In opera, a breeches role 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 und 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.
When the London theatres re-opened in 1660, the first professional actresses appeared on the public stage, replacing the boys in dresses of the Shakespeare era. To see real women speak the risqué dialogue of Restoration comedy and show off their bodies on stage was a great novelty, and soon the even greater sensation was introduced of women wearing male clothes on stage. Out of some 375 plays produced on the London stage between 1660 and 1700, it has been calculated that 89, nearly a quarter, contained one or more roles for actresses in male clothes (see Howe). Practically every Restoration actress appeared in trousers at some time, and breeches roles would even be inserted gratuitously in revivals of older plays.
Some critics, such as Jacqueline Pearson, have argued that these cross-dressing roles subvert conventional gender roles by allowing women to imitate the roistering and sexually aggressive behaviour of male Restoration rakes, but Elizabeth Howe has objected in a detailed study that the male disguise was "little more than yet another means of displaying the actress as a sexual object". The epilogue to Thomas Southerne's Sir Anthony Love (1690) suggests that it does not much matter if the play is dull, as long as the audience can glimpse the legs of the famous "breeches" actress Susanna Mountfort (also known as Susanna Verbruggen):
You'll hear with Patience a dull Scene, to see,
In a contented lazy waggery,
The Female Mountford bare above the knee.
Katharine Eisaman Maus also argues that as well as revealing the female legs and buttocks, the breeches role frequently contained a revelation scene where the character not only unpins her hair but as often reveals a breast as well. This is evidenced in the portraits of many of these actresses of the Restoration.
Breeches roles remained an attraction on the British stage for centuries, but their fascination gradually declined as the difference in real-life male and female clothing became less extreme. They played a part in Victorian burlesque and are traditional for the principal boy in pantomime.
Historically, the list of roles that are considered to be breeches roles is constantly changing, depending on the tastes of the opera-going public. In early Italian opera, many leading operatic roles were assigned to a castrato, a male castrated before puberty with a very strong and high voice. As the practice of castrating boy singers faded, composers created heroic male roles in the mezzo-soprano range, where singers such as Marietta Alboni and Rosamunda Pisaroni specialised in such roles. (See Xerxes below.)
Currently, all castrato roles are being reclaimed by men. As the training and use of countertenors becomes more common, there are more men with these very high voices to sing these roles.
Casting directors are left with choices such as whether to cast the young Prince Orlofsky in Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus for a woman or man; both commonly sing the role. When played by a mezzo, the prince looks like a woman, but sounds like a boy. When played by a counter-tenor, he looks like a man, but sings like a woman. This disparity is made even clearer if, as in this case, there is also spoken dialogue.
The term travesty (from the Italian travesti, disguised) applies to any roles sung by the opposite sex.
A closely related term is a skirt role, a female character to be played by a male singer, usually for comic or visual effect. These roles are often ugly stepsisters or very old women, and are not as common as trouser roles. As women were not allowed to sing on stage in the Papal States until the end of the 18th century, although not elsewhere in Europe, many female operatic roles which premiered in those areas were originally written as skirt roles for castrati (e.g. Mandane and Semira in Leonardo Vinci's Artaserse). The Madwoman in Britten's Curlew River and the Cook in Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges are later examples. The role of the witch in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, although written for a mezzo-soprano, is now more regularly sung by a tenor, who sings the part an octave lower. In the same opera the "male" roles of Hänsel, the Sandman, and the Dewman are however meant to be sung by women.
Händel's Ariodante: The role of "Ariodante" was premiered by a soprano-castrato and is performed today by a mezzo-soprano; "Lurcanio" was originally written for contralto, but later rewritten by Handel for tenor. In modern performances it is generally left to the director to decide whether to use contralto (or countertenor) or a lyric tenor.
Händel's Giulio Cesare: "Julius Caesar" was originally written for an alto-castrato and is today sung by a mezzo-soprano or countertenor; "Sesto" is sung by a soprano
Händel's Rinaldo: the title role "Rinaldo", sung at its premiere by a castrato, is currently sung by a mezzo-soprano or a countertenor
Händel's Xerxes: the title role "Xerxes", sung at its premiere by a castrato, is currently sung by a mezzo-soprano or a countertenor
Haydn's La canterina: The role of "Don Ettore" is sung by a soprano and the role of "Apollonia" is sung by a tenor
Haydn's Lo speziale: The role of "Volpino" is sung by a soprano
^The ban on women performing on stage was imposed by Pope Sixtus V in 1588. It was never legally enforceable in the Legations (Bologna, Ferrara and the Romagna) and was occasionally disapplied in Rome too, in particular from 1669 (during the papacy of erstwhile librettist Clement IX) to 1676, at the instigation of Queen Christina of Sweden, who was a fan of opera (Celletti, Rodolfo (2000). La grana della voce. Opere, direttori e cantanti (2nd edition). Rome: Baldini & Castoldi; chapter: "Nella Roma del Seicento", p by. 37 ff (in Italian)ISBN88-80-89-781-0). The ban remained in force until 1798 when the French invaded Rome and a Roman Republic was proclaimed (Kantner, Leopold M, and Pachovsky, Angela (1998). 6: La Cappella musicale Pontificia nell'Ottocento. Rome: Hortus Musicus; p. 24 (in Italian)ISBN8888470247).
^Women were banned from Lisbon's stages too for several decades in the second half of the 18th century. The prohibition, however, was not generally observed throughout the Portuguese Empire — not even in Oporto and occasionally in Lisbon itself (Rogério Budasz (2019). Opera in the Tropics. Music and Theater in Early Modern Brazil. New York: Oxford University Press; p. 238. ISBN978-0-19-021582-8)