It took me a while to realize why loving romance comes naturally to so many folks who also dig "high art." For instance, lots of opera - the opera buffo gems of the 18thC for instance -- is pretty much romance with a nice beat you can minuet to. And so many of opera's staged conventions, from comic errors to confused identity and every form of struggle on the way to HEA between, is the divine-to-sublime stuff of romantic fantasy.
One twist to opera history folks aren't always hip to is that men often "sang" the roles of chicks. Famous castrati - men castrated as boys and trained to have glorious soprano voices - played heroic roles, but sometimes filled the bill for female characters.
Perhaps then, it's not surprising to note that at the same time female parts were being written for castrati, male roles in the opera were being created to be sung by, you guessed it: chicks.
Of these travesti or "trouser roles," one of the most famous is that of Cherubino from Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro/The Marriage of Figaro." Cherubino is a young page aflame with adolescent desire which inconveniently causes him to become lustily infatuated with most every pretty woman he sees - from lady to lady's maid. He describes his heart's affliction to two women he, em, esteems, in the exquisite, "Voi che sapete," which you simply must take a gander at here or below.
The travesti character in romance isn't just a neat way to throw off the gender balance in the ol' boy meets girl. The switcheroo - especially in the historical - is about the same thing as the change-up in Figaro: Access to power.
In Mozart's Figaro - based on a Beaumarchais satire of aristocracy - Cherubino has access to all the characters regardless of class, because of his ability to hide in plain site and, at one point, dress as a woman. In romance, a heroine generally cross
Yet sometimes heroines spend time en travesti out of responsibility, as is the case with Catherine Drummond, heroine of Judith James' exceptional "Highland Rebel ." Heiress and rightful laird of her clan, Catherine's forced out of chief's position, but it doesn't stop her from risking life/ limb for her people. Dressed for battle as a boy, she's captured in the melee, then saved from rape and a slow death when cynical King's man Jamie Sinclair marries her amidst the gore. Even as they spend time together in both London and the Highlands - and Sinclair encourages Catherine to dress as a man so he can show her the life she deserves - Sinclair remains solitary and unreachable, and one of the most intriguing heroes of this year.
Jane de Westin of Blythe Gifford's smart and sensual medieval, "In the Master's Bed," always feels more "herself" when wearing comfortable boys' clothing and spending time studying and reading as opposed to learning the womanly arts. When she runs off as "John" to study in the all-male world of Cambridge, she's taken under the wing of Duncan, a brawny soldier/scholar. Jane's befuddled because she's finally met a man who makes her feel womanly. Duncan's a bit scandalized that he feels soft emotions for this boy, "John," and when he finds out the truth of John/Jane, unfortunately, he wants badly to treat her like a lady - and not just in bed.
Opera singers love the pants roles because they allow so much freedom of movement and expression in productions that don't allow female roles the same in historical context. Guess that works pretty much the same for the romance heroine pantser, and for we readers who want to imagine our contemporary selves in historical roles with which we can identify -- and in novels that are grand in their scope and entertainment.
To me, that makes romance high art, indeed.
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