Author: Aiden Feltkamp

Ungendered Voice Types for a New Century

Two singers clutching each other

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installments delved into how types are gendered and why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward. The previous article laid out my thoughts on how to create an ungendered system and this final installment will draw conclusions and provide practical advice for all those involved in creating new opera.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

Using the elements of type that I established in my last article (range, flexibility, and timbre), I’ve laid out a rudimentary map for creating new terms. I want these terms, especially the timbre-related ones, to be less binary and more open to personalization. I’ve only included a few that I think will give an idea of where this system could be headed.

If you’d like to skip ahead to practical ways to implement inclusivity within the current voice types, you can go straight to the end of the article. Otherwise, let’s dive in and put this new system to the test!

Ranges 1-12: A role’s general range will fall within one of these numbered ranges, which start at the lowest note and move up in range as the numbers go up (diagram below). While a role can only have one number designation (with optional upper or lower extension added as a modifier), a singer can occupy more than one numeral range. For example, a singer who previously identified as a contralto could now be a 7-8, or they could be just a 7. Both are equally valid and allow for a more personalized description of type. [Ed. Note: When this was initially published on NewMusicBox, there was an accidental notational error in ranges 5 and 6 which has subsequently been corrected here.]

The first six of Aiden Feltkamp's numerical range designations (1-6): singers designated as "1" can sing from E2 to G3; singers designated as "2" can sing from G2 to D4; singers designated as "3" can sing from A2 to E4; singers designated as "4" can sing from A2 to G4; singers designated as "5" can sing from B2 to B4; and singers designated as "6" can sing from C3 to C5.
The final six of Aiden Feltkamp's numerical range designations (7-12): singers designated as "7" can sing from F3 to C5; singers designated as "8" can sing from A3 to E5; singers designated as "9" can sing from B3 to G5; singers designated as "10" can sing from D4 to B5; singers designated as "11" can sing from G4 to C6; and singers designated as "12" can sing from B4 to F6.

I realize that numbers are a bit sterile, especially for something as artistic as opera and as unique as voice, but they could be replaced with words. The challenge is to find words that are descriptive but without the built-in prejudice from earlier voice type systems.

The challenge is to find words that are descriptive but without the built-in prejudice from earlier voice type systems.

Lyric/Flexible: This denotes the singer’s ability for fast movement. Singers who are flexible would be able to sing roles with moderate flexibility or high flexibility. Singers who sing roles labeled with “no flexibility” would take the adjective “lyric.” I realize that “lyric” is already part of the Fach system and has a slightly different meaning, but I’m at a loss for a better term for this aspect of the voice.

Dramatic/Light: These timbre descriptions relate directly to the size of the voice and what size orchestra/ensemble is best suited to it. While an established opera’s composition year/era would likely supply this information on its own, this designation could be helpful for new works and for singers themselves.

Steely/Warm/Bright/etc: These descriptors can be personalized to the singer and are more useful in singer descriptions than role descriptions. A producer or composer could prefer a particular timbre for a role, but this should only be used as a suggestion.

Let’s put this all to work in a few examples. Using this system, here are the types for the following roles:

  • Königin der Nacht (Mozart): flexible dramatic 12
  • Kate (Griffin Candey): lyric 10
  • The Rose (Rachel Portman): lyric 10 with lower extension
  • Cherubino (Mozart): lyric 9
  • Le Prince Charmant (Massenet): lyric dramatic 5 with lower extension OR lyric dramatic 10 with upper extension
  • Tonio (Donizetti): flexible light 12
  • Robert Oppenheimer (John Adams): lyric dramatic 4 with upper extension
  • Don Giovanni (Mozart): lyric 4

Each singer needs to classify themselves, but just for this sake of this example, I’ll use this system to classify a few living opera singers:

  • Diana Damrau: warm flexible dramatic 10-12
  • Angel Blue: flexible dramatic 9-11
  • Stephanie Blythe: warm lyric dramatic 8-10
  • Marijana Mijanovic: steely flexible light 7-9
  • Lawrence Brownlee: warm flexible light 5-6
  • Jonas Kaufmann: warm lyric dramatic 4-6
  • Samuel Ramey: flexible dramatic 1-4

I realize that this new system is just as prone to prejudice as any. I’m just hoping that with a clean slate, we’re able to eliminate some of the built-in gendering in the current types.

