or Smeton in Donizetti's Anna Bolena played as non-specific in gender at Longborough last year. In Baroque opera we have seen Corrado and Ottone played as women in a modern dress Vivaldi's Griselda at Irish National Opera.

But there are other examples which could potentially be far more radical, what about Cherubino as a young Lesbian fighting the establishment, a female Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito as real illicit love interest for Vitellia, or Octavian as a young woman perhaps who habitually dresses as a boy. If we move an opera's setting to the modern day or the more recent past, then why not do such changes, after all they are hardly more radical than some contemporary productions which change the essential intent of a piece.

What I have never seen is a Handel opera performed where the role of the male love interest, sung by a woman is played as a woman, you sense that opera companies, or perhaps audiences are not quite ready for a full blown Lesbian love interest, for instance having Ariodante as a woman. And what would happen to the plot dynamic in Rodelinda for instance, if Bertarido was a woman, the lead couple's emotional problems in the opera taking on an element of homophobia from the rest of the cast. Now wouldn't that be fun!

And Baroque opera's fascination with high voices gives us plenty of possibilities. Take Handel's Giulio Cesare for instance, the roles of Caesar, Ptolomy, Sesto and Cornelia could all be played by women, or by male counter-tenors, or an interesting mix. If we give it a modern setting with Caesar as a presidential figure (as has been done) then why not a female president Caesar. Why not a female Ptolomey lusting after a female Cornelia, which is why she is so offended. There are plenty of possibilities, and none go against the essential grain of the opera.

Apart from novelty for novelty's sake, why do such casting; after all what is wrong with a woman playing a man. I would argue that in an age when sexual politics is becoming more fluid and open, swapping genders provides us with another way of viewing the characters in an opera. And the plots for many operas rely on the acceptance of taboos which are no longer operate so strongly. How many productions of Verdi's La traviata have you seen where the raison d'etre of Germont's objections to his son's marriage seems vague and uncertain. Verdi's opera is set within very particular societal mores, which are difficult to reproduce in a modern setting. Imagine what the impetus to the plot would be if Violetta were a young rent boy with Aids?

When it comes to men playing men, the opportunities are more limited. If we have the witch in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel as a man, the role comes a bit close to the creepy figure of the man in the woods offering us sweets that we are all warned about. In the early Baroque era men played female roles as comic ones, usually older women desperate for sex so turning these into men might make the gender politics easier. And in the Baroque era it was often the case that castratos played women (at least in Italy, I don't think this happened in London), so how about doing a bit of gender alternation there. For instance, Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea with Nero and Poppea as men, perhaps with Ottone as a woman; now wouldn't that be an interesting love triangle.

Vivaldi: Griselda - Raphaela Mangan (Corrado), Sinéad O'Kelly (Ottone), Katie Bray (Griselda) - Irish National Opera 2019
Vivaldi: Griselda - Raphaela Mangan (Corrado), Sinéad O'Kelly (Ottone), Katie Bray (Griselda)
Irish National Opera 2019
If you are less worried about the whys and wherefores of transposing the vocal lines, then other more creative ideas come along. Charles Court Opera's recent production of HMS Pinafore included a female Bosun. More radically, many years ago a production of Don Giovanni at the gay nightclub Heaven had Giovanni as a gay man, all the other characters had a gender switch, with a female side-kick  and male love interest. Something that I think might be worth pursuing. And another Handel piece I have always wanted to tinker with in this way was Saul. This does have its homo-erotic element with David and Jonathan, but I have always wondered what might happen if you dropped the role of Michal and gave her arias to Jonathan, so that David and Jonathan get a real love scene.

Similarly, when the lead role in Stephen Sondheim's musical Company was gender switched, to terrific effect, in the 2018 production at the Gielgud Theatre, with Rosalie as Bobbie, HER trio of love interest was gender switched too keeping the musical securely in the heterosexual realm (though another gender switch meant that the show did include a gay couple, with Amy becoming Jamie).

