R and I were talking about clothing exchanges a while back. Not our clothes, but the clothes of people on stage. Opera is full of outfit swaps (Leporello and Don Giovanni; the Countess and Susanna; Dalinda and Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante, Elisabetta and Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlos, etc. etc.) as well as the outfit swap’s first cousin, the superficial disguise (see: Cosi fan tutte. Never has a false mustache done so much for so … oh, never mind).
Some complain that this is artificial, and that it would never work. And of course obviously it’s artificial. In most cases, you have singers with quite different builds or appearances who would never be mistaken for one another. The only time I’ve seen it ALMOST be believable onstage is the Don Giovanni/Leporello swap in that Salzburg 08 Don Giovanni that takes place in the woods, because Christopher Maltman and Erwin Schrott look sort of similar, there’s a lot of fooling around with blindfolds and the person decieved in this instance, Donna Elvira, is willing to be decieved on probably several levels at once.
But I think there’s a connection between this and why a lot of people don’t like opera or classical music in general: it’s a stage device that points to an aspect of the art form that will either probably bother you a great deal or not at all. It is artificial. We’re used to art forms that go for verisimilitude (most commercial movies; most mainstream novels). Things that tend to be deliberately and self-consciously stylized tend to run up against the demand for ‘authenticity’ (which has its own problems as I am sure we are all well aware). Opera is not ‘authentic’ in this way — it wears its artificiality on its sleeve, as it were. Or on someone else’s sleeve. Anyway. In this sense, you can make a case that opera in this way is more ‘real’ (if you want to play that game) than your average Hollywood movie: because it is telling you right away that this is not real, this is a thing produced according to certain conventions.
And one sees a little bit of this stress on authenticity in music fandom, too. Based on my unscientific sampling of Amazon reviews of things, there is a sizable group of people who, for example, want Le Nozze di Figaro to LOOK realistically eighteenth-century, or who are definitely not on board with that version of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos that took place in a restaurant. (I rather liked that one, myself.) Even some otherwise respectable professional music reviewers get pissy when, say, a sword in the libretto is a big stick on stage, or if instead of a necklace with her fiance’s portrait, Dorabella gives the disguised Guglielmo her bra. (This is separate from the issue of how you think a particular role ought to sound and if you’re going to get all huffy if, say, Anna Netrebko fails to sound like Irmgard Seefried. But we’ll leave that for now.)
So, in fact, I find I rather like it when the disguises wouldn’t work in real life. It calls attention to the fact that it doesn’t matter.