This article is more of a thought experiment than an industry change.

Since this article is more of a thought experiment than an industry change, I don’t want to end without lending some practical advice. So, how can you, a composer/producer/opera maker, create a more inclusive and expansive space for artists?

Nicholas Wiggins as Robert Schumann, Aumna Iqbal as Clara Schumann. Photo by Aiden Feltkamp (OperaRox Productions)

Nicholas Wiggins as Robert Schumann, Aumna Iqbal as Clara Schumann. Photo by Aiden Feltkamp (OperaRox Productions)

Accessible Auditions

If you want the most diverse pool of applicants, you need to eliminate barriers. Do you have an audition fee? If so, why? How could you find a way to eliminate or absorb this into your operating budget?

If you want the most diverse pool of applicants, you need to eliminate barriers.

Even better, do you need to have live auditions? If not, how can you set up remote auditions? I personally love casting from recordings and personal interviews. Just don’t require super HD recordings, because that also creates another barrier.

Diverse Audition Panel

Who is judging the auditionees? Do you have a panel that’s diverse in experience, demographic, and style? If not, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of unconscious bias. Build a panel from people you trust but who don’t always agree with you. Panelists should interrogate others’ reasons for liking one person over another. Is it a real issue, preference, or unconscious bias?

Confront Your Unconscious Biases

We all carry unconscious biases with us. The best way to counteract their less-helpful side is to spend time on self-reflection. Identify your unconscious biases and keep them in mind as you make decisions. You can learn the basics of unconscious bias in this article and you can test some of your own biases at Harvard’s Project Implicit.

Leave the Gender Police at Home

We all carry unconscious biases with us.

If you find yourself thinking or talking like a black-and-white character from Pleasantville, you’re probably being the gender police. We don’t need the 1950s and its outdated gender roles; leave them at the door when you’re judging auditions, if at no other time.

A screenshot of a Jan 27, 2019 9:06pm retweet by BAD WITH MONEY BOOK (@gabydunn) which reads: "Legit nothing in the script that says Roger isn't in a wheelchair!" plus the text of the original tweet from Alison Young (@Foreverayoung): "You wish you could see this version! @RENTonFox #RentLive"

Think Outside the Box

Have you ever seen a tomboy Zerlina? Or a goth Barbarina? (I have, actually, and I loved it.) How about a bisexual Tamino? If you can think outside the box about these characters, you can also think outside the box on the artists who play them. We don’t need cookie-cutter opera singers – we need artists. But they’ll only thrive and perform if they’re hired to do so. Don’t settle. Instead, imagine.

Start Trends Instead of Following Them

Create the future of opera that you want to see and stick to it. People will be drawn to good and inclusive art.

Thank you to everyone who made it this far! Let’s keep this conversation going and move toward a more inclusive and vibrant future for opera.

 

Adapting an Ever-Changing System

A nonbinary person wearing a suit laughing

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installments delved into how types are gendered and why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward. The final installment will draw conclusions from this and previous conversations to provide practical advice for all those involved in creating new opera.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

We’ve phased out castrati…

A study of opera history quickly reveals the continually shifting nature of voice classification. We’ve phased out castrati, created distinctions such as mezzo-soprano and bass-baritone, and added modifiers to each to create the Fach system. Just as more recent classification has built upon older systems, I believe we can make tweaks to the current system to create one that’s more inclusive, descriptive, and wholly separate from binary gender identities.

Granted, we could keep classification as it is and attempt to strip the gender expectations from it. But, as I discussed in the last installment, it’s hard to change associations built into an established system. It’s worth considering changes or something entirely new, if only to allow for a more immediate adoption and implementation.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers. The goal is to create more flexibility for singers, a more usable tool for composers, and more detailed information for producers when it comes to casting and programming.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers.

I encourage everyone to engage me in this conversation. My suggestions aren’t a be-all and end-all or even completely polished. I propose these next few ideas with as much openness and enthusiasm as possible. I’ve spent far too much time thinking about this and not enough time writing. I’m afraid of leaving something out, of missing an important piece of the puzzle and exposing myself to an exorbitant amount of criticism, but I’ll push forward regardless.

The way I see it, the most important elements of voice type are range, flexibility, and timbre.

