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A breeches role (also pants role or trouser role) is a role in which an actress appears in male clothes (breeches being tight-fitting knee-length pants, the standard male garment at the time breeches roles were introduced). It can also refer, in opera, to any male part sung and acted by a female singer — in the case of a woman playing the role of a young man, the part is often filled by a mezzo soprano.
The operatic concept of the breeches role assumes that the character is male, and the audience accepts him as such, even knowing that the actor is not. By contrast, a female opera character who dresses in male clothing to deceive other characters – that is, who plays a woman pretending to be a man – is not considered a breeches role.
Because non-musical stage plays generally have no requirements for vocal range, they do not usually contain breeches roles in the same sense as opera. Some plays do have male roles that were written for adult female actors, and (for other practical reasons) are usually played by women (e.g. Peter Pan); these could be considered modern-era breeches roles. However, in most cases, the choice of a female actor to play a male character is made at the production level; Hamlet is not a breeches role, but Sarah Bernhardt once played Hamlet as a breeches role. When a play is spoken of as "containing" a breeches role, this does mean a role where a female character pretends to be a man and uses male clothing as a disguise, the reverse of its usage in opera.
When the London theatres re-opened in 1660, the first professional actresses appeared on the public stage, replacing the Shakespeare era's boys in dresses. To see real women speak the risqué dialogue of Restoration comedy and show off their bodies on stage was a great novelty, and soon the even greater sensation was introduced of women wearing male clothes on stage. Out of some 375 plays produced on the London stage between 1660 and 1700, it has been calculated that 89, nearly a quarter, contained one or more roles for actresses in male clothes. Practically every Restoration actress appeared in trousers at some time, and breeches roles would even be inserted gratuitously in revivals of older plays.
Some critics, for example Jacqueline Pearson, have argued that these cross-dressing roles subvert conventional gender roles by allowing women to imitate the roistering and sexually aggressive behavior of male Restoration rakes, but Elizabeth Howe has objected in a detailed study that the male disguise was "little more than yet another means of displaying the actress as a sexual object". The discovery of the character's real gender on stage often involved a discovery of her breasts, and there are many references in prologues and diaries of the period to the fascination of seeing the actress' buttocks, hips, and legs, normally hidden by a skirt, outlined by the male outfit. The epilogue to Thomas Southerne's Sir Anthony Love (1690) suggests that it doesn't much matter if the play is dull, as long as it offers a view of the famous breeches actress Susanna Mountfort's (aka Susanna Verbruggen) legs:
- You'l hear with Patience a dull Scene, to see,
- In a contented lazy waggery,
- The Female Mountford bare above the knee.
Breeches roles remained an attraction on the British stage for centuries, but their fascination gradually declined as the difference in real-life male and female clothing became less extreme. They played a part in burlesque, and are traditional for the principal boy in pantomime.
Operas with breeches roles include:
- Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini has the pants role "Ascanio"
- Donizetti's Alahor in Granata : the role of Hassem
- Donizetti's Anna Bolena: the role of Smeton is sung by a mezzo-soprano
- Dvorak's Rusalka: the role of the Kitchen Boy
- Gounod's Faust: Siebel is sung by a mezzo-soprano
- Gounod's Romeo and Juliet: Stefano is sung by a mezzo-soprano
- Handel's Xerxes: the title role Xerxes is played by a mezzo-soprano
- Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel: Hansel is sung by a mezzo-soprano
- Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro: Cherubino is played by a mezzo-soprano
- Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann: Nicklausse is sung by a mezzo-soprano
- Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier: Oktavian is sung by a mezzo-soprano
- Verdi's A Masked Ball: Oscar, Gustavus III's page, is sung by a soprano
- Howe, Elizabeth (1992). The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Pearson, Jacqueline (1988). The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642—1737. New York: St. Martin's Press.
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