avatar for John Rockwell

John Rockwell

John Rockwell was raised in San Francisco and earned a Ph.D. in cultural history from the University of California at Berkeley. Moving to New York in 1972, he served at the New York Times as a classical music critic, reporter and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has written books on American contemporary composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra, and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his journalism and a Times coffee-table book on the 1960’s. He currently contributes regularly to Opera magazine, the Financial Times and Musical America, and has spoken several times at MoPop conferences.

"Cross-Dressing in Opera: Trouser Roles"
Trouser roles is a term used to describe the long-standing practice of women performing as young men, dressed as men but singing in their own female range, mostly mezzo-soprano. The best known such roles are Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavlier. But there are endless examples over the centuries, from lesser composers up to Berlioz, Donizetti, Handel, Humperdinck (the real one), Massenet, more Mozart, Offenbach, Rossini, more Strauss, even Wagner. The practice continues to this day, in operas by Mark Adamo, Thomas Ades and the young David Hertzberg, whose The Wake World, with an erotic-lesbian-mystical text based on Aleister Crowley, is the best new opera I've heard this year.

Cross-cross-dressing is often involved. The Countess and Susanna dress the priapic Cherubino as a girl, in a barely disguised threesome. Octavian disguises himself as a woman in the third act of Der Rosenkavalier. Zdenka, Arabella's younger sister in Strauss's opera Arabella, is a woman raised as a man who reverts to female attire. In some modern productions the young Composer in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos is staged as a woman. There are also "skirt roles," with men dressed as women, common when portraying comic crones and ugly stepsisters.
Altogether, there is a rich history of such practices, reflecting musical concerns (mature women singing better than adolescent men) but also shifting prejudices against actors as gay or actresses as prostitutes. The very fluidity of cross-dressing singers has evoked complicated social and psychological reactions, with an obvious erotic frisson. And of course cross-dressing has continued into the pop era, with singers of every known gender.

Illustrated with photos and recordings.