Trouser role

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The dancer Céline Céleste in 1838 as an "Arab boy" in the Adelphi Theater (London)

As a trouser role is known in the theater language is a travesty - role or batch, the figure male is, however, a woman is shown. There are trouser roles in all branches of western theater. The name refers to the fact that the actress plays in pants. Because the audience expected to see the actress' legs, leotard pants were very often used, in the 19th century often in combination with short harem pants .

In opera and operetta , mezzo-sopranos often take on such roles due to the darker timbre of their voice . Trouser roles that were once performed by sopranos, such as Ganymede in Franz von Suppés The Beautiful Galathée, are now often performed by tenors who sing them an octave lower.

Temporary disguises of a woman in a man (for example, within film and theater roles) are also known as female cross-dressing .


Gender indifference until the 18th century

The trouser role in the theater of the 19th and 20th centuries goes back to the relative gender indifference in the theater of the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time it was not considered necessary that the gender of the performer should match the gender of his role. Until the 17th century, mostly only men were tolerated as actors. B. Shakespeare only used men or boys in women's clothes for women's roles. When female actors appeared for the first time after the London theaters reopened in 1660, they replaced the previous boys in women's clothes. The dialogue spoken by women and the display of their bodies on stage were a big innovation for the time. Soon women even appeared in men's clothes. This was a stage sensation, as it was almost impossible for women to show themselves publicly in pants until the end of the 19th century (see the history of women's pants ).

Of the 375 plays produced on the London stages between 1660 and 1700, an estimated 89, or almost a quarter, contained one or more roles for actresses in male clothing. Almost every actress at the time of the restoration comedy appeared in pants at least once. When the first actresses appeared on continental European stages at the end of the 17th century, they were also used for male roles, for example older women for the “youthful hero”.

The voice of the actors was also not related to a natural gender role . In the Baroque era , today's male tenor and bass voices were only used in supporting roles (and sometimes in female roles such as the wet nurse Arnalta in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea ). All the main roles, on the other hand, were sung by castrati (men castrated before puberty), later also by women, because these high voices were perceived by the audience as angelic and are better suited to more virtuoso ornamentation than the male voices. At that time it was not believed that the high-pitched voice could be unnatural for a decidedly male role like a general. The delicate came closer to the times than the powerful, which gained influence in the 19th century.

As the actresses became more important on stage, it could happen that the castrato sang the role of a woman and the prima donna the hero, because both were suitable for their roles. In the Berlin premiere of the opera Cleopatra e Cesare by Carl Heinrich Graun (1742), the castrato and the soprano, who played Caesar and Cleopatra, swapped roles in the last act in order to bring the opera to a musical end.

Remnants of tradition and piquancy in the 19th century

Towards the end of the 18th century, castrati disappeared from Europe's opera stages, and it became common in drama to put gender roles on stage and in life in parallel. Nevertheless, the tradition of the "woman in pants" was continued. On the one hand the ideal of the high voice played a role, on the other hand the piquancy that a woman appeared in trousers, showing her legs, which according to the fashion of the time were usually hidden by long skirts.

In the course of the 19th century, the roles of “young lovers” were often conceived as trouser roles before their voices broke. Mozart wrote the role of the page Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro (1786) for a singer. And Vincenzo Bellini's lovers Romeo and Juliet in his opera I Capuleti ei Montecchi (1830) consists of two female voices: according to today's terminology, a soprano and a mezzo.

The trouser roles were an institution, especially in the operetta . In Suppés The Beautiful Galathée (1865) there is also a pair of lovers represented by two sopranos. Erwin Rieger claimed that the soubrette in the Viennese operetta was always bland and sweet "when she wasn't wearing the panties of a castrated cherubim".

The trouser roles found numerous reflexes in the fiction literature of that time. Achim von Arnim, for example, published his novella The Disguises of the French Court Master and his German pupil in 1823 . In it the pupil has to act as a pregnant woman at the behest of the court master. The bride, on the other hand, represents a young man and the father-in-law, the court master, disguises himself as a Parisian lady.

Further development since the end of the 19th century

Joslyn Rechter as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro in a performance by the Wuppertaler Bühnen

In contrast, the trouser role was also a sign of the emancipation of actresses, who as men could act much more freely on stage than women were then possible. Due to the lack of significant female roles in the 19th century, the actress Sarah Bernhardt played male roles such as William Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin .

Just like the castrati, women in trousers always had a certain ambiguity, while the men “en travestie” (as for example in Charley's aunt in 1892 ) often seemed gaudy, at least when the travesty could not be overlooked. For children's roles (such as Hansel in Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel ), on the other hand, women were unproblematic.

