Cross-Dressing in Operetta: A New Catalogue from Munich

Operetta Research Center
21 November, 2013

Now, here’s a topic for a book publication to make our operetta hearts beat faster: Ein Bild von einem Mann – gespielt von einer Frau. Which roughly translates as “a picture-perfect man – played by a women.”


The cover of the new Munich THeatermuseum publication.

The cover of the new Munich THeatermuseum publication.

The subtitle promises that the author, Munich based Susanne de Ponte, will deal with the “contrasting history of trouser roles on stage” or present “Die wechselhafte Geschichte der Hosenrolle auf dem Theater”. Her collaborators are Veronika Wagner und Anastasia Fischer who helped put this book together for the Deutsche Theatermuseum München. And on page one we get a quote from Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble. Yippie, you might think: a queer reading of theater history!

As everyone knows, women dressed as men, i.e. female-to-male cross-dressing, was hugely popular in opéra bouffe and early operetta, whether in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, London, New York or elsewhere. Just like it was popular in the simultaneous theater form of burlesque – as Robert C. Allen has demonstrated in his brilliant study Horrible Prettiness. That such “transvestitism” was always a sign of gender crisis and the marker of turning points in the history of emancipation has been well documented and argued by Marjorie Garber in her masterwork Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, a book that first came out in 1991, the same year Allen’s burlesque study appeared. (It was a very good year for cross-dressing research, it seems.)

22 years later, we now get Susanne de Ponte’s opulent 314 page catalogue that covers the phenomenon of the trouser role from antiquity to the present day, illustrated with marvelous images taken from the collection of the Theatermuseum Munich. There is a short general intro, the rest of the book is divided into even shorter chapters – two of which are devoted to, yes, operetta. They are each part of the larger section dealing with cross-dressing in the 19th century. The first headline is “Deftige Unterhaltung mit Hosenrollen in ‘Vaudeville’ und ‘Opéra comique’”, the second “Hosen für deutsche Primadonnen und Operettenstars”, i.e. “boisterous entertainment with trouser roles in vaudeville and opéra comique” and “trousers for German prima donnas and operetta stars.”

There are some yummy Marie Geistinger photos, showing her in Strauss’s Indigo und die 40 Räuber and Carneval in Rom, in Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent, Suppé’s Flotte Bursche (below left) in the second section and some rare photos of Emma Malkoska as Cupid-on-a-bicyle in Offenbach’s Orpheus and Marie Kieslinger (right) in Lecocq’s Le Petit Duc – but that’s it! No other operetta stars are presented, and Boccaccio, which after all was the most successful cross-dressing operetta role of them all in the 19th century, is omitted entirely. Even though Geistinger herself was a famous Boccaccio.

De Ponte lists the essay “Chacunà songout: Cross-Dressing in der Wiener Operette 1860-1936″ by ORCA collaborator Hans-Dieter Roser in her bibliography.

Yet she doesn’t even start to sum up the various trains of thought Roser presents in the context of female-to-male cross-dressing in operetta. And considering what Robert Allen has to say about cross-dressing in burlesque – not to mention the high flying, immensely entertaining and though provoking arguments Garber offers, in general and with regard to theatre in the 19th century in particular – this is a rather frustrating reading experience. You could also call it a missed opportunity. Some of the statements are also somewhat annoying. For example, to call the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris – where Offenbach’s great shows for Hortense Schneider were performed for a very royal and high class audience, that included the Prince of Wales among others – a playground for middle class (“kleinbürgerlich”) audience is problematic. De Ponte doesn’t make much of the fact either that Offenbach and early operetta composers loved presenting whole choruses of girls in male uniforms, reducing them to “anonymous objects of desire”, while at the same time using the trouser role to show very active and emancipated women, the same being also true for Suppé and Strauss Jr. (And, no, Hortense Schneider was not a star known for her cross-dressing roles, as de Ponte claims.)

Admittedly, the topic of cross-dressing in operetta, including that of male-to-female cross-dressing (think Mesdames de la Halle), could easily fill a whole book of its own.

Still, even in a general survey – which Garber also offers – a few more interesting details and interpretations would have been welcome. And a few more images from the world of operetta, too, considering how hugely popular operetta was in the 19th century. Which is also true for burlesque, which is omitted entirely. Since the Theatermuseum Wien is a partner institution of the Theatermuseum Munich, it would have not been difficult to get at least more photos of Austrian operetta stars in trouser roles, stars that are at least partially mentioned in the text.

Still, anyone interested in the gender side of operetta will want to have this nicely designed catalogue which comes with a bonus CD-ROM where you can find lists of roles and shows from antiquity onwards that include trouser roles.

And if the “IMG” section makes your mouth water: rest assured, there is only one (!) photo included there, that of the cover.

On November 30, 2013, de Ponte will present her book in Munich in the Künstlerhaus am Lenbachplatz. More details about that presentation can be found here. And, no, there will not be an exhibition to coincide with the publication of this catalogue which has been printed with support from the Richard Stury Stiftung.

Susanne de Ponte: Ein Bild von einem Mann – gespielt von einer Frau.
Die wechselvolle Geschichte der Hosenrolle auf dem Theater

Munich: edition text + kritik 2013
314 pages, color and b/w images, 29 Euros