OC Stories: Pride and Pants Roles

PRIDE AND PANTS ROLES

By Kira Dills-DeSurra, Opera Colorado Mezzo-Soprano Artist in Residence

Opera Colorado is committed to embracing diversity on and off our stage, and telling stories that express ALL of humanity’s deepest emotions and highest aspirations. This Pride Month, and every month, we stand with and celebrate our LGBTQ+ artists and staff, including Artist in Residence Kira Dills-DeSurra. Join Kira as she explores one of her favorite aspects of her job—pants roles.

A TALE OF TROUSERS

I’m Kira Dills-DeSurra and I wear the pants, or rather I PLAY the pants in the Opera Colorado Artist in Residence Program. Like many mezzo-sopranos, lots of the roles that I perform are pants roles—a young male character performed by a woman. The tradition has a long history in opera, as well as straight theater.

Stay tuned to the end of this post for a reading list if you want to take a deeper dive.

 

Mezzo-soprano Kira Dills-DeSurra as Cherubino in the Student Matinee performance of The Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Opera Colorado/ Jamie Kraus.

GROWING INTO MY BREECHES

At nine years old, I saw my first opera, Le nozze di Figaro, which remains one of my favorites to this day. I was intrigued and inspired by the exuberant page boy, Cherubino. Like me, he was trying to figure out who he was, dealing with the confusing duality of masculinity and femininity in his nature and toeing the line between being a child and being grown up.

When I was a kid—scratch that— for my entire life, I’ve identified with young, adventurous characters (think Peter Pan). I’d consider myself a youthful spirit. I love to play, explore and, you guessed it, I never want to grow up.

On another level, I related to these characters when I was young because I wanted to dress in pants rather than skirts, and I was also starting to be interested in girls. I saw myself a lot in Cherubino as I was trying to maneuver my own sexuality. Through much of the opera he shows such a playful, even comedic approach to that pure confusion of adolescence. It’s not hard to see why he’s such a beloved character—audience members of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations easily connect to that baffling experience of growing up.

I grew up in a family tapped into the arts and with two grandparents who were opera singers. My young life included endeavors in straight theater, circus arts, improv, and even operetta. While I found characters I related to in many other art forms, opera still piqued my interest in a unique way with the concept of pants roles. I began to study music and classical singing, and as I explored my voice over many years I discovered that lyric mezzo-soprano repertoire, where many pants role characters are written, best suits both my voice and temperament.

I took my first crack at Cherubino here at Opera Colorado in the student matinee performance of The Marriage of Figaro in May 2019. It felt like an artistic and personal high point, having dreamed of the role since I saw my first Figaro at nine years old. Moreover, during the question and answer session that followed the performance, a kid in the audience raised her hand to tell me that she saw herself represented in Cherubino—much as I had all those years ago—and asked me what it was like to play him. I feel lucky to embody the kinds of characters that inspired me and made me feel seen, both as both a person and an artist.

Mezzo-soprano Kira Dills-DeSurra as Hansel and soprano Laura Soto Bayomi at Family Day at the Opera’s performance of Hansel and Gretel. Photo: Opera Colorado/ Jamie Kraus.

PLAYING PANTS

Playing pants roles is one of my favorite things about my job because, while I’m obviously not a boy, sharing their youthful spirit and feeling at home in their attire brings me several steps closer to understanding and interpreting the characters from the start. A huge challenge we confront as opera singers is learning how to move and LIVE as the characters we’re playing, especially since they often come from another time and culture. Clothing often plays a significant part in that. Gender aside, very few modern day people can move in a full corset and gown like it’s their everyday clothing without some practice. When I’m embodying a boy, clothing is simply closer to what I’m used to living in. Instead of worrying about high heels or a long train, I have the freedom to focus on important nuance and detail—like finding the perfect moment to flick a booger at my sister, Gretel!

Just like in life, every boy is unique. Looking at three full pants roles that I’ve played in the last several years as examples—Cherubino (Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro), Stephano (Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette) and Hansel (Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel)—I find some common traits, but really they’re all so different it’s funny. All three are constantly bubbling over with energy. Hansel, especially, is fun to play because he’s so young and free—there are no rules. Even more than the other two, he’s just exploring the world around him. Cherubino and Stephano, both in their teens, think that they know what they want, but are also impressionable. Stephano, the Montague page boy, idolizes Mercutio and essentially tries to BE him in every move. Cherubino follows in the footsteps of Count Almaviva to an extent but, the only amorous character of the three, is ultimately distracted by ladies at every turn. While each mezzo-soprano finds their own way of approaching these characters, I can speak from my own experience in saying that it’s a joy and an adventure interpreting the details of each role.

I relate to many of my pants role characters, because of my youthful spirit. If I pass a playground, I’m probably going to go play on it. It’s one of those things that makes me feel connected to Cherubino, Stephano, and Hansel in my bones. I look forward to taking the next step into more of the baroque repertoire—roles that were originally written for castrati and are now claimed as pants roles—seeing what there is to learn from more mature characters. (Just don’t expect me to grow up!) #kirabino

Curtain call at Family Day at the Opera’s performance of Hansel and Gretel. Photo: Opera Colorado/ Jamie Kraus.

Additional Reading:

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