Before I finish, I have one more intriguing scenario which strictly goes beyond the boundaries of this article, a woman playing a woman pretending to be a man. In Richard Strauss' Arabella, Arabella's younger sister Zdenka is being brought up as Zdenko because it is cheap (for that read, because the composer and librettist fancied another high voice with good legs). Zdenka is secretly in love with one of Arabella's admirers who thinks he is spending the night with Arabella whereas it is in face Zdenka. What about if Zdenka really is in Zdenko (the character is actually a man, not pretending), so the admirer realises he has been spending the night with a young man. 

Coming up in the schedules, Stefanie Blythe will be playing the title role in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi at San Diego Opera.  Quite how the production will utilise the character's change in gender certainly intrigues, but you also worry about the effect the transposition of the vocal line will have on Puccini's orchestration.

Swapping genders is not just a modish idea, it allows us to look at gender and sexual relationships in a different light. And it is worth bearing in mind that in modern society, we have almost completely lost the sense of how shocking sexual relations with a person of the wrong class, wrong type or who was married could be. And quite often, opera plots hinge on this;  ny introducing different elements of gender and sexual politics we can bring a little of that frisson back, surely.

Massenet: Cendrillon - Eléonore Pancrazi (Prince Charming), Caroline Wettergreen (The Fairy ) - Glyndebourne (photo by Richard Hubert Smith)
Massenet: Cendrillon - Eléonore Pancrazi (Prince Charming), Caroline Wettergreen (The Fairy)
Glyndebourne 2018 (photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

You sense that, for all our interest in modern gender politics and the importance of sexual politics in modern life, opera production is a little bit too wedded to the past. Only in some areas is it acceptable to be radical, and in others we keep the status quo. There is sometimes a sense that productions are striving, in an overly effortful manner, to be contemporary and to seem relevant but missing an essential point about modern life. In an era when many pop singers seem to be gender-fluid or sexually fluid, isn't it about time that opera started to explore a different side to sexual politics. 

I must thank everyone who contributed to the Facebook discussion about gender roles in opera, and apologies to Lucy for lifting her comment about Cherubino for my title.

Update: Many thanks to a correspondent on Twitter for pointing out that Opera Atelier has already done Le nozze di Figaro with Cherubino played as a woman, and thanks also to the correspondents that pointed out that to be correct grammatically the character's name would be Cherubina!

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Going on-line: Guy Johnston on how the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival plans to bring the house alive with music and to explore the house and its collections - interview
  • Taking us on a remarkable journey: the choir of St John's College, Cambridge in Pious Anthems and Voluntaries, a programme of Michael Finnissy premieres - CD review
  • What makes the disc work is the sheer verve & engagement of the performances: Adrian Chandler & La Serenissima's Extra Time  - CD review
  • Opera returns: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Jonathan Dove's Ariel at Waterperry Opera Festival - opera review
  • Co-founder Jonathan Darbourne introduces The Vache Baroque Festival's debut staging of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Katie Bray as Dido  - interview
  • Words and line: Stuart Jackson and Jocelyn Freeman's fine recital disc, Flax and Fire, moves from Purcell to Britten, via Liszt, Wolf and Schumann - Cd review
  • Born in Cyprus, trained in London, the name Kemal Belevi is perhaps not well known but this disc from Duo Tandem is full of delightfully evocative pieces - CD review
  • On disc at last: Ethel Smyth's late masterwork, The Prison, receives its premiere recording in a fine performance from American forces - CD review
  • Outdoor engagement and energy: the Corran Quartet in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in an Islington courtyard - concert review
  • The close of an amazing season, and a farewell: the last Opera Holland Park of 2020 - concert review
  • 2000 years of history: guitarist Xuefei Yang on exploring the music of her homeland on her new disc Sketches of China, on DECCA - interview
  • 'Home

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