Richard Strauss created two of the most extensive and demanding trouser roles with Octavian Graf Rofrano in his opera Der Rosenkavalier and with the composer in Ariadne auf Naxos at the beginning of the 20th century, albeit in acts from the 17th and 18th centuries. In both cases the young 'man' stands between two women. The review of a time of courtly gallantry , which had been condemned by the bourgeoisie in the 18th century, was now combined with a modern emancipation of the erotic.

In the western world, the roles of pants in theater and film declined sharply during the 20th century, while wearing pants became established in everyday life. A modern version of the trouser role is shown in the otokoyaku of the Japanese Takarazuka Revue .


In the literature, both the thesis that the trouser role contributed to the emancipation of women and the opposite view that they are made an object in this way is advocated.

The role of Romeo in Vincenzo Bellini's setting of the Romeo and Juliet material I Capuleti ei Montecchi (1830) is embodied as a trouser role by a woman, as a transition between the older practice of the castrato and the newer practice of the tenor in the male lead, like it became common in the 1830s. The fact that Romeo and Juliet were played at the premiere by the sisters Giulia Grisi and Giuditta Grisi was not a problem for the audience at the time, while the critics of a Parisian performance in 1859 criticized the unnatural nature of a female Romeo, at the same time as the trouser roles prevalent in entertainment theater.

The theatrical representation of erotic charisma was significant for the frequency of trouser roles. Since the 18th century, erotic charisma - which was previously limited to the castrati as an absolutization of the erotic, comparable to the sex symbols in the media of the 20th century - has been acceptable, provided that it has an effect on the opposite sex and that distance is maintained through class boundaries stayed. So z. B. the actress to be attractive to the prince and the princess to the male subordinate "as a woman" (and vice versa). This made it important which natural gender the performers were, and the lovers on stage, which in fact consisted of two women or men, became uncomfortable, but also had the charm of being different. The second half of the 19th century - a time when homosexuality was publicly conceived as a specific attraction - saw an accumulation of trouser roles.

Well-known trouser roles

Opera and operetta



  • Susanne Benedek, Adolphe Binder: About dancing clothes and speaking bodies. Crossdressing as a resolution of gender polarity? Edition Ebersbach, Dortmund 1996, ISBN 3-931782-01-8 .
  • Corinne E. Blackmer, Patricia Juliana Smith (Eds.): En Travesti. Women, Gender Subversion, Opera. Columbia University Press, New York NY 1995, ISBN 0-231-10268-2 ( Between Men - Between Women ).
  • Susanne de Ponte: A picture of a man - played by a woman. The checkered history of the trouser role in the theater (= catalogs for the holdings of the Deutsches Theatermuseum. Volume 2). Deutsches Theatermuseum Munich, Munich 2013, ISBN 978-3-86916-271-3 .
  • Alfred Holtmont: The trouser role. Variations on the theme of women as men. Meyer & Jessen Verlag, Munich 1925.
  • Gertrud Lehnert: Masquerades and Metamorphoses. Women disguised as men in literature. Königshausen and Neumann, Würzburg 1994, ISBN 3-88479-943-6 (also: Frankfurt (Main), Univ., Habil.-Schr., 1993).
  • Marion Linhardt : Staging of women - women in the staging. Operetta in Vienna between 1865 and 1900. = Operetta in Vienna. Hans Schneider Verlag, Tutzing 1997, ISBN 3-7952-0904-8 ( publications of the Institute for Austrian Music Documentation 4), (also: Bayreuth, Univ., Diss., 1997).
  • Bruno Rauch (Ed.): What delight, what pleasure. Another opera book. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zurich 2001, ISBN 3-85823-908-9 .
  • Susanne Rauscher: Sweet Transvestite. Pants roles in the opera. In: feminist studies . November 22, 2004, ISSN  0723-5186 , pp. 263-276.

Web links

Wiktionary: Trouser role  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Erwin Rieger: Offenbach and his Viennese school. Literary Institution, Vienna 1920, ( Theater and Culture 4), p. 26.
  2. ^ Jacqueline Pearson: The Prostituted Muse. Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642–1737. Harvester et al., New York NY 1988, ISBN 0-7108-0908-5 .
  3. Elizabeth Howe: The First English Actresses. Women and Drama 1660-1700. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1992, ISBN 0-521-42210-8 .
  4. Isabelle Schwartz-Gastone: "Les implications du travestissement dans I Capuleti ei Montecchi de Vincenzo Bellini", in: Revue LISA , Vol. II, No. 3 2004, pp. 69-79.