The singular "they" and pants roles


CW: Historical genital mutilation "They???? That's a third person plural! How can I be expected to use THEY as a singular pronoun?" I feel like I have had this conversation a million times now, but we do it all the time. If you find a phone at a restaurant, then you would politely tell the manager of the restaurant "I hope they return for their phone." because you don't know the gender of the person about whom you are speaking. And we all know that assuming someone's gender and getting it wrong is rude. Think about when you approach a short haired person from behind and you say "excuse me, sir" only to have them turn around and you see that they actually present as female. This third person singular usage of the word they is as old as Shakespeare, at least. So why is it so hard for us to wrap our heads around when referring to a person we have met? In editing text from Cymbeline for Imogen, I actively worked to make sure that the language was gender neutral across the board so that any character could be portrayed as any gender. (Remember, gender is a spectrum.) That meant making ALL gendered pronouns disappear to leave a clean slate for production teams to make those decisions for themselves. I'd already been pretty brutal in editing Cymbeline; one friend remarked "You don't even care about iambic pentameter, do you?" No. I don't. The music will have its own rhythm and too much iambic pentameter can actually make it harder to give the music rhythmic interest. But that pronoun, that lovely ungendered singular pronoun, increases the flexibility of the art. If a production company wants to present all of the characters in Imogen as the genders Shakespeare would have expected, they can still do that. Or characters could be presented in a variety of ways to reflect the greater diversity that we embrace in our society today. "But what happens when a female soprano sings a role that Shakespeare intended to be male? Haven't you forced me to cast a woman in this role?" One of the more interesting traditions in opera is the tradition of what we call pants/trouser roles. (I say pants because I'm American, so any Brits, Kiwis, or Aussies reading this can feel free to have a giggle now.) Pants roles are male characters written in the treble range. Centuries ago in Europe, the boys with the prettiest voices would be literally castrated so they would not go through puberty and their voices would not change. Many of these "castrati" became very famous opera singers. Obviously, nowadays we do not practice this horrifying tradition, so those treble roles have in recent centuries been sung by women or countertenors. (Countertenors are men who have passed puberty but have a very strong, well trained falsetto so that they can sing these roles. The countertenor voice is EXTREMELY rare.) Even after the practice of castrating boys stopped, composers continued to write male roles for "female" voices, usually mezzo sopranos, such as the role of the composer in R. Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. This tradition of pants roles is strong and I think it's fantastic to keep alive, especially today when universities and conservatories are graduating 8 treble voices for every tenor or bass. Furthermore, in the 21st century and with the broader acceptance of transpeople in society, there are trans singers and nonbinary singers gaining prominence in the opera world as well. I had the distinct pleasure of going to hear Lucia Lucas, with her glorious baritone voice, sing the title role of Don Giovanni at Tulsa Opera earlier this year. Several other trans and nonbinary opera singers are gaining prominence in both the US and abroad. And this is as it should be. Art should reflect society in its diversity.

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