Boys will be boys (and girls will too)

This is going to be a long one, so get ready.

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a post about something that some people might call a “specialization” of mine; playing dudes. I would say that the bulk of my repertoire involves me singing trouser roles – certainly over half the roles I sing have me in pants. And this summer not only am I singing the self-involved and probably slightly homosexual character Licida in Pergolesi’s L’Olimpiade here in Innsbruck, I’m also revisiting everyone’s favorite crazy guy Nerone (in Agrippina) next week, when I go to Berlin to record that role for Harmonia Mundi. (Sony will also record the performances of L’Olimpiade – details forthcoming)

I try to not be a braggart, but one thing that I’m pretty sure I’m good at is physicalizing a teenage boy. People ask me a lot why I’m good at looking clumsy and gangly and having quick, impetuous energy, and the easy answer is because that’s actually how I am in real life. When I play graceful women on stage, I actually have to work at it, whereas, when I play googly-eyed boys, I can almost just be myself. I don’t know why, because I don’t have brothers and I wasn’t exactly a tomboy (I was more into tap dancing than soccer practice as a kid), but there’s something about my personal energy that lends itself really well to playing an uncomfortable, impulsive teenaged boy. Plus I’m 5’9” tall in bare feet (176 cm, thank you), my arms and torso are just a little too long, and I have big eyes and a relatively square jaw. Add some darkened eyebrows and a short wig, and gay men everywhere start wanting to spend extra time chatting me up.

There’s also a vocal quality that I think lends itself to masculine roles. I think of people who have a more “silvery” sound as being able to sound more masculine while people with a more “gold” sound tend to sound more feminine. Mezzos who sing Carmen a lot tend to have that more gold sound, whereas my voice has more silver in it. It’s maybe a narrower, slimmer sound, but still with darkness, which is what makes me a mezzo. Does that make sense? It probably sounds like gibberish, it’s just what I’ve assessed from listening to a lot of singers and deciding for myself which ones sound exactly right for which roles.

That was a lot of intro to begin talking about what happens in my brain and my body when I’m playing a guy. There are different types of male roles – there are the more heroic, or regal roles, the more stoic ones, and then the younger more gangly ones. Sesto in Clemenza did Tito or either of the trouser roles that can be sung by mezzos in Giulio Cesare are good examples of more regal, serious, upright pants roles, while Cherubino, Stephano, and even Nero, and this character that I’m singing now, Licida, are younger and more impetuous. Therefore, they have a different energy, and a faster speed of motion. I let my gangly arms do what they want to do when I’m not trying to control them, and I take large, quick steps, as if I’m not sure what direction I might need to move next. I lead with my pelvis (obviously – what are teenage boys thinking about ALL THE TIME?) and I spend a lot of time getting down on the ground and splaying all my limbs akimbo. Inside my head I keep a crackling energy – like the popping of popcorn, and the feeling of utter impulsiveness – the kind that keeps your thoughts swirling in a million directions at once. I’m quick to pout and slouch, but also need to keep a sexual energy alive in my being at all times. When I want to get somewhere I often run or even dive if the desired thing is on the floor. I think the main thing is that I am VERY physical and constantly in motion, if not with my body, then with my mind.

The character I’m playing now, Licida, is really interesting. He’s completely self involved. Here’s a 10 second plot summary of the Metastasio libretto which was set to music by many composers; Licida is in love with Aristea, so he gets his best friend Megacle (who owes him, since Licida saved his life before) to compete in the Olympic games under his name (apparently Licida is not so good with the sports) so that Licida himself can claim the prize – the king’s daughter Aristea. Well, Megacle and Aristea are secretly in love, but Megacle, out of duty, does the deed anyway and sacrifices his own love for Licida’s desires. Meanwhile, Licida’s old girlfriend, Argene, comes looking for him, and when she discovers that he has moved on, threatens to expose this switcheroo plot to the King. Stuff happens, Licida thinks Megacle kills himself and is devastated (which is a typical operatic misunderstanding), the King finds out about Licida’s deception and exiles him, Licida freaks out and tries to kill the King, so then Licida is condemned to death. But in the end we discover that Licida is actually the King’s son, switched at birth, and the woman he was supposedly in love with is his twin sister! The King begs the people to forgive Licida for his crimes so he won’t have to kill his son, they agree, and the two original couples reunite. Licida also has some homosexual undertones, and it seems that the person he is actually in love with is his best friend Megacle (3 out of 4 arias are either sung to him or about him). He’s so self centered that he doesn’t even pick up on the fact that he’s about to have his best friend help him steal his own girlfriend, and he’s a total jerk to his old girlfriend Argene when she re-appears (think Don Giovanni and Elvira). Yet he does at least have a character arch, and by the end of the Opera he has realized the errors of his selfish ways, and has become a better man as a result. Good thing he turns out to be the King’s son so he doesn’t have to meet his maker.

One thing that’s kind of challenging in this opera is wondering how exactly to play the gay thing – should it be obvious or just suggested? Also, the other trouser role is played by a woman – a soprano – so relating to another woman playing a man is different than relating to a woman being a woman. I thought about this last year, when I was singing Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia, and the production had me as the tenor’s homosexual lover (we had a bed scene and everything). The challenge in that was relating to the man as another man and not as a woman. Now I have to relate to another woman as a man, and keep my masculine energy. That’s a brain teaser for you!

One of the beautiful things about gender confusion in opera is that it provides a sexual ambiguity which creates an interesting element of playfulness and non-reality. But you also sort of suspend your disbelief and start to see that woman as a young man the more she’s on stage (and assuming she’s doing her job well). It’s a lovely element of theater that we really only see a lot in this art form, and I love that I get to play in this particular sandbox.

Now if I could just figure out how to bench press more than 8 pounds, I’d really have the market cornered.