HGO Premieres Prince of Players: When Men Could No Longer Play Women on Stage

As a baritone in opera, Ben Edquist says he knows he won't get a lot of chances to do a deep emotional role. “You're usually the villain or the sidekick,” he says.

But in Prince of Players, by noted composer Carlisle Floyd (Susannah), a chamber opera commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera and premiering this month, Edquist gets to play a very emotional and real-life role: that of Edward Kynaston, a Restoration-era actor with androgynous looks that enabled him to play women's roles in the 1660s – a time when women weren't allowed on the London stage.

Edquist auditioned for the role last year after hearing from renowned opera composer Jake Heggie (who suggested he apply) that Floyd specifically (playing against expectations) wanted a baritone in the lead, rather than a tenor. “He wanted to make it clear that this was a man,” says Edquist, now a member of the HGO student academy.

He got into opera in college — undergrad at Vanderbuilt and a master's in voice at Rice — after gaining a lot of experience in musical theater while growing up in Lake Jackson. By the time he got to college, he says, he was cast in a lot of opera roles based upon his acting ability "even if I wasn't ready to sing them." But he persevered and with a lot of hard work and right-place, right-time moments (he met Heggie while doing another production), he's gone on to no little success. 

Describing his character, Edquist says Kynaston, who had a tough time growing up, “was the talk of the country because he's the best at what he does.” Accompanying that star power was a certain amount of arrogance, and it was actually his emotional objections about female actors, voiced to King Charles II, that hastened the change and the king's decision to allow women and, in fact, bar men from playing female roles, Edquist says. Given that the king's mistress at the time, Nell Gwynn, wanted to be able to perform onstage, his direct plea to Charles II couldn't have come at a worse time. 

Three performances are scheduled for March 5-13. There will be one intermission in the 90- to 100-minute production (they're still fine-tuning), which is sung in English. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas.  For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$80.
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