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A breeches role (also pants role or trouser role, travesti or "Hosenrolle") is a role in which an actress appears in male clothing. Breeches (/ˈbrɪtʃɪz/, 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.

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.


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):

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.

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.


Historically, the list of roles that are considered to be breeches roles is constantly changing, depending on the tastes of the opera-going public.

Currently, many castrato roles are being reclaimed by men.

Casting directors are left with choices such as whether to cast the young Prince Orlofsky in Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus

The term travesty (from the Italian travesti, disguised) applies to any roles sung by the opposite sex.[2]

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 during the Baroque period, 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). Britten's Madwoman in Curlew River and the Cook in Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges are examples. The role of the witch in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel

Operas with breeches roles include:

See also

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