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Purchase College Opera’s Production of "Hamlet" to Feature Female Singers as Titular Male Characters

By: Ashley Friedman

Purchase College will be putting on four performances of "Hamlet", a play originally written by William Shakespeare and adapted into an opera by composer Ambroise Thomas, from Thursday, April 11, through Sunday, April 14. The production will be double-cast, with both casts alternating performance nights, and will each feature a female singer playing the role of Hamlet.

As fellow castmates saw each other in full costume and makeup for the first time, excitement began to grow. The Renaissance-era pieces were extravagant and colorful, and some of the women donned trains that followed behind them for several feet. Wigs were being placed, last-minute noodles were being eaten, and the pit orchestra tuned up as the cast and crew of "Hamlet" got ready for their first official dress rehearsal.

Rhys Stermer, senior, getting hair and makeup done in preparation for the role of Polonius. (Photo by: Ashley Friedman)

“It’s definitely different from a lot of the shows we’ve done before. Last semester we did 'Hansel and Gretel', which is very family-friendly and lighthearted, and this is the complete opposite of that,” said senior Eliza Mastropieri. Mastropieri will be sharing the role of Ophélie with senior Sophia Orrico.

“I honestly like it way better with a woman singing than a man at this point,” said Mastropieri when asked about her thoughts on having women play the role of Hamlet. “There are so many men’s roles that I wish I could sing because they sound like so much fun, and this production is opening a door to something that’s not usually done here at Purchase,” she continued, adding that she hopes the trend of doing so will continue outside of college, too.

Brigid Mack, left, as Hamlet, and Mastropieri, right, as Ophelie, on stage during the first dress rehearsal. (Photo by: Ashley Friedman)

Cross-gender roles in opera are not exactly a new concept. Up until the start of the 20th century, some male singers, known as castrati, underwent castration before they hit puberty in order to preserve higher registers in their voices, according to an article written for the University at Buffalo Music Library Exhibit. This began in churches, where there was a desire for high voices, but a ban on female singers. Female singers in operas were banned for a short period of time, as well, which also contributed to men playing the roles of female characters.

Women have played male characters throughout the history of operas, too. “Breeches parts,” or “pants roles” are parts in which women dress as and sing a male role. Many of these parts were originally meant for a castrato and began to be performed by women after the castrati’s declining presence, while some breeches parts were written as leading male characters with higher voices that have always been played by women. Female singers are also commonly used to play the roles of children and young boys.

Purchase’s opera department is no stranger to including cross-gender roles in their performances. Last year, the stepmother character in their production of "Cendrillon" was played by graduate student Jonathon Mildner. That particular role is almost always played by a woman, but director Jacque Trussel thought it would add to the comic nature of the character. Similarly, Trussel also had unique ideas for his vision of "Hamlet", which rarely features women in the title role. The part of Hamlet will be shared by juniors Brigid Mack and Zoe Brooks.

Mack and Brooks have both played multiple pants roles during their time at Purchase; Mack played Le Prince Charmant in "Cendrillon", Brooks played Cherubino in "The Marriage of Figaro" her freshman year, and both shared the role of Hansel in last semester’s production of "Hansel and Gretel".

“While both are fun, playing a man is so different from playing a woman, and it’s very freeing to explore gender in that way,” said Mack.

Mack entered center stage with confidence about five minutes into the show, sporting a short brunette wig, tall lace-up boots, and a bold gray tailcoat, which was later traded in for something a bit more flashy. She belted out a powerful aria in perfect French, as the entire opera is performed in French, and with an assertive stance, easily cemented herself as the show’s leading man.

“It’s a cool acting exercise because you don’t realize how your mannerisms, subtle movements, and how you carry yourself can reflect gender,” said Brooks. “We worked a lot on how to stand and sit and move your arms around like a man, versus how a woman would, which I didn’t think about until I started doing pants roles.”

Brooks, left, with other cast members of "Hamlet" during a dress rehearsal. (Photo by: Ashley Friedman)

Trussel had pulled Mack and Brooks aside last semester before "Hamlet" was announced as the next opera to ask them if they would be okay with and interested in playing the role of Hamlet. He wanted it to be played by a mezzo-soprano, which is a female voice with a lower range, rather than a baritone, which is typically a male voice, because he viewed the character as being more adolescent than masculine and mature.

“We were really surprised that he trusted us to take on the role - it’s way more unconventional than what we’ve done in the past,” Brooks said. “Jacque gets really into it when we do something new and creative, and everybody has more fun because it requires so much more of us.”

When conductor Hugh Murphy was reached out to for this story, he said over email that he was glad the issue of gender-neutral casting was receiving some attention. Murphy, along with Trussel, have created a version of the show that they hope will make the audience feel as if they are watching a dramatic film.

“The key to this piece was to make it as simple and close to the Shakespeare as possible. When you cut the ballet, the huge choruses, and the other requirements of Nineteenth-Century French Grand Opera, it becomes an intimate family drama,” Trussel said in an interview with OperaWire. “At the same time, it has been extremely important for us to respect the French style and the extraordinary beauty of Ambroise Thomas’ score.”

Mack and Brooks both emphasized that Purchase often does more traditional versions of classic operas. “'Hamlet' isn’t usually done in schools because it’s difficult to sing, but we happen to have a strong department right now with a lot of students who are able to do it,” said Mack.

“'Hamlet' has been the hardest thing I’ve done so far at Purchase - it’s an intellectually challenging acting experience,” said Brooks. She and Mack both expressed enthusiasm for what the future of opera around the world may hold. “A lot of gender swapping and queer versions of operas are happening, which is a really cool way to reimagine what we think of as these very classic stories,” said Mack.

Purchase’s 'Hamlet' features a pit orchestra with over 40 musicians, many of whom are students in the college’s classical music program. It’s the largest pit orchestra the opera department has had in several years, adding to the grandiosity and uniqueness of this production.

A view of the pit orchestra of 'Hamlet' beneath the stage of the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center. (Photo by: Ashley Friedman)

Catch 'Hamlet' on its opening night on Thursday, April 10 at 7 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center on Purchase’s campus. The show closes with a matinee performance on Sunday, April 14.



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