Range

Obviously, the lowest and highest notes sung within a role are the basis for its type. That’s easy enough to delineate and notate. But anyone familiar with the operatic singing voice will know that there are additional factors to consider. A full lyric soprano and a coloratura mezzo may have the same range in terms of low and high notes, but how they navigate that range, and how often they’re in different parts of that range, are what differentiate their voice types and the roles written for their voices.

That said, I find it extremely helpful to have a range listed for each new role. At the bare minimum, that would indicate the highest and lowest notes of the role. At best, it’ll also indicate where the role generally sits and the frequency of the use of the extremes. This could be a graphic or text-based element placed at the front of the score with the role list. I’ve included a simplistic example of what could be included by the composer, using the title character of Griffin Candey’s Sweets by Kate as a model. The first measure is the role’s entire range and the second shows where the role sits most often within that range.

Music notation showing the complete range (eb' to b'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to g'') for the role of Kate in Griffin Candey’s opera Sweets by Kate

A more common example is Cherubino from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. With the range laid out in this way, it’s easy to see why producers can choose from sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and countertenors when casting for this role.

Music notation showing the complete range (b to g'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to f'') for the role of Cherubino in Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro

Another idea that I find helpful comes from my composer friend, David Howell. He thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations: “If you sang X, you would probably also like Y.” This would be especially helpful for new operas. A singer could easily determine a role’s general fit before digging into the opera in its entirety. The implementation of this is more suited to range and flexibility than timbre, since timbre is less tied to a singer’s ability to sing a role and more dependent on a producer’s preference, the performance venue, and the instrumental ensemble available.

David Howell thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations.

To continue with the example above, if you sing Kate in Sweets by Kate, you might also sing: Pamina in Die Zauberflöte (Mozart), Musetta in La Bohème (Puccini), Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck), Nanetta in Falstaff (Verdi), Young Alyce in Glory Denied (Cipullo), The Rose in The Little Prince (Portman), and Helen in The Great God Pan (Crean).

Ranges could be standardized and then identified; these classifications could be as simple and clincial as numbers or as interesting as new names. Singers could exist within multiple established ranges to show their voice’s unique abilities and propensities. As I delved into in earlier installments, labels could remain as they are but without the expectation of gender, or completely new terms could be created. As a compromise, new standardized ranges could join the already-standardized types. However, I’d push for a new set of labels for ranges.

Flexibility

I define flexibility as the role’s tendency to have fast and/or moving (running or jumping) notes. The terms “coloratura” and “lyric” are currently in use for this aspect, but I believe we could be more specific.

My suggestion would be something akin to three categories: no flexibility, moderate flexibility, and high flexibility. Lyric roles would fall within both “no flexibility” and “moderate flexibility,” while most coloratura roles would be labeled “high flexibility.” For example: Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro would fall into “moderate flexibility,” but Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia would carry the “high flexibility” label. Then, the same character in John Corgliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles would be labeled with “no flexibility.”

Timbre

This is where, for me at least, things get interesting. It’s the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

Timbre is the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

I think we can keep many of the Fach system’s descriptors in relation to timbre. A light lyric or a dramatic makes sense, no matter what voice type it’s modifying. It really comes down to giving names for ranges and then adding modifiers for flexibility and timbre.

An important aspect of timbre when creating new roles relates to the instrumental ensemble’s size and the density of the orchestration. The dramatic voice types emerged as the operatic orchestra changed throughout the Romantic period (and beyond) and signify a particular size in the voice. Since dramatic voices aren’t the necessary norm for new works, it would be helpful to include a size indicator within the timbre labeling system.

Timbre and Gender

Even though almost all the words we use to describe an operatic voice’s timbre (warm, steely, heavy, bright) are ungendered, timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

Timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

My major hang-up relates to the difference in timbre in the treble range between cisgender women and cisgender men. This most likely stems from my past as a mezzo-soprano and my tendency to listen to both cisgender women and cisgender men singing the same repertoire. There’s a quality to a cisgender man’s voice in the high treble range that immediately genders it for me.

Granted, this is a personal issue and not necessarily a systemic one. I didn’t notice my own gendering of the voice until I first heard Marijana Mijanovic’s recordings a few years ago. Her performance of Cesare (Händel) reminds me so much of a cisgender man’s voice that I had to question everything I already thought about the gendering of the physical vocal mechanism and its inherent ability to create certain sounds.

