The entire personnel is single-mindedly devoted throughout to trickery, impersonation, subterfuge: Riccardo, for starters, pretending to be a proper ruler, and leaping into fisherman’s togs for that larkish trip to the fortune-teller; the conspirators, lurking in plain view; poor Amelia, incognito and chaperoned away from the midnight gallows by her own hapless, unknowing husband, before being unmasked to general hilarity. Oscar, a female singer pretending to be a boy. And so on; from start to finish, it is a game of disguises, a tragicomedy of errors. And in this it is very like a great many other operas (not to mention life).

The poet W.H. Auden noted that drama “is based on the Mistake. I think someone is my friend when he really is my enemy, that I am free to marry a woman when in fact she is my mother, that this person is a chambermaid when it is a young nobleman in disguise, that this well-dressed young man is rich when he is really a penniless adventurer, or that if I do this such and such a result will follow when in fact it results in something very different. All good drama has two movements, first the making of the mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake.”

It’s a pretty good summary of most opera plots. And opera’s preferred form of Mistake has always been Disguise, ubiquitous since opera first made it as a commercial artform in 17th century Venice – where the Carnival audience themselves would have all worn masks, the better to facilitate the intrigues of the season. Indeed in one of the very first Venetian operas, La finta pazza by Francesco Sacrati, we find the hero Achilles living undercover dressed as a woman on the island of Skyros, singing about this “sweet change of nature”, and asking the men in the audience – “Aren’t you jealous of me?”

When the devil pulled that snake number in the Garden of Eden, he not only engineered humanity’s Fall, he also invented the notion that disguise could be really terrifically useful: as Viola says of it in Twelfth Night “… thou art a wickedness, wherein the pregnant enemy does much…”. And deceit being the oldest thing in the world, humans’ subtle mastery of it is one of those skills that sets us apart from the amateurish animals (even snakes). Thirsting for money, sex, power, freedom, we resort to trickery without a qualm; though one lesson we never learn is that underhand schemes can easily backfire, and have undreamed-of consequences.

Identity is the slipperiest of concepts, and this represents both a problem and an opportunity. The favourite and most readily available form of disguise has always (as with Achilles) been transvestism – and of course the naughty sexual thrill is a major reason for its popularity: opera has always been at pains to indulge the erotic fantasies of its audience.

If it has usually been employed for nefarious ends, there are a few admirable exceptions. The paragon is Beethoven’s Leonore, wife of imprisoned Florestan, who inveigles herself into jail dressed as a man to spring her languishing husband (and, as a nice bonus, unleashes universal peace and freedom). Handel, like Beethoven, had a high opinion of wives (and, coincidentally, like Beethoven was not married) and provided further striking examples of constancy: Bradamante, for example, who goes to Alcina’s magic island in the guise of her own brother to rescue Ruggiero – who’s actually having a brilliant time there.

Bradamante runs up against an occupational hazard as well: Alcina’s hypersexed sister Morgana falls for her (in her chap’s togs) like a ton of bricks. This titillating subtext was a major reason for these plot-lines: in other operas less chaste than Beethoven’s based on the Fidelio story, Leonore pretends to be inflamed by the jailer’s daughter Marzelline to pursue her high-minded ends.

Alas, it is not usually good, idealistic women but bad, naughty males who employ these tactics. If the Devil invented disguise, it didn’t take long for the gods to cotton onto its uses, and Jupiter was naturally an expert, each new outfit tailored to the foibles of the latest prospective seducee (swan, cow, golden shower).

But one must beware the law of unintended consequences. While attempting to seduce the nymph Callisto in Cavalli’s opera, Jupiter transforms himself into his own daughter Diana (and pulls off a successful, presumably sapphic liaison); nonetheless, he has to think quickly to come up with an explanation when his wife puts in a surprise appearance and catches him in dragrante.

Further regrettable instances abound: in Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus, Baron Eisenstein finds his adulterous plans misfiring when the masked woman he is laying siege to turns out to be the wife he is assiduously attempting to betray. And Rossini’s Count Ory, dressed as a nun, makes love to his pageboy, believing him to be a woman, while the page makes love to the Countess Adèle, whom Ory fancies: a pan-sexual jamboree to rival Handel.

