It was spring 1974, and I thought I had seen divas. Growing up in New York City in a theater-going family, I'd enjoyed Broadway stars like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Since being dragged to the old Met by a high school chum and suffering instant addiction, I had seen countless prime donne, and had just revisited my favorite, Maria Callas, who was then making her sad farewell recital tour. But until a friend took me to see a certain Charles Ludlam, with his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, in his own brilliant adaptation of Dumas' Camille, I had perhaps never seen the ultimate diva.
Yes, Ludlam played the title role. And as a man in a dress, a world of layers (and not only those of the tulle he wore so gracefully) opened to him, and therefore to us, his audience. As an opera nut, I had witnessed my share of travestie, or women playing men‹known in Met broadcast patter as "trouser roles." But the man-in-a-dress art form I had seen rarely, and mostly in the context of broad (pun intended) Milton Berle- or Benny Hill-like slapstick. And drag shows per se held no fascination for me.
Enter Mr. Ludlam. What he brought to Camille was a characterization of such variety and depth, such wit, passion, and humanity that one didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so one did both. A superb clown, he did not stint on the physical comedy at which he was a genius, nor did he deprive one of vocal thrills emanating from a speaking voice of infinite colors. One moment he was Bankhead, another Garbo, another simply Charles vocally commenting on what he'd just intoned in the manner of one of them. Each line was treated to the voice it required for its ultimate effect, whether that effect was intended to elicit screams of laughter, or hushed, surprised tears, as in the death scene. It was in seeing Ludlam (many, many times in many roles, until his death of AIDS in 1987) that perhaps I found the courage to invite my own "inner diva" out of the closet. Some seven years later I invented my own travestie company, La Gran Scena Opera, in which I ultimately donned the necessary frock and sang many soprano roles over the ensuing two decades. For my first scena in public, it seemed fitting to essay Act III of Traviata, the death scene. After all, Violetta was the operatic Camille. And, truth be told, when Ludlam came to see a Gran Scena performance that included that scene, I was more nervous than I have been when visited by Sutherland, Price, Scotto, Sills, or any of the other divas I've worshipped.
With New York City Opera reviving Mark Morris' acclaimed production of Rameau's Platée, in which the title role of a homely swamp nymph was written for a tenor en travestie, it seems a good time to examine what makes male-to-female operatic travestie perhaps riskier than the reverse, and‹dare I say it?‹richer in possibilities. This may seem an odd statement, when "drag" roles often seem designed simply to deliver laughs, whereas operatic trouser roles most often evoke a heroic young warrior or an ardent youth.
It is perhaps the automatic humor of male-to-female travestie that fills it with the possibility of surprise. For instance, a character like Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier is, at first glance, not funny. Women as men are not funny. They are earnest, like Handel or Rossini warriors, or Richard Strauss' self-important Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. Yet once we accept the conceit that the mezzo Octavian is male, when this same Octavian dresses up as a female to flirt with Baron Ochs, he is suddenly funny. So, even a woman playing a man playing a woman is funny!
But to see only the comic possibilities in drag slights the art form, which, as demonstrated by Ludlam, can, both through the inherent humor and beyond it, have an infinite expressive vocabulary. If used wisely, travestie can exploit features of both genders separately and simultaneously, transcending what can be accomplished only by one.
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, City Opera's Platée, points out, "All those travesties are written to be funny, but in the case of Platée, the drollness disappears behind the pathetic nature of the situation, because she is a human frog. After a while, you become ashamed of having laughed at her. I think it is very important for the audience to forget about the travestie after the first five minutes."
I experienced something like this many times with Gran Scena. Our most celebrated scene was the second act of Puccini's Tosca, in which I sang the title role. In the context of our spoof/tribute, I worked with director Peter Schlosser to devise ways to honor the tradition of the great Toscas who had come before my invented Gran Scena diva, Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh. There was a lot of Callas, as well as some Zinka Milanov and Magda Olivero, in Vera's Tosca. But though the aim was mainly comic, when it came time for Tosca's famous aria, "Vissi d'arte," I needed to deliver it with as much poignancy‹and legato‹as I could muster. There was a sudden turn in the atmosphere, and the public was silent, exploding all the more at the aria's conclusion because of the surprise they felt at being moved. I always insert one "straight" bit of singing in my shows, and it's invariably the part most commented upon. The drama becomes all the more potent because it is in surprising relief to the comedy one expects.
