Who wears the pants? A look at gender bending in opera

By Madison Teuscher

From left to right: the Countess and Susanna listen to Cherubino’s love song.

A recent poll asking 8,000 Britons if gender identity is confined to two genders found that nearly half (48%) of women and 40% of men thought that gender is more fluid, encompassing a range of identities. With the increased activism and awareness of queer communities, it may be particularly relevant to bring attention to characters that are not defined by their binary gender status, whether they are male or female, but rather the stories they have to tell. The character tropes and ideas found in opera assert the saying “history repeats itself”, and are surprisingly relevant to a twenty-first century society, and are proof that even centuries old stories can have modern ideas.

There is an undeniable sex appeal found at the opera: the shows are full of scantily clad women, oozing romance, and songs ridden with innuendos. Trouser roles, or travesti roles, flip the tables on social gender regulations when actresses don breeches and grace the stage as men. Although these characters were usually not heroic or masculine, they challenge the gender rulebook and give operagoers a place to both laugh at and identify with gender bending: the disruption of regular gender roles.

A “travesti” (literally meaning pants) role, is an operatic part written with the intention of a woman singing as a male character. These parts are known in the opera world under many names: pants roles, travesti roles, breeches roles, trouser roles; and are often written for mezzo-sopranos (literally, middle-soprano). Mezzo-soprano voices are slightly lower that that of a soprano, but higher than that of a contralto. These characters are often young, romantic boys, or comedic men. An actress who plays a trouser role needs slim legs and a pretty face to attain the appropriate gender identity of the role.

Mozart’s opera “Le Nozze di Figaro” is a comic opera first performed in 1786. Cherubino, a trouser role from this opera, is a character with a knack for being in the wrong place. Some compare him to a young Don Juan, however, Cherubino always acts based on instinct, and considers himself love’s bewildered victim. Cherubino is experiencing the awakening of love, and seems to fall in love with every woman in sight, though never the right one.

At the height of the opera’s story, Cherubino disguises himself as a woman to avoid his impending military enlistment, giving the gender-bending yet another comedic layer. We watch a woman playing the role of a man get dressed up as a woman, and it is only when the character once again “becomes a woman” that he can avoid society’s dictates. The complicated sexual web in which he exists starts to become more problematic. While calling Cherubino, or any trouser role, a lesbian character would be entirely inaccurate, there is an undeniable homoerotic undercurrent between him and the female characters. The intense erotic energy centers around Cherubino’s similarity to the women. After all, one can’t forget that he is actually a woman in tights. This allows the audience to look “through” the gaze of the lovesick boy, and to look “at” the woman who impersonates him.

Maggie Teyte as Cherubino in 1910

What is it about Cherubino’s awkward charm that endears women to him, yet makes men despise him? While Cherubino repeatedly ignores orders from ruling men such as the Count, he confides in and listens to his trusted female friends and quasi-lovers. The women alone can control the androgynous and anarchic boy. This is a clear indication that historical gender power dynamics were beginning to shift.

What significance do these centuries-old characters have in a modern society? The gender-bending pageboy gave Enlightenment-era operagoers a place to laugh at his wanton yearning, and perhaps to identify with memories of their own youthful lovesickness: ideas that are not foreign to today’s audiences. Cherubino is a character that touches the hearts of women, and reminds men of their own adolescence.

It is doubtful that Mozart wrote his opera Le Nozze di Figaro with the intention of challenging binary gender roles. In a more subtle manner, however, the opera presents Cherubino’s gender-bending as a non-issue, and a rich and often highly comedic central focus of the story. It is characters as dynamic and vivid as Cherubino that assert that the stage is a place for stories that challenge our ideas of gender and sexuality.


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