As my own voice box began to change, my concept regarding the difference between a “male” and “female” approach to shared notes diverged again. (I use quotation marks here, because, as I delve into in Part 2, gendering body parts is problematic and inaccurate.) I’d expected the change from my “female” voice box to a testosterone-affected one to be more like learning how to play the violin after playing the cello. Instead, it’s much more like giving up the cello for the trumpet.

The jarring difference makes it both easier and harder to separate my voice, and therefore all voices, from a binary gender structure. It’s harder, because it’s re-enforcing my idea that the voice-owner’s gender does affect the core sound, but it’s easier because my voice is even less binary than before. As I explained in Part 2, the voice’s gender reflects the gender of its owner, so my voice has always been nonbinary; but now that it has physically transitioned (an irreversible and finite process in the case of my voice box, but not my body), it has entered a space that far less voice boxes occupy and this fact re-enforces the need for a system that’s less reliant on gender.

One of the ultimate goals of this new system is to allow for a character’s description to determine the gender of the role, rather than the gender of the performer. This will not only free up composers and librettists to create gender-diverse characters, but it will allow more versatility in roles for all singers regardless of their gender identity and a wider range of choice for casting directors and producers.

I’ll pull this all together in the next, and final, installment of this series. In the meantime, I’d like to make a quick announcement.

The voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person.

Since starting this series, my voice has changed again. I’ve left my tenor days behind me, and I’m now fully entrenched in the bass-baritone range (below). If I’ve learned anything through this process, it’s that the voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person. I want to find a way to mirror that individuality in a specific, detailed, and helpful way. This series is just one step in that direction.

Music notation showing Aiden Feltkamp's current vocal range (G to e')

Are Operatic Voice Types Inherently Gendered?

A woman in a dark red coat, blue shirt and dark lipstick posing as the role of a prince for an opera

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installment delved into why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward, and later installments will discuss possibilities for the continual adaptation of voice classification systems.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

Imagine, for a moment, a mezzo-soprano. Who do you see? If you’re having trouble, this is what Google came up with:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "mezzo-soprano"

You’ll notice that they’re all women. I can’t make assumptions for those I don’t know, but of those I do know, many of the women shown here are cisgender, not transgender or gender non-conforming, women. (They’re also mostly white. But that’s another topic for another article.)

Now, imagine a countertenor. Who do you see? Here’s what Google sees:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "countertenor"

It’s also interesting that both the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor are newer voice types. Countertenors are a contemporary version of the Baroque and Classical era castrati. Mezzo-sopranos didn’t exist as their own voice type until the 19th century.

If a mezzo-soprano and a countertenor share the same range and often the same roles, then why are they separate types? And why is there an obvious gender difference?

Of course, the obvious answer is that timbre and ability are different between mezzo-sopranos and countertenors. And that timbre/ability difference, on the most basic and overly generalized level, is due to the physical differences of the vocal cords.

As much as I love science, I don’t think it’s beneficial to go into it here. Instead, I’d like to speak about my own experience transitioning from average “female” vocal cords to testosterone-affected vocal cords that more closely resemble average “male” vocal cords. I’m using quotation marks here, because the gendering of body parts is as useless as the gendering of articles of clothing. A body part or an article of clothing may have societal or traditional associations with a specific gender, but that isn’t enough to gender it; instead, these things take on the gender of the person they belong to.  Since I’m a transmasculine nonbinary person, my vocal cords are transmasculine and nonbinary as well.

All of this aside, the mechanism that I’ve spent years training as a mezzo-soprano feels and operates completely differently since hormone replacement therapy caused it to change. Not only has the timbre and range fluctuated, but the overall sensation of singing with these changed vocal cords is now foreign to me.

That said, am I still a mezzo-soprano if I have the range, the roles, the experience, and the training? Or am I a countertenor now, since my vocal cords more closely resemble “male” vocal cords? Or, perhaps, I’m neither. This is where the inherent gendering of the voice types becomes more apparent and far less useful.

  • Both the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor are newer voice types.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • The gendering of body parts is as useless as the gendering of articles of clothing.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • Critics continue to make women’s bodies a big deal (generally, but especially) when they’re performing trouser roles.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist

Perhaps I’m being a bit flippant about decoupling gender from voice, since it’s still a topic of hot debate when it comes to operatic casting as well as recital repertoire. There’s still the question of who’s “allowed” to sing Winterreise (spoiler alert: the answer is “everyone”) and critics continue to make women’s bodies a big deal (generally, but especially) when they’re performing trouser roles. Perhaps my own concept and experience of gender is too opaquely coloring the conversation here. I just can’t move past the fact that boy sopranos are boy sopranos and I don’t personally know any female operatic tenors. To me, this seems too constrictive to be adaptable.

