Juvenile verve and intellectual abdication

Breeches roles in opera down the years

When princes and pages are sung by women

Woe is him. Prince Orlofsky has hardly achieved his majority and already the young aristocrat seems to have exhausted all the options in recreation and amusement that his inherited fortune has given him. “Everything bores me. I’ve even stopped laughing,” says the host of legendary parties for Vienna’s high society in Act 2 of Johann Strauss’s “The Bat” [Die Fledermaus] – and it’s a fair assumption that in the remainder of Orlofsky’s life, too, nothing much is likely to change in this state of intellectual early retirement.

But there’s another reason why people seeing this operetta for the first time are likely to be taken aback by this juvenile playboy: Johann Strauss wrote the part of Prince Orlofsky for a woman’s voice, placing it firmly in the ‘breeches role’ tradition, an operatic convention that features in countless works ranging from Mozart to Meyerbeer. When a woman wore male clothing onstage it usually meant the character being embodied was a teenager, or at any rate a young man whose voice had not yet broken and who was doubtless about to receive his first taste of sex. The implied connection between vocal and sexual maturation might also be attributed to the fact that right up to the early 20th century boys’ voices tended to break two years later than they do today, presumably because of differences in diet.

Most exponents of this sub-genre trod the boards as pages, young aristocrats who were deemed unthreatening and thus were permitted exclusive access to the mistress of the house. The Cherubino character in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is the best-known example of the species, and shortly before the 1874 world premiere of “The Bat” Giuseppe Verdi created two other operatic foot boys in the form of Oscar in “A Masked Ball” and Tebaldo in “Don Carlo”.

And just as the doyen of French operettas, Jacques Offenbach, took pleasure in poking fun at grand opéra and with it the showiness of the French Empire, so, too, is Strauss’s Prince Orlofsky not only an opportunity for the composer to toy with the opera tradition but also an outlet for his satirical instincts. But as much as we can classify the young, high-pitched nobleman as a page in the tradition of Cherubino, whereas Mozart’s page boy fizzes with energy and adolescent élan, his counterpart almost a century later displays the lethargy and moodiness of a spoilt child who shrugs off everything with an “It’s how we do things at my place.”

Not even the wildest of orgies can raise more than a yawn anymore from this particular teenager – and yet somehow he gets to be emblematic of an enduring theatrical tradition.

Actually, this should have dealt the final blow to the breeches role, just as Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opéras were dismissed as an outdated art form after their sending-up by Offenbach. Instead, breeches enjoyed an unexpected come-back a quarter of a century after the premiere of “The Bat”. So much water had passed under the bridge in the meantime that the breeches role had become a trope to be deployed where needed. Composers such as Jules Massenet and Richard Strauss did more than simply put pages back on the opera stage; the breeches role came to epitomise a retro interest in rococo. On top of this, women dressed in men’s clothes, or more likely boys’ clothes, now became leading characters in the fairy-tale operas that took the stages of late-19th-century opera by storm. And it is in Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”, arguably the most famous fairy-tale opera of them all, that we meet the prototype of this new type of protagonist, one carefully shriven of any sexual ambiguity. Humperdinck’s Hansel is not a teenager but a child who uses authentic children’s nursery rhymes to introduce himself to us and has the hots not for the female sex but for gingerbread.

The only suspicious character here is the witch – who is actually played by a man in many productions. But that’s another story.


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