In early Italian Opera, from the 1600’s until about 1800, many operatic roles were written for castrati. Recently more men have been trained as countertenors to sing these roles, however it is often women who take on these ‘breeches roles’ in the place of castrati.
From the end of the eighteenth century, when composition for castrati had declined, male operatic roles continued to be written for high voices. Thus, it was intended that a woman should dress up as a man to play these characters. It is important to note, that the quality of the voices and music has always come before realism in opera.
Travesti in Italian means disguised and Travesty applies to roles sung by the opposite sex. This term can therefore also apply to ‘skirt roles’, whereby a man sings a female role.
A long list of lead figures in operas are known as ‘breeches roles’ (‘travesti’ or ‘hosenrolle’) .
Here are some of the most well known Travesty roles in opera.
Octavian Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss
Octavian, young lover of the Feldmarschallin Marie Thérèse, is written as a soprano/mezzo-soprano breeches part. Typical of a breeches role, Octavian must disguise as a woman to hide his identity and involvement with Marie Thérèse.
Romeo I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Donizetti
When assessing the singers for I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini wasn’t particularly impressed with the tenor. However he admired the talents of mezzo-soprano Giuditta Grisi, so he decided to cast Grisi as Romeo in a breeches role.
Cherubino, Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart
Cherubino is an adolescent boy and the counts page. As many breeches roles, Cherubino is played by a mezzo-soprano. Similarly to Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, Cherubino must disguise himself as a girl. He is a womaniser and woos both Susanna (engaged to Figaro) and Countess Almaviva (married to Count Almaviva).
Other breeches roles in Mozart’s operas, include Sesto and Annino in La clemenza di Tito, Idamante in Idomeneo and Amintas in Il re pastore.
Composers chose for male characters to be played by women, due to the sound characteristics of their voices and their physique. Female figures are particularly suited to being cast as young boys, as these roles require narrow physiques and light, clear voices. Although today, it is of course perfectly acceptable for women to perform on stage, in the nineteenth century, woman who went on stage were dishonored and had a lower status. Thus, there were cases of women dressing up, pretending to be a castrati men in order to avoid this. Today’s interest and media focus on gender fluidity suggests that there is great scope for opera to flourish, as modern audiences continue to be fascinated by gender roles.