As with Ory, operatic aristocrats, taking their cue from Jupiter, have always resorted to camouflage to pursue their ends, frequently slumming it in plebeian clothes to allay the fears of operatic maidens concerning what their mothers told them about posh charmers. Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, to get into Rosina’s house and affections, impersonates a drunk soldier and a twitchy music-teacher – both disastrous plans concocted by Figaro, incidentally, making you wonder whether he deserves his reputation as cunning schemer.

Rossini pursues the idea in La cenerentola, where Prince Ramiro swaps roles with his valet to trick the bad sisters – and arranges that nice new frock for Cinderella as a change from her skivvy’s rags. In Verdi’s Rigoletto, the Duke dresses up as the student “Gualtier Maldè” to woo Gilda, who in the traditional and deeply realistic opera manner is much impressed with his penury. Mozart’s Don Giovanni typically stands things on their heads by switching clothes with his servant in order to avoid Donna Elvira (and pursue her maid instead).

It’s not just an Italian thing, either. Wagner’s Wotan, equivalent in rank to Jupiter, prowls the world dressed as “The Wanderer”, though it’s not entirely clear why, even after many hours of explanation. Indeed, disguise in Wagner is typically opaque and puzzling.

In the Ring cycle, there’s a magic hat central to the plot that transforms you into whatever you want, but is typically used extremely stupidly: Fafner, in possession of vast riches, chooses to turn into a dragon to guard them, which must cut down on shopping possibilities; and Siegfried turns into his new BFF Gunther to kidnap and hand over to him his own new girlfriend Brünnhilde. Doh!

And don’t think women are entirely above this sort of subterfuge: what’s sauce for the gander is in a very real sense sauce for the goose. In Handel’s Julius Caesar, Cleopatra ensnares the Roman by doing a steamy song-and-dance routine in the guise of the servant “Lydia”. And Donizetti’s Norina in Don Pasquale shamelessly deceives the harmless old titular goat by pretending to be the blushing semi-idiot Sofronia, fresh from convent school, part of a highly successful ploy to part him from his money. It’s enough to make you despair of human nature.

For positive outcomes, even unwitting ones, we must turn to Mozart, for whom disguise serves a higher purpose: to reveal deeper truths about real identity. Nonetheless, it’s a risky business, and the idea behind Così fan tutte of testing your beloved’s fidelity through the use of disguise is one you might want to think twice before trying at home.

The participants in Così are – by deceiving and being deceived – stripped of their illusions, for good or ill. It doesn’t necessarily make them happier, but it does make them wiser. And disguise is the catalyst for opera’s most numinous climax in the Marriage of Figaro, where serial mistaken identity in an enchanted darkness lead to the reuniting of sundered hearts and a divine benediction granted the world.

We are peculiarly susceptible to trickery and disguise: do we actually long to be deceived? We are suckers for anything that seems too good to be true. Aching to be loved, yet beset by terrible insecurity about it, Fiordiligi in Così is ready to betray the proven affections of Guglielmo for the passing attraction of some “Albanian”. Our faith is immeasurably fragile when it comes to these things: and our urge to self-destruction wills the very thing it fears most.

But Leonora and a few others remind us that not all motives are unworthy. Our urge to escape ourselves and to be deceived – and what else is an evening at the theatre? – can have good outcomes, too. When the lights go up and we return to our humdrum selves, some lesson may have percolated through.

Opera is founded in pretence: its participants sing when they are supposed to be speaking. One reason people like opera is for all that dressing-up and the lovely frocks – nothing causes more anguish to opera audiences than “modern productions”, since escapism is the heart of opera. It is life in fancy dress – and never more itself than when it lives its own fantasy in the masked balls that pop up so frequently. And that is where human character and identity can, paradoxically, finally be revealed.

Viola’s boy’s disguise in Shakespeare allows everybody the means to cast off their illusions and discover their true emotions. Likewise, the ball at the end of Un ballo in maschera, the transforming night of Figaro – and that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – is the point where disguises fall away, everyone is unmasked, and all can finally be revealed, and see themselves, in their true likenesses.

Article by Robert Thicknesse, first appeared in Chorus magazine, Autumn 2018.