Interview, Anna Bonitatibus on 'En Travesti'
Like the majority of lyric and coloratura mezzos, Anna Bonitatibus spends much of her time on stage wearing the trousers, either in roles originally written for castrati or as male characters which were specifically intended to be portrayed by female singers; her latest album (released tomorrow on BR Klassik) charts the history of the operatic trouser-role over three centuries, from Vivaldi to Victor/Victoria. Mozart’s Cherubino, Rossini’s Tancredi, Bellini’s Romeo and Gluck’s Orphée all make an appearance, but one of the aspects of the recital which particularly intrigued me was the fact that she explores beyond the baroque, Classical and bel canto traditions to take in travesti roles by Puccini, Mascagni, Massenet and Ravel. I had a lovely chat with her in the run-up to the release of En travesti, covering the evolution of gender-politics on the operatic stage and the professional freedom which early trouser-roles brought to the women who took them on.
Your career to date seems to have involved splitting your time more or less equally between male and female roles…
Yes, that’s pretty much the picture! But after such a long journey it’s become natural: I no longer find myself thinking about the technical details, like how to walk, how to use my arms, hips, shoulders. And in terms of the psychology of these roles, there is the fun side: men don’t hold any secrets for me anymore, because I pretty much know how they are thinking! And 90% of my trouser-roles are in my own language, which helps.
As a mezzo, a lot of the female roles I sing also have ‘male' qualities to some extent. I’ve sung Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia many times, and even though she’s a young girl there’s nothing sweet or easy about her: she arrives on stage and says ‘This is what I’m capable of, and from now on you will deal with me!’. It’s much more interesting to see Rosina as a smart woman – like Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri, or Agrippina, or Semiramide, or Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea. All of these women have a ‘masculine’ side.
What inspired you to focus exclusively on trouser-roles for this album?
The idea came from a certain frustration with this sordid curiosity about the castratos’ intimate lives: even today, the music written for them is still seen as less important than their sexual and personal lives, and so I thought ‘Let’s avoid castratos here - let’s talk about music!’. I rediscovered how long this tradition of women playing men in opera (and in music and drama in general) has been established: in a Cavalli or Monteverdi opera, for instance, you already had women playing male roles. When I started looking a little deeper I discovered that the very act of performing on stage was an act of independence for women, despite all of the prejudices about them being prostitutes just because they showed themselves in public. There’s still very little written about all of this, and we badly need to rethink things from this angle.
Opera has played a direct role in the female struggle for independence and autonomy, and one of the things I’ve tried to demonstrate through this CD is just how long all of this been going on, even if the term ‘en travesti’ has slightly shifted in meaning. Before the advent of the heroic tenor, the dominant masculine sexuality on stage was the contralto voice, representing noblemen, warriors, princes, even fathers (that’s why I included ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ from Vivaldi’s Farnace). Then in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the aesthetic shifted: we still have travesti parts, but the focus is on ambiguity of age rather than just ambiguity of sex. The trouser-role is no longer a man or the hero, but a friend, a teenager, or even a child: in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges from 1925 (which I also included here), the main role is taken by an adult woman playing a child, and even Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier is an elaboration of Cherubino, who’s just a young boy. Just from looking at the track-listing you can see how dramatically everything changes, and that’s why I included the song from the 1982 film Victor/Victoria as the final track. The song itself and the plot of the movie is in a way just a sequel to the history of trouser-roles: thanks to her friendship with a gay man, a soprano who cannot find any work decides to wear men’s clothes in order to get a job. It’s amazing!
So for you the trouser-role has always had subversive connotations, both aesthetically and politically?
For me, it’s a question of civil rights emerging through art. Women in the eighteenth century were supposed to have men signing contracts in their place, and if you didn’t you were labelled as a prostitute - so trying to find a contract signed by the hand of a woman was a huge conquest! Against that background, it seems incredible to imagine women wearing trousers on stage (and risking the audience fantasising about their shape), but in the musical world it was not such a scandal – we have Tancredi, and Romeo in I Capuleti and all of these other fantastic roles written for women, because music is above all of that. And that’s why this is something that must be studied deeper, especially in an age where we are still dealing with civil rights around gender and sexuality – music has been ahead of the curve on this for three centuries!
You mentioned Octavian earlier: is that a role you think you'll ever do on stage?
Well, my being Italian is a wonderful trump-card for some things, but there’s also prejudice: nobody will give Octavian to an Italian singer. Why can an English or American singer sing Octavian but an Italian cannot? I don’t get this! Especially Octavian, who is really a development of Cherubino… I think I could give some very personal colour to the role, but it's one of the frustrating prejudices about opera-singers: for Russian repertoire, there’s an assumption that it’s best to have a Russian singer, and the same for French, English, German…For Italian repertoire? Everybody! But it's a controversial topic...
To continue in a slightly controversial vein…Over the past few years we've seen the emergence of high countertenors who are capable of taking on roles traditionally assigned to mezzos, including those which were originally written for female singers - do you feel that's affected opportunities for mezzos?
It’s a strange matter, and in a sense it's almost as if history is repeating itself. My own teacher was one of the first countertenors, and that earlier generation of singers sounded radically different from female mezzos, but today we have these countertenors like Franco [Fagioli] with such round, vibrant voices…If you close your eyes you don’t find much difference! Countertenors are certainly becoming more and more popular, partly because of choices made by stage-directors who prefer to have a soldier with big shoulders or hair on their chest! And they’re increasingly cast in the lower roles, because contraltos are not so thick on the ground today. But a lot does depend on the repertoire involved: I know there was a director who experimented with casting a male singer as Cherubino, and that didn’t work at all: Beaumarchais, who wrote the play on which Mozart’s opera is based, specified that ‘this role can only be played by a young and very pretty woman’, which I quote in the booklet-notes for this CD. As we see from the selection of arias on the album, there are many different roles which need to be performed en travesti and many different ways to be en travesti.