Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cross-Dressing in VIVA LA MAMMA!

Pants roles, in which a female singer plays a male character, are common in opera--but a baritone who plays a woman? That's unusual. Donizetti's Viva la Mamma! has both of these types of roles, and today we hear from the two Young Artists who are currently cross-dressing their way across the state in the Young Artist Program's fall tour: mezzo-soprano Lindsey Anderson (Pipetto), and baritone Daniel Scofield (Mamma).


Have either of you had experience in pants and skirt roles before Viva la Mamma?
Lindsey: Pipetto will always hold a special place in my heart; he is my very first pants role! It's a small role, but he's got a lot of attitude. Actually, he is a wonderful character for the pants-role novice because he is more of a caricature of a man than a real one--and upon his exit in the first act you actually find out that he is a she! Up until then, though, everything is exaggerated, from his physical mannerisms to his flirting techniques. Playing this character has been a great opportunity to work on the basics of playing a pants role, like a masculine gait and facial expression, broader gestures, etc.

Daniel: I've never had to cross-dress before in my life, nor had it been on a list of skills I ever thought I would need. There are very VERY few skirt roles for men (others include the Witch in Hansel und Gretel and, I recently discovered, Rosalia in the operatic treatment of the classic film Divorce Italian Style). Since the decline of the castrato, cross-dressing in opera has usually been the domain of women. That being said, this character has been extremely fun to play, and a challenge in many ways.

What was the biggest challenge in playing a woman? You seemed to have lucked out with the orthopedic shoes, instead of heels!
Daniel: The biggest challenge has honestly been discovering how women manage to hold onto their purses so elegantly. As a guy, I always thought those straps magically adhered to women’s shoulders when they moved. It seems I was misled. Also, I wear a skirt through Act 1, and my Act 2 toga is even less reserved, so this show has been a crash course in modesty, resulting from some very embarrassing accidents in rehearsal.

Daniel Scofield as Mamma. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

Has the challenge of handbags and dresses given you any new insights into women?
Daniel: It's been an eye-opening process. I was talking to a female member of the cast, and was summing up the positive and negative aspects of the whole thing, and I think it boiled down to that the dresses are always very comfortable, they breathe well, and are made to make me look better; the bra definitely helped my posture; and the purse is really useful to always have around. But constantly worrying about my wig, makeup, stockings, chest hair (all things women have to worry about, right?) balanced out the good with the bad. I do definitely have more appreciation now for what women have to go through on a daily basis.

How did you both prepare for your characters?
Lindsey: Observation is your best friend when playing a role of the opposite sex. When you play your own sex, it’s easier for your own mannerisms to find their way into your interpretation of the character. When playing a pants role, you completely reprogram your way of movement and expression. All my male colleagues have been very helpful by just being themselves! They helped me find Pipetto's natural stance, just because I could observe them in rehearsals.

Daniel: My first approach to the character was as a guy, and about halfway through I realized that I wasn’t “thinking like a woman.” Once I realized this, the character became (I hope) much more likeable and endearing. I worked very closely with our wonderful director, Jeffrey Marc Buchman, and together we bounced ideas off each other about when to unleash Mamm’Agata’s claws, and when sarcasm and wit would be the better alternative.

Marcy Stonikas (Seconda Donna) and Lindsey Anderson (Pipetto). Photo by Bill Mohn.

Did either of you base your interpretations of your characters off anyone in particular?
Lindsey: To be honest, my inspiration for this character is the type of guy that usually sends me running in the opposite direction! He's a Don Juan minus the ability to be suave. Yes...Pipetto is a bit creepy. I'm sure that Marcy Stonikas can attest to this. She plays the Seconda Donna and is the object of Pipetto's affections.

Daniel: Because of the rarity of this opera, I had nothing to base my performance on, as far as previous productions. Shockingly there are no audio/video recordings of Merrill, Milnes, Bastianini, or any of the pantheon of “Golden Age” baritones performing this, so I had to start from scratch. I did find some similarities in iconic figures, such as Dana Carvey’s "church lady" character on Saturday Night Live, as well as Rosalia from Divorzio all’italiana, which I have to thank Gregory Keller for, as he made the entire cast at Wolf Trap opera watch it together one afternoon. Also, I found inspiration from figures in my family…which I hope they never find out about.

Daniel Scofield as Mamma. Photo by Bill Mohn.

Lindsey, mezzo-sopranos are often cast in pants roles. Is it something you’ve enjoyed and wouldn’t mind doing more of in your career?
Lindsey: I truly enjoy all of the many different types of characters that mezzos play. From powerful and sensual leading ladies like Carmen, Rosina, and Dalila to nurturing supporting roles like Alisa or Flora, mezzos enjoy a wide variety of interesting characters and gorgeous music. Mezzo-sopranos singing pants roles is a wonderful tradition. Whether or not the role was originally intended for a mezzo, pants roles give mezzos the opportunity to explore an even wider range of characters and even more beautiful music. One of the pants roles I hope to sing one day is Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

What about you, Daniel? Would you play a woman again (although, granted, there aren’t very many roles to choose from)?
Daniel: The entire experience of putting together this rarely-performed opera has been incredibly rewarding for me. Given another chance to perform this, I would do it in a heartbeat. The freedom the role has given me onstage to be someone/something completely different is such a rush, that I’d be hard pressed to turn down any chance to explore the almost nonexistent canon of baritone “skirt” roles.


  1. This was a delightful production: the "cross-singers" stole the show. I was only disappointed that it didn't last longer, but I'm not sure how much longer I would have survived, laughing as hard as I did. Brava - er Bravo- Brave? Bravi? Whatever!