Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, the beautiful and talented Grammy Award nominee will be performing a cross-gender pants role on Sunday, November 22, 2015, with the Washington Concert Opera. Genaux, who is a leading exponent of the bel canto Baroque repertoire and has a celebrated recording career, will be playing the role of Arsace, in Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide. We had a chance to sit down with Ms. Genaux for an exclusive interview.
Tagg: You grew up in the U.S., currently live in Italy, and have traveled and performed internationally. Do audiences around the world respond differently to a woman playing a “man’s” part?
Genaux: Sexual ambiguity was rampant in opera for its first two hundred years. In the 17th century, female and male characters were often played by castrati (teenage boys who were surgically castrated in order to preserve their higher vocal ranges). The voice of the castrato was considered to be the most beautiful, so the important roles were generally written for that voice type. This practice was banned in the 18th century. Women have since taken on these “trouser roles”, making it an operatic tradition.
When I was singing Handel’s Ariodante in San Diego years ago, the stage director came to me backstage at the interval and told me this story: He had been sitting in the audience next to a couple who were reading the program notes. At some point, the husband huffed in exasperation and said to his wife, “I just don’t understand why they have women singing these roles that were written for men.” The stage director was a very well-known and loquacious type, and couldn’t help but interject, “Well, you know, they were castrati.” The man huffed again and said “What’s that?” To which the stage director happily responded, “Why, it’s when they cut off the….” The man looked horrified and said, “Good grief! I hope they didn’t do that to her!”
I could barely sing the second act, I’d laughed so hard.
Tagg: How many trouser roles vs. non-trouser roles have you played?
Genaux: I believe I have about 60 roles in my repertoire now, 39 of which are trouser roles.
Tagg: How do you prepare mentally for a masculine role?
Genaux: I used to be very concerned about being “masculine” when singing the trouser roles; for my first roles I studied body-language differences between men and women (my first trouser role in a fully-staged production was in Seville, Spain where men and women still have very distinct physical traits and modes of expression); I wore masculine-style shoes for six weeks. I had only just learned how to walk easily in heels for roles like Rosina, but as I became more comfortable I began focusing more on the humanity of the character rather than the gender.
Tagg: Does playing a trouser role onstage affect how you are offstage?
Genaux: Any role that I play affects how I am offstage to a certain extent. I don’t stay in character by any means, but I have more options in my regular day-to-day life, which has been both interesting and beneficial. I was always a very timid girl and having these male characters in my psyche now has taught me how to be more assertive and self-affirming.
Tagg: Do you ever adapt the way you perform a role for different audiences?
Genaux: I don’t adapt my performance to any given audience because I’m really not terribly aware of the audience itself when I perform. I like going into my own bubble of reality, and there I am free to be the character.
Tagg: Can you tell us a little about Arsace’s character?
Genaux: Arsace is pretty much the archetypal trouser role – a young man of noble birth (unbeknownst to him) returning to his homeland after political turmoil forced his family into exile. Throughout the course of the opera we see him grow into an adult, realizing and accepting his role in society. As in most operas there’s a love triangle, lots of evil plotting against him, and a great plot twist in the end.
Tagg: What do you love about playing this role, and what are some challenges?
Genaux: I love Rossini’s music for Arsace, [there is] amazing duets and ensembles as well as two magnificent arias. The role encompasses just about every emotion possible, as well as two and a half octaves in the vocal range. Lots of fun!
Tagg: What will you be wearing? How does the costume affect your ability to get into character?
Genaux: For concert performances I generally wear pants and a tunic or blouse. I know I’m not fooling anyone, I look like a girl, but pants do affect ones stance and movement.
Tagg: Do you prefer male or female roles?
Genaux: I am more concerned with the humanity of the character rather than the gender, the roles I prefer are individuals with freedom of choice who accept the responsibility for the outcome of their decisions. Thank goodness the breadth of the repertoire available outside of the “Top 10” operas is primarily inhabited by these more assertive characters, both male and female.
To purchase tickets and more information about the performance of Semiramide on Sunday, November 22, please visit: www.concertopera.org.