Witches, bitches, and britches

Mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty's night of 'gender-bending' baroque opera

Mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty.

Mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty.

WHEN GEORGE Frideric Handel was writing and casting his play Radamisto in 1720, he intended the title role to be performed by Francesco Bernardi, the singer better known as Senesino. However, when Senesino became unavailable, Handel gave that male role to Margherita Durastanti instead.

It was not the first time Handel reversed gender roles in his work. His opera Alcina has female knight Bradmante disguising herself as Ricciardo in order to rescue her beloved from evil sorceress Alcina.

Astonishing as it might seem to us today, this was not untypical in the Baroque era. Castrated male singers, such as Senesino, were often given female roles, and as Alcina shows, there were opportunities for women to play male characters. As the catalogue to the 2003/4 exhibition on opera history, Boys Will Be Girls, Girls Will Be Boys said: "The opera stage is one place where gender roles have always been blurred, disguised, even switched – possibly multiple times within the course of an opera!"

Its something leading Irish mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty knows very well. In 2009 she made her Austrian debut as Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel at the Reinsberg Festival - a role she will reprise at the Landestheater Linz later this year - while in 2015 for Agrippina, written by, again, Handel, she turned Nero's mother into a power-suited androgen.

And Sharon is set to explore this fascinating aspect of opera in a boldly titled show for the Galway Early Music Festival and Music for Galway - Witches, Bitches, and Britches - Gender Bending in Baroque Opera, where she will be accompanied by a string quartet and harpsichordist, and which takes place in the Aula Maxima, NUI Galway, on Friday May 13 at 8pm. So what can audiences expect?

"I’ve chosen seven arias for the programme, with a wide range of musical characteristics and languages - there are arias in French, English, and Italian - so there’ll definitely be something for everyone during the evening," Sharon tells me during our interview. "Probably the two best-known are Handel’s mournful 'Lascia la spina', which was later used again as 'Lascia ch’io ping' and Riccardo Broschi’s pyrotechnic 'Son qual nave', written for his brother, the famous castrato Farinelli. I’m particularly looking forward to singing both of those!"

It is no surprise Handel should feature so prominently in the programme. As well as 'Lascia la spina', Sharon will also sing 'Tacero purche fedele', an aria for the character of Ottone in Agrippina.

"It’s unique in the programme in that it’s a so-called 'continuo aria', which means it’s accompanied by just harpsichord," says Sharon. "It has a beautiful solo cello line which Aoife [NicAthlaoich, cellist] plays magnificently! The third of our Handel arias is from his setting of the story of Hercules. Hercules’ wife, Dejanira descends into madness after accidentally killing her husband with a poisoned cloak meant for a woman she suspects him of having an affair with!"

'Being boyish on stage is something that comes fairly easy to me'

Witches, Bitches, and Britches is a timely show, given how we are living in a trans-aware environment, where the very notion of gender is being questioned as never before. Sharon though, as mentioned, is used to playing male roles, which may surprise many given her very feminine, very glamourous, image. What is her experience of swapping and subverting genders on stage?

Sharon Carty.

"It’s certainly something which makes the job a lot of fun!" she declares. "A big part of being an opera singer, the same as being an actor, is embodying a character on stage. I often wonder what it must be like for an actor not to have to think about the vocal element of a character in order to physically be suited to playing that figure on stage. For example, an actor can play Shakespeare’s Juliet, Ophelia, or Lady Macbeth at varying times in her career, whereas for an opera singer, those female archetypes are usually written for soprano, and so are something which, physically, I’m not able to sing.

"But the flip side of that is that there are tons of really brilliant trouser roles for my voice. I was always quite a tomboy as a child and teenager, so being boyish on stage is something that comes fairly easy to me. It’s also so much fun to play something that requires a lot of imagination, I often joke that my job involves a lot of 'dressing up and playing make-believe', which isn’t so far off the truth really."

The show also taps into the re-emergence of feminism in the public conscience. The Baroque era was the first time when women, as actors, were culturally and legally permitted to appear on stage. Was this a major factor in the gender-bending that is part of Baroque opera, or is it one of a number of factors?

"Before the ban was lifted, it was a major factor," says Sharon, "as women weren’t permitted to sing in church either, so all treble voices which sang in public were those of boys or men, which in turn led to the practice of castrating young boys with particularly good singing voices, in the hope they would be able to continue to sing with the same purity and beauty of tone into their adult lives, and thereby bring money and renown to their families.

"Those that achieved the success of castrati like Farinelli or Carestini were the pop stars of their day, with huge followings all across Europe. Sadly only a small percentage of those who were in fact castrated made successes of themselves in operatic terms. The rest had to try to find work in church choirs to make a living, and those who couldn’t became social outcasts."

While it is a fantastic title for the show, 'witches, bitches, and britches' has historical pedigree, and refers to the roles women played in baroque opera - either bad girls or women who had to disguise themselves as men. Sharon notes the term can be a "pejorative given that these archetypes are often secondary roles" in opera. Could it be argued though that these roles represent women who refuse to conform, female social rebels, and/or gender rebels?

"It’s more that, a lot of the time, the vocal colour of a voice-type was associated with the archetype of the role it would be used to sing. For example a clear soprano voice is regularly associated with youth and innocence, or basses correlate to age and wisdom," says Sharon. "Mezzo-soprano voice was often used, although mostly after the baroque era, for older and 'darker' characters, such as Azucena in Il Trovatore or Dalilah in Samson et Dalilah, or the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel. There are of course many exceptions to the rule, but the term developed as a catchy way to describe these secondary and male roles that make up quite a large proportion of the mezzo-soprano repertoire."

And finally, will the show, given its theme, be a visual one, with costume changes and 'cross-dressing'? All Sharon replies is: "You’ll just have to come along to find out!"

Tickets are available viawww.galwayearlymusic.com; Music for Galway (www.musicforgalway.ie ); or from Opus II, High Street.

 

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