Wait, WHY is Romeo played by a woman?

Sep 8, 2021

Some thoughts about operatic repertoire, gender and expectation from Director James Darrah


In choosing I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the most pressing question on everyone’s mind was: what are we going to do with the fact that Romeo, the romantic “male” lead, was originally and intentionally written for a female mezzo-soprano voice type? While I don’t have any hard data to back up this claim, I would argue that this basic fact in casting has even resulted in Capuleti also having far fewer performances in this country than some of Bellini’s other works, let alone other bel canto repertoire. Are other opera companies or board members scared of a woman assuming and singing such a classically and universally known male role? Does it take a superstar singer to get the piece programmed? How will audiences react? How will they ever cope? Traditionally, an opera company would cast a mezzo soprano and then design a production where that singer goes into hair, makeup and costume out of your sight, before the show, to then eternally present as “male” for the duration of the opera.

There is some artistic and historical precedence for this too: if you’ve ever seen The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart of course intentionally wrote the male teen Cherubino as a mezzo soprano voice type and the role is almost exclusively sung by women. Omaha audiences have seen a woman, playing a young boy, dressed as a young boy, who then in the plot of the opera also dresses as a woman in disguise. It’s complicated gender-wise for poor Cherubino, yes, but most often the singer just presents as male for the entire time and the audience buys in as a sort of cheeky formality that explores teenage lust and a performance practice in line with the 18th century. It's fun and works and often produces laughs.

Capuleti, as a tragedy, doesn’t seem to have the same luxury of tone and style afforded to Mozart. As we (thankfully) increasingly move toward a society that encourages, allows and even embraces a freedom of gender identity and expression, I actually find I have little interest in adhering to an expectation about the role of Romeo in terms of gender. It seems borderline ignorant to assume Romeo MUST be male in this opera. Yes, the story was written that way, but to keep opera a living, breathing form—I’ve decided to take into account the reality of our casting in 2020. We have a fantastic mezzo soprano, Cecelia Hall, as our Romeo. It was written for her voice type. Can this production be about two human beings rather than a male and female hetero-normative love story? Many of us know the tale of Romeo and Juliet through Shakespeare, but I think Bellini’s opera offers us a wonderful opportunity to explore the piece today. Romeo is one of the only Montagues in the cast—the role spends a large amount of time infiltrating the Capulet stronghold.

As I started to dwell on this element of gender, and then the plot of the opera, I was actually inspired by thinking earlier than Mozart to composer G.F. Handel. His great baroque opera-seria Alcina features a female warrior and knight who ventures to a dangerous enchanted isle to rescue her husband from the clutches of an evil sorceress. Interestingly, and true to Handel’s source material, this female knight disguises herself as “male”—both as a protection of her identity, but also in order to protect her life and power in a world in which women often have less power and are more at risk. This gave us an interesting solution. In an opera dominated by men and politicians and warring ideologies driven by men—could Romeo disguise herself as male less from personal desire or an adherence to traditional dramaturgy, but more in order to achieve some level of equality with the powerful men?

Can we explore the feminine and masculine sides of a famed character? Can we transcend a focus on gender identity and speak more to ideological differences, a shared and common desire to express ourselves freely, love who we want to love and be treated equally?

This program note is going to print far in advance of day one in the rehearsal room, so while I could explain some of the past year and a half of design preparation and delve into endless thoughts with the creative team, I’m also happily unsure of what the rehearsal room will actually yield just in terms of chemistry, mood and our overall production’s final message. We have, in our two leads, some formidable actors who will certainly imbue these roles with a powerful sense of love and loss as we begin to work and, even if I want to focus on this doomed couple’s love, humanity and their attraction, we will work to also earn their tragic end regardless of gender identity. We’ve similarly tried to strip away a lot of the excess 19th century formality in the physical production: the design is both a world foreign to our own and steeped in decorum, but also simultaneously mysterious and contemporary. Characters emerge and disappear into an unknown vast space—only colliding amidst the tombs and graves of those they have mutually lost.

As a director, I’m far more interested in what one might get out of the universality and enduring power of a Romeo and Juliet story for today’s world. Bellini’s tale is based more directly on the Italian Renaissance tales of Romeo and Juliet (here the Italian: Giulietta)—and one of the most noticeable differences is that the Capulets and the Montagues exist as intense political factions. The city of Verona within this opera is at war with polarized, partisan, divisive politics. It’s an ugly mess—both sides unwilling to broker peace on any other terms than their own, spilled blood constantly threatened both literally and metaphorically. While I’ve intentionally avoided any blatant political statements in the production beyond the gender freedom of Romeo, I am instead focused more on a shared human folly: regardless of who we are and our own sense of identity, sometimes we encounter people who are ignorant, headstrong or unwilling to accept those personal truths. The tragedy in the tale is in realizing that ignorance too late. Sometimes the people with the most vulnerable voices lose…and may we all be aware of that fragility….


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