As I mentioned in the last part of this series, I believe that adaptability is crucial to an art form’s success and relevancy into the future. I’m thinking we could go about solving this with one of two major shifts: we could remove the gender implications of our current voice type system (as the German Fach system has attempted to do, especially in regard to transgender singers) or we could create a new system that has a lack of gendered implications. Or, perhaps, it’s as easy as normalizing gender as part of the voice type. Then, female tenor will be as much a voice type as dramatic tenor. I’ll dive into these possibilities in the next part.

Too often, it seems that the answer to “Has society gendered this?” is “Yes.” It’s no different with operatic voice types.

Does Opera Need Gendered Voice Types?

From a 2016 production Higglety Pigglety Pop 2016 featuring Aiden Feltkamp as Pig with soprano Sophia Burgos

This is the first of a four-part series about operatic voice classification for the 21st century which will explore the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. All experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general.

My path as an opera singer has been a strange one. I started out as a coloratura mezzo-soprano with a high range, but then I slowly developed into a low, full lyric mezzo. Then, just when I thought my voice couldn’t get any lower (or higher), both occurred when I started hormone replacement therapy (testosterone) as part of my medical transition. Now, my countertenor range sits higher than my mezzo range did, but my chest voice’s range is that of a low tenor. If I were to step into an audition tomorrow, what could I possibly list as my voice type?

Granted, this isn’t anywhere near the average experience for an opera singer. It’s estimated that about 0.6% of the United States population identifies as transgender. Even fewer people identify outside the gender binary. While the mere existence of trans and nonbinary artists should be enough to change things, I’m not arguing for an ungendered system of voice types for our sake alone. However, my experience as a transgender nonbinary singer has led me to question the effectiveness of the voice type classifications that we currently have in place.

I began my operatic career as a female-presenting mezzo-soprano. I almost exclusively played trouser roles, first out of coincidence and later out of desire. It was during my preparation for these trouser roles that I first discovered the online transgender community. Even though I was 19 at the time, this was my first introduction to the idea of transitioning and the first glimpse of something that had been nagging at me since I was very young. I’ve always felt out of sorts in the gender binary, but I could never pinpoint the issue or explain how I was feeling. For example, when I was in third grade and we used the gym locker rooms for the first time, I didn’t understand why I was in the girls’ locker room. I lived with the pressing anxiety that they’d find out I was a fraud and assign a punishment. But feelings like this were inexplicable to me at the time, and for long after. As an opera singer, I loved learning how to present male onstage. It felt comfortable and right, like pulling on a well-loved, nostalgia-inducing sweatshirt that I’d found unexpectedly in the back of the closet after giving it up for lost. While playing those roles, I felt, for the first time, something much more like “me.”

My time as a graduate student in the Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory served as the catalyst for my acknowledgement of my gender identity and the beginning of my social transition. The faculty there, Kayo Iwama and Dawn Upshaw especially, continually pushed me to dig deeper, to understand myself, and to be myself without reserve or shame. With this new courage and some study of gender theory, I started to put things into place.

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

As I came into myself, my physical dysphoria made everyday life extremely difficult and I could no longer put off starting hormones. I’d never intended to take hormones, because I wanted to keep my mezzo-soprano voice. The vocal changes caused by testosterone are inevitable and irreversible. When I had to choose between myself and my voice, I had to choose myself. It has absolutely paid off, since I’m more myself and more centered than I’ve ever been before. I’ve accepted my new voice, no matter what it is or will be, and I’ve grieved my mezzo-soprano voice as I’ve grieved the end of a relationship or the completion of a spectacular experience. But that’s a story for another time.

We can’t assume that a transgender singer has experienced, or will experience, a vocal change. Hormones do not make someone any less/more “legitimate” or “trans.” They were necessary for me, but they’re not necessary for everyone. There is no universal trans experience. My experience is singular. It might resemble someone else’s, but it equally might be completely different. Therefore, trans singers could fall into any of the current voice types.

