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Breeches role

A breeches role (also pants role or trouser role, travesti or "Hosenrolle") is a role in which an actress appears in male clothing. Breeches (/ˈbrɪz/, also "britches"), tight-fitting knee-length pants, were the standard male garment at the time breeches roles were introduced.

In opera it also refers to any male character that is sung and acted by a female singer. Most often the character is an adolescent or a very young man, sung by a mezzo-soprano or contralto. The operatic concept assumes that the character is male, and the audience accepts him as such, even knowing that the actor is not. Cross-dressing female characters (e.g., Leonore in Fidelio or Gilda in Act III of Rigoletto) are not considered breeches roles. The most frequently performed breeches roles are Cherubino (The Marriage of Figaro), Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), Hansel (Hansel and Gretel) and Orpheus (Orpheus and Euridice), though the latter was originally written for a male singer, first a castrato and later, in the revised French version, an haute-contre.

Because non-musical stage plays generally have no requirements for vocal range, they do not usually contain breeches roles in the same sense as opera. Some plays do have male roles that were written for adult female actors, and (for other practical reasons) are usually played by women (e.g., Peter Pan); these could be considered modern-era breeches roles. However, in most cases, the choice of a female actor to play a male character is made at the production level; Hamlet is not a breeches role, but Sarah Bernhardt once played Hamlet as a breeches role. When a play is spoken of as "containing" a breeches role, this does mean a role where a female character pretends to be a man and uses male clothing as a disguise.

You'l' hear with Patience a dull Scene, to see,
In a contented lazy waggery,
The Female Mountford bare above the knee.
  • Howe, Elizabeth (1992). The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maus, Katharine Eisaman (1979). "'Playhouse Flesh and Blood': Sexual Ideology and the Restoration Actress". New York: Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama (1996).
  • Pearson, Jacqueline (1988). The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642—1737. New York: St. Martin's Press.


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