The curtain was about to go up. But unlike the other female players in Opera McGill’s production of Die Fledermaus, Simone McIntosh’s costume was not a glitzy gown or old-fashioned dress. It did, however, include a mustache.
McIntosh played Prince Orlofsky in the university opera production, one of the many instances of the “pants roles”—i.e., when a female opera performer plays a male role—that she has taken on in her young career. Because of the mezzo soprano range of her voice, which registers lower than a typical soprano, and her young appearance, McIntosh is able to play both female characters and “pants roles,” such as Prince Orlofsky or other young men. In fact, her first role in an opera was as a 10-year-old boy. She was 18 at the time.
Pants roles mean more opportunities for female performers
“I made the distinct decision to be a mezzo because, first of all, I like the characters much more, and I like the music much more. I also think that because I’m a petite person, it’s easy to market myself as a 14-year-old boy,” says McIntosh, who was named one of CBC’s “30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30” this year. And according to Claudio Vellutini, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of British Columbia, that’s a smart move career move. He highlights famed famed Italian opera singer Daniela Barcellona, who has played more than a few pants roles in her lengthy career, not only because she’s a mezzo-soprano, but also because she’s quite tall (around 5’10”).
“For young singers, the more diverse their portfolio is, the better it is of course,” says Vellutini, adding that not only does it show that McIntosh can sing both male and female parts, but also take on radically different acting roles.
Pants roles, also known as trouser roles, have been commonly seen in operas for centuries. In the past, these roles once fell to castrated male opera singers, known as castrati, because they require a higher vocal range. Around the time when Napoleon made it illegal to castrate men for musical reasons, women began donning pants and taking on these roles, explains Vellutini. Depending on the production, Vellutini says creating roles that can be played by men or women can add dimension to a performance.
“Different opera subjects are expressed by different means, and therefore this type of fluidity offers a wider palette of expressive means and expressive truths,” he says.
Stepping into a dude’s shoes
McIntosh says that in all the productions she’s been part of—through McGill, the University of British Columbia and now with the Canadian Opera Company—about half of her roles have been female and the other half have been male. Playing both genders has allowed McIntosh to get unique insight into how male and female gender roles were crafted and presented to audiences in these classic works.
“To be fair, we’re dealing with material that is hundreds of years old, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t extend into today,” she says. For instance, she says often times the male roles will be “chivalrous” while the women are more dainty. (She notes that she personally doesn’t believe chivalry should be tied to gender, but rather that people should just be kind to one another.)
For McIntosh, the preparation and audience reception is often the same whether she’s playing a female or male character. The biggest change is how she holds her body. As a man, she explains, her body is more relaxed and she stands with her pelvis out, legs and arms held wide and has occasionally uses a chest binder. As a self-described tomboy, McIntosh says that she actually relates more to her male characters. “With the really girly characters, I have to find a part of me that likes pink,” she says.
But despite the difference in costumes and occasional use of faux facial hair, McIntosh says that there are actually more similarities than differences.
“When I’m working on a character, I want to find the parts of me that are similar to that character so I can play off of that part within myself in order to convey it well,” she says.
Attracting new opera audiences
With changing times, and audience interest, opera has had to evolve as well. Vellutini says that in North America in particular, he has seen many contemporary operas start tackling timely issues like gender identity and sexual orientation. As opera seeks to find its footing with younger audiences, modernizing storylines in this way could help. For instance, McIntosh believes that further exploring—and dismantling—gender roles, and making them feel less rigid and traditional, could help opera become more attractive to young audiences.
“I think there are companies that are on the forefront of that where they’re changing the gender roles of characters and that’s a really good way of edging into this new territory where there are fewer and fewer boundaries,” she says.