Hanna reveals opera 'trouser roles' start in the crotch!
by Margaret Chrystall
FOR opera singer Hanna Hipp, playing a man onstage in a "trouser role" starts right there – in the crotch, to be precise.
Gender and our awareness of all the issues surrounding it has never been more topical, but for opera singers like Polish mezzo-soprano Hanna, it’s part of the job.
The quality of her voice as a lyrical mezzo-soprano means that throughout her career Hanna will often be singing as a man in some of opera’s most famous "trouser roles".
The young page Cherubino – which Eden Court audiences will hear Hanna sing in Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro from Tuesday – is one of those.
Hanna was brought up in Kracow before studying music in Gdansk then coming to London to the Guildhall School Of Music, graduating from the opera course there with distinction.
And learning to make a convincing man in roles onstage began as part of her training.
"I will share a secret with you that I always find useful, for a trouser role you always sing it from the crotch," laughed Hanna.
"And, of course, you have to imagine that you have – something – there, however you want to put it!
"But however funny it sounds, it’s true.
"Men lead from a completely different place in terms of how their body really works.
"I remember, in classes where a boy, a male colleague of mine from the year, would be asked to walk into the room in his natural way and then we, as the mezzos, would be asked to follow him and imitate the way he moves.
"So I would be following, step by step – shadowing him – and his body posture.
"And then you really get the sense of what it is like to be walking as a man. But of course ‘man’ is different from ‘boy’."
Hanna must be doing something right as an early review of Scottish Opera’s production in Glasgow praised "Hanna Hipp’s ultra-randy (and gorgeously sung) Cherubino".
It turns out Hanna looked close to home for help to get the character right.
She said: "My younger brother was my case study. Boys, for example, touch their noses at the most inappropriate time if they are itchy and sometimes look at a place they’re not meant to – like the bosom!
"It’s about the hormones exploding and they are not aware of these moves. But they do things like that constantly – and it is something you have to explore, steal and exploit as much as possible to make your male character believable."
Playing a male in her last production, Rossini’s Le Comte Ory at Seattle Opera, the costume helped Hanna remember to channel the masculine as she sang ...
"Everything was based on rock n roll in the ’70s so I looked like David Bowie, but I was also fortunate enough to have a cod-piece!" Hanna laughed.
"It helped me with the role to have the actual codpiece attached to your crotch – it was gorgeous and covered in pearls and I wanted to take it home because I thought it would help with trouser roles in the future!
"Of course it was all caricature, but there are other tricks.
"I sometimes pay quite a high price in terms of my body because when I play boys I tend to have my back, not hunched, but my breasts are strapped by the costume, and I don’t carry myself too straight. I play the boys as quite ‘broken’ in terms of posture, so I have to go and swim afterwards for my back."
In Act Two of The Marriage Of Figaro, Cherubino is dressed up as a female by the countess to set a trap for her husband. So that sees Hanna as a woman playing a man – who is playing a woman.
"You can make the audience aware that it is still a boy in disguise," Hanna said.
"Women sit with their legs together, but even in a skirt, the legs will be open in this role because I’m being a man only dressed up as a woman!
"So there are ways to convince them."
Cherubino is a young man experiencing love for the first time – expressed in two touching short arias, including Voi Che Sapete Che Cosa È Amor, (Ladies, you who know what love is ...).
Hanna explained: "It is charming and I think it’s the essence of humanity, in a way, in a little capsule because I think every one of us has gone through being a young person in love.
"And even if a young person – or if love finds you later on in life – you experience these emotions which are so contradictory.
"At the same time, they are beautiful and they are painful and it’s all very confusing. At the same time, this pain might be very pleasant – but it is still pain!
"People think Voi Che Sapete is not really a showcase aria, it doesn’t have pages and pages of difficult music.
"But I think in its essence, it’s very human. And Cherubino is someone who is experiencing love – and it’s wonderful. It’s pure at that stage, it’s so pure."
A busy career often takes Hanna far from her London home, but she has evolved a way to avoid homesickness by taking home with her.
"When you are a young singer you are not in a position to say no to things – and you don’t really want to, you want to work – and it is wonderful to be involved in something new like the Rossini I mentioned," she said.
"This job is about travelling and about packing your suitcase and unpacking it.
"But you learn to make a hotel room or rented accommodation your own and to make friends if you possibly can and try to enjoy yourself.
"If I’m not going a long distance away, I take my yoga kit with me and the little mug with flowers on it my husband bought me from Poland which is by a very famous pottery company called Boleslawiec. I drink my tea from that and it travels with me – I know it’s a silly thing! Sometimes I take two cook books, Breakfast Love and Salad Love, to make some nice breakfasts full of nutrition or a nice salad.
"And a Polish magazine! It all makes you feel at home.
"Places are sometimes strange and lonely. But as an opera singer, this is what we signed up for and this is our life."
Scottish Opera presents Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Eden Court on Tuesday, November 1; Thursday, November 3 and Saturday, November 5. The free Unwrapped event giving background and a sneak peak at the production is on Friday, November 4 at 6pm.