Another of the small handful of intentional man-in-a-frock opera roles, Arnalta, Poppea's worldly-wise nurse in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, can offer similar surprise. Written for an haute contre, a rare, very high tenor, it has also been played by tenors transposing it down, female altos, and countertenors. Tenor Barry Banks, remembered for his sensational Oreste in last season's Ermione, insisted, "Arnalta has to be totally heartfelt and beautifully sung. The first-act lullaby she sings is such a beautifully haunting piece of music, it deserves to be treated with total respect." Still, Banks didn't stint on Arnalta's comedic aspects: "I do admit to being a trifle outrageous," he said. "What was the best part of doing Arnalta? Wearing DKNY tights! I think there is a little drag in every straight guy. That, and having a real 'Shirley Bassey Entrance' for my last scene, when I am finally the queen's handmaiden and elevated to glam status."
Another sometime travestie role is the Witch in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, which countertenor Ralph Daniel Rawe has sung in several productions. He feels "there is a great temptation to cast a man without looking further than the comic aspect. The comedy should be explored fully, but I always simply played the character; the fact that I'm a man adds layers. I have never played her with a wink to the audience."
Sometimes a man is cast in a role meant for a female singer, like the Witch, in order to "heighten" the effect. Countertenor David Walker, veteran of many NYCO Handel productions, once performed Madame de la Haltière, the wicked stepmother in Massenet's Cendrillon. "Instead of playing a nasty, manipulative woman," he said, "I just played a nasty manipulative character. The idea was completed visually by my female body suit, costume, makeup, and wig. Once I put all these elements together, my body naturally started to move the way she might."
Simply playing the character was something I always stressed with the male "divas" of La Gran Scena. Any mincing about or resorting to caricatured "female behavior" was immediately edited out. I wanted the guys to sing beautifully, and to accent the strength beneath the dress, something that "anatomically correct" divas often have in abundance. When I played L'Opinion Publique, a "diva ex machina" character usually sung by a mezzo, in Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers with L'Opéra Français de New York, it was the first time my alter ego Madame Vera appeared in a conventional opera performance. Without the protective context of a performance played to an audience who had come to see a spoof en travestie, I found myself moderately terrified.
And my character had to begin the show! Before singing, L'Opinion gives an opening speech, and I never altered my voice by speaking in falsetto, but rather used the normal "chest voice" any middle-aged woman would to deliver her lines in a big theater. A surprising number of audience members not acquainted with me from La Gran Scena told me later that they sensed something heightened in the character's presence, without suspecting that somewhere beneath that body padding there was a man lurking. I also found it amusing, as well as reassuring, that Yves Abel, who conducted the performance, was very accommodating to me as Madame Vera, making small adjustments in the score to suit Madame's unique vocal gifts. We actually had to raise entire passages an octave; Madame Vera is, after all, a soprano, and the Offenbach mezzo role lay a bit low. This accommodation to a "fictitious real person" is an interesting aspect of the male-to-female travestie character. For some reason, people of all sorts believe in and are comfortable with it. Think of all the conservative men (Charlton Heston, Mel Gibson) seen on television cavorting, or even sharing a peck on the cheek, with Dame Edna without blinking an eye.
When I founded La Gran Scena, an opera career was virtually impossible for a countertenor, particularly one with a full tone and vibrato; the Handel revival was a thing of the future. Therefore, I was able to employ some remarkable vocalists who have gone on to countertenor careers. One of them, Johnny Maldonado, was recently asked to take a break from his Baroque opera duties to sing Marcellina in an otherwise conventional Le nozze di Figaro in Hanover. Often having to trim down his abundant vocal gifts to suit Baroque style, here Johnny could cut loose. "Vocally, it was a dream for me," he said. "I was able to sing in the bel canto style, with a nice healthy tone, and vibrato! I approached the character as any mezzo would, being true to Marcellina's feelings and intentions, letting the laughter come from the absurdity of the truth. There was a lot of shuffling of programs, because the audience was not quite convinced they were indeed seeing a countertenor do the role!"
Should female mezzos and sopranos fear for their jobs? Probably not. Men have made inroads in the trouser role repertory, appropriating Prince Orlofsky in Fledermaus and even Baba the Turk, the bearded lady, in The Rake's Progress. Yet opera companies are still resisting the male Cherubino, Tancredi, and Octavian hopefuls now turning up at auditions. Perhaps this resistance goes beyond simply clinging to tradition. The "gender correctness" of a man singing a role intended for a trouser-clad woman may not always be an improvement; indeed, it may sometimes negate the composer's point in writing a male role for a female singer.
Yet it's no mystery why composers like Monteverdi, Donizetti (with the fearsome baritonal stage mother in his little-known Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali), and Rameau created honest-to-goodness male travestie roles. As illustrated so vividly by the nymph Platée, the art form's singular blend of comedy and pathos can surprise and delight us in entirely unique ways.
Ira Siff is a New York-based voice and interpretation coach, opera director, and journalist, and, as Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh, traumatic soprano.