Let’s return to my first question about the hypothetical audition and dig into that a bit. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I’ve decided to train and identify as a countertenor. I’ll be walking in with a resume full of mezzo-soprano roles, male clothing, and an androgynous appearance. Since I’ve written “countertenor” on my resume, most judges will assume that I identify as male. Since many mezzo-soprano and countertenor roles overlap, there will be less question of what I’m capable of singing. However, when the audition panelists read further down my resume, they’ll see that I’ve played female roles that are generally sung by cisgender women, such as Hermia and Jo March, in addition to my trouser roles. They may have read my biography and know my current gender identity, but they may not have. They have a lot of material to work through and it’s not on them to know or remember my gender identity. Unfortunately, this may lead to confusion that overshadows my singing, making the audition interaction more about my gender than my performance. Perhaps this is an issue caused by the lack of gender education in our society. Regardless, the outcome is the same.

Elizabeth’s Act I Aria from Sweets by Kate sung by Aiden Feltkamp
Music by Griffin Candey; Libretto by Thom K. Miller
Stage Director: Amber Treadway; Music Director: Griffin Candey; Costumes: Kaitlyn Day
Piano: Peiharn Chen; Cello: Spencer Shen; Violin: Sara Sidley
Video: La Cuarta Productions
Performed live at The Stonewall Inn – July 12, 2017

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard mentors tell singers, myself included, to go out of their way not to “confuse” the panel by listing roles of different voice types on their resume. This isn’t to say that audition panelists are uneducated or incapable; it’s to illuminate the fact that auditions are short and your singing is easily overshadowed by a preoccupation with other details or the unintended bias caused by those details.

  • My experience as a transgender nonbinary singer has led me to question the effectiveness of the voice type classifications that we currently have in place.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • When I had to choose between myself and my voice, I had to choose myself.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • This isn’t a gender issue, but rather an issue of the current classification system’s inability to handle change.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • The onus should be on the system to support and correctly describe the artists within it, not on the artists to fit within its established parameters.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist

Let’s go to a more common example. Imagine a soprano who has just changed her voice type from mezzo-soprano to soprano. She’s immediately at a disadvantage if she lists every role that she’s performed on her resume, because it will immediately cause the review panel to question the legitimacy of her soprano-ness. The next inevitable step is that they’ll question her ability to sing the role for which she’s currently auditioning. This isn’t a gender issue any longer, but rather an issue of the current classification system’s inability to handle change.

And perhaps you’re thinking, “Our current voice types aren’t inherently gendered. What’s the issue?” Stay tuned, because while I won’t get to that here, I’ll go more in-depth into that aspect of the discussion in the next part of this series.

Voice type classification doesn’t only relate to the vocalists performing existing repertoire – this system also relates to the operatic roles we’re creating now and the roles we will create in the future. As a librettist, I’ve found that the current system severely limits and/or complicates the characters I write. When I write a trans or nonbinary character, many composers (rightfully) ask, “How do I write for this?” or “How do I identify it in terms of casting?” It’s quickly discovered that it’s not enough information to state a range or a standard voice type.

In the past, opera has intelligently dealt with the gender/voice interaction with its trouser and skirt roles. It’s still working with a gender binary, but it made a point of deciding how best to express certain variations and experiences in gender. I believe that changing the voice classification system can continue that adeptness into the future of the art form, allowing opera to continue to grow. The system has been purposefully designed; it can similarly be redesigned.

More and more trans artists are realizing that they can be both trans and an opera singer, something I once believed impossible. How can we be welcoming to their presence and artistry if the very structure of our system works against them? We’ve revised the operatic structure again and again, allowing it to flourish for hundreds of years. We can do it again to dismantle barriers for gender-diverse artists.

I’ve asked a lot of questions and I’ve purposely left most of them unanswered. First, I’m not a pedagogue; I’m speaking from my experience and the experiences that others have shared with me. Second, I don’t think that this is something that should be decided by one person. I’m far more interested in opening up the conversation to as many as are interested as a way to lead to a change in protocol. In later parts of this series, I’ll map out my ideas for the necessary elements of this new voice type classification system and how we can begin to combine these into a new system.

In the end, the onus should be on the system to support and correctly describe the artists within it, not on the artists to fit within its established parameters. A system that no longer serves its purpose, or that cannot expand to meet its purpose, must be redesigned.