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Playing pants: One opera student’s journey into ‘trouser’ roles in "Dido and Aeneas"
Undergraduate mezzo-soprano Kal Fong rehearses her first lead "pants" role in FIU Opera Theater's production of "Dido and Aeneas" (Photo credit: Alec Ernst)

Playing pants: One opera student’s journey into ‘trouser’ roles in "Dido and Aeneas"

January 31, 2024 at 10:42am

Opera has always thrived on exaggeration, pushing boundaries and activating imaginations.

The FIU Opera Theater’s production of “Dido and Aeneas” is no exception, as undergraduate mezzo-soprano Kali Fong steps into the boots of Aeneas, a character historically reserved for male singers.

In the opera world, "pants" roles or "trouser" roles have a storied history where female singers traditionally portray male characters. These roles, spanning from Mozart to Massenet, often involve portraying young, romantic, or heroic male figures. While most "pants" roles are designed for female voices, Aeneas is traditionally a role for tenors, making Kali's interpretation a fresh and contemporary perspective.

This year’s production provides a unique opportunity to immerse students in the captivating world of one of the Baroque era's most celebrated operas. Written by the English baroque composer Henry Purcell, the opera tells the tragic tale of Queen Dido of Carthage and the Trojan hero, Aeneas. At the heart of this story, Aeneas grapples with the internal conflict between duty and love, ultimately compelled to abandon Dido.

According to FIU Opera Theater Director Robert B. Dundas, “Students like Kali are studying and applying Baroque performance practice side-by-side with specialists in the field, while also applying their developing vocal technique. In addition to doing in-depth research of their characters and the history of the opera, they are also learning about a literary masterwork of antiquity, Virgil's Aeneid, and the performance traditions of the Baroque era."  

Join us for an interview with Kali as we unravel the intricacies of her journey, the challenges she embraced, and lessons learned by taking on this atypical "trouser" role on February 1 and 2 at The Wertheim.

Aeneas is typically a role for a tenor and is not traditionally performed by a woman. How did you prepare for your role as Aeneas? 

To research the role, I first began reading Virgil's original story and watched various productions of "Dido and Aeneas." While many featured male actors portraying Aeneas, providing valuable insights into the character, I faced a unique challenge—no recordings featuring women in the role of Aeneas. This compelled me to approach the character differently, turning my preparation into a more personal process. Under the mentorship of Professor Dundas and Javier Correa-Salas, I navigated the challenge of becoming a character not typically portrayed by women, especially in this era.

I also started looking into Aeneas's story and the pressures he faced, not just as a man, but as the Prince of Troy. His character origin helped me frame his emotions and situation better. Did you know that Aeneas is the son of Venus and Anchises? That makes him a demigod. So, I’m learning to step outside of myself to learn the roles of a man, a prince, and a demigod! I had to spend a lot of time learning to to act regal and assertive on top of the typical challenges of a “pants” role.

Have you ever studied arias by other "trouser" characters? How do they differ from this one?

Yes, I have studied as Cherubino from Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro." Cherubino is one of the most popular pants roles for mezzos, and this character differs from Aeneas in many ways. Unlike Aeneas, Cherubino is a young teenage boy who is just coming into maturity. He is nervous, less assertive, and more reserved. The two characters are opposite - Aeneas is overly confident in himself, and his pride guards him from ever truly expressing his emotions.

What were some of the challenges that you encountered? Was it difficult in getting out of range for your voice type?

This is my first leading role in an opera.  At first, I lacked confidence in myself and in my portrayal of the character. There were moments where I felt behind vocally in my technique and even questioned if I was right for the part. I knew I had to do the character justice, so I worked to overcome these insecurities by pushing myself and constantly adjusting my technique to grow as a singer. I had to work on refining my technique on my lower range and had to brighten my tone to allow the proper resonance and clarity. The text of “Dido and Aeneas” is extremely important to conveying deeper themes and emotions, so I had to work very hard on my diction.

Another challenge for me was changing the way I walk and my posture for the role. Though that may sound typical for a “pants” role, Aeneas is a warrior, and he carries the weight of his kingdom on his shoulders. Balancing the character's pride of being a strong leader and expressing his own emotions while being a woman was another acting challenge I faced.

You're a junior performing a lead role among graduate students. Tell us about your experience.

Working with the graduate students in this role has been incredibly exciting. I've learned a lot from them as peers, especially from my counterpart, soprano Catherin Meza. Her connection with the character of “Dido” has provided a wonderful dynamic to work with and play off. Aeneas' story is intricate, and I am dedicated to ensuring that I do justice to the character. This role has presented an amazing opportunity for me to grow and learn, not just as a singer but also as an actor. I am genuinely grateful to share the character of Aeneas with everyone.

I'm extremely thankful for this opportunity and look forward to further collaboration with my wonderful FIU opera family. As a student, I’ve already got to perform in the world premiere of "La Ruta de Don Quixote" and engage in master classes with exceptionally talented opera singers—an experience I wouldn't have had anywhere else. During Spring Break, I will be traveling with the FIU Wertheim Camerata to Santa Fe Opera this spring for a workshop alongside other selected students from our program.

Did your experience in this production make you rethink gender roles in your personal life?

At first, I was stuck in this box of what I thought a guy should be like. But as I dug deeper into Aeneas's character, I found a lot of emotions I had to explore, reshaping the way I think. I had to open up more and become more expressive, letting Aeneas's feelings out while keeping that strong and noble presence. Aeneas is your typical strong warrior and acts independently. In my personal life, I am an extremely independent person, and I related my own personality to Aeneas’ vulnerability. This role did not change my perspective on my own gender roles, but rather, it highlighted the similarities between Aeneas and me and I came to realize that certain personality traits aren’t confined by gender.

Are there specific skills or perspectives you believe are crucial for success in these roles?

I had to develop my breath. It was a technique I did not think about until I was asked to incorporate it into the character. Taking deep assertive breaths is essential to the character because everything Aeneas says has to be authoritative and powerful.

You must also work hard. I believe drive and ambition are extremely important in opera because you are constantly rebuilding your technique and yourself as a performer. Being stubborn in a role and driven to not give up on the character despite the challenges faced is what I believe is the most crucial aspect for success