On this International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, I want to celebrate diversity in the operatic industry.
As a young transgender opera singer, at the start of her career, I want to wear my transness on my sleeve and claim it a key part of my artistic identity. However, there is work to be done to make the industry more accommodating of gender-diverse performers.
I write this piece not based on the assumption that any individual or organisation deliberately excludes trans folks, but with a view to addressing a blind-spot and how to approach it.
Normalising trans bodies and trans voices
Currently in the operatic canon, there are few trans roles. One example is Hannah in Laura Kraminsky’s “As One,” an American opera, which has had success in recent years.
While I would like to maintain that all and any trans visibility is good, it appears the role of Hannah is problematic for several reasons, mostly stemming from the fact that the role is split into two parts: ‘Hannah after’ (mezzo-soprano) and ‘Hannah before’ (baritone).
This essentialism of and obsession with the completion of one’s transition is an issue the modern media often collides with, failing to convey the person beyond their transness. In any case, ‘after’ what? A trans person is their gender, no matter how they look or sound, or whether they’ve transitioned medically.
Having a mezzo-soprano sing ‘Hannah after’ perpetuates a misapprehension that hormone replacement therapy for trans women affects the voice (while testosterone lowers the voice by thickening the vocal folds, oestrogen has no way of thinning them).
It also means that ‘Hannah after’ is highly likely to be played by a cisgender woman. Here is a perpetuation of the idea that a cis woman is a “real” or “complete” woman, an idea which is in opposition to the normalisation of trans bodies and trans voices, and poses a tangible threat to trans individuals.
Creating space using trans inclusive language
Let’s talk about language. I started singing in choirs at the age of eight years old. I was always encouraged to sing the lowest voice-part, because I was ‘a boy’. In a world where singers are forced into cis-normative singing roles from as early an age as five or six years old, we are not only enforcing an outdated view of how biology, anatomy, sex, and gender intersect, but potentially harming trans children too.
There is no biological reason young unbroken assigned male at birth (AMAB) voices shouldn’t sing whatever part they feel comfortable singing, or why young assigned female at birth (AFAB) voices shouldn’t explore the depths of their range in a safe and comfortable environment.
Then, after AMAB voices have broken, why is it we call these voices ‘male voices’ or ‘men’s voices’, and maturing AFAB voices become ‘female voices’ or ‘women’s voices’? I am often faced with the choice ‘male’ or ‘female’ (no ‘other’ option) on application forms for organisations, when I know the organisation in question means, ‘Are you a bass/baritone/tenor/countertenor or contralto/mezzo-soprano/soprano?’.
It’s exhausting to constantly worry that I don’t have a seat at the table, and might, by default, be on the back foot when entering into choral or operatic settings, due to echoes of antiquated attitudes regarding gender.
Now, in every musical setting I’m in, I encourage the use of the ‘upper/lower’ binary rather than the ‘female/male’.
Firstly, this is purely fact-based and creates a clear enough distinction when such separation is necessary in musical discourse. Secondly, it removes the need for gender-binary-perpetuating language, which is, at best, reductive and exclusive of trans and non-binary bodies, and at worst, harmful to any individual who falls outside of the binary.
What does the current cis- and binary-normative language we use in reference to voices and singers offer that trans-inclusive language doesn’t?
Evolution is essential to the survival of the operatic artform
If we look at cultural changes throughout time, we see how they have influenced artforms and the way those industries operate. In the 19th century, the recognition that castration was a barbaric practice led to the inclusion of upper-voice adult singers in opera. Singers of roles written for castrati in Handel and Monteverdi operas became interchangeable.
What’s stopping us from being as flexible with the “rules” in the modern day? Year after year we see gender-swapped, modernistic performances of Shakespeare plays, and yet, the rules for opera seem to be protected from change.
I was thrilled to see last year that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe had been cast by San Diego Opera as the title character in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (postponed due to Covid-19). This indicates a long-overdue flexibility in our artform, which could lead to the inclusion and facilitation of more trans singers on our opera stages.
It also creates new role opportunities for upper voices, for whom there are far fewer opera roles written in classical opera, and of whom there are far more trained in opera!
Gender-swapping roles can also increase the dramatic range of a piece. I’m lucky enough to be currently working with an open-minded director on the role of Tamina (traditionally Tamino) in a production of Die Zauberflöte. Through gender-swapping just one role, we see power dynamics change to favour women, multiple woman-loving-woman, and a platonic heterosexual relationship: all situations rarely seen on our opera stages.
This kind of evolution is essential to the survival of the operatic artform. Art without progression and adaptation stagnates and dies.
We should aspire to attract young, vibrant, open-minded audiences. We should want to accommodate the growing, beautiful diversity in our society rather than resist it. And we should make our artform one which anyone can comfortably and authentically take part in, expressing proudly who they are, with all parts of their identity in check.
International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia
IDAHOBiT was first created in 2004 to bring attention to the ongoing violence towards the LGBTQ+ community and is celebrated in over 130 countries, even in some of the places that still criminalise the LGBTQ+ community.
Touring for LGBT+ musicians shouldn’t be a problem. However, differing attitudes and legal frameworks regarding sexual orientation and gender identity mean LGBT+ musicians may need to do extra preparation and research before travelling to certain countries.
Take a look at our travelling advice for LGBT+ musicians.