Tag: opera

Anthony Davis: Any Means Necessary

A revival of X, a three-act opera inspired by the life of the Black Muslim minister and social activist Malcolm X, opened at the Detroit Opera House this past weekend (and has additional performances through May 22). While there have been a few performances here and there since its 1986 premiere at New York City Opera, the new Detroit production is the most high profile one and it will continue on to Opera Omaha, Seattle Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. Plus there will be another production in June by Odyssey Opera/BMOP in Boston which will culminate in a new recording of the opera scheduled to be released in September. It’s a long overdue recognition for the first opera composed by Anthony Davis, who was finally recognized with a Pulitzer Prize last year for his eighth opera, The Central Park Five, another politically charged work based on recent history (which returns to the stage at Long Beach Opera in June and another production of which, presented by Portland Opera, can be streamed from now until May 20).

Back in 1986, a dismissive New York Times review of X by the notoriously contemporary music-loathing critic Donal Henahan, claimed that “words and ideology, not vocalism,” were “the center of attention in this work” and that the opera “falls into the category of message theater, and by definition its message will not appeal to all who hear it.” While the review undoubtedly dissuaded some impresarios back then, this important work, which was staged a year before Nixon in China, arguably spawned a whole subgenre of contemporary operas based on current or relatively recent events which have sometimes been described as “CNN operas,” although Davis considers that term dismissive and “pejorative. … We’re just borrowing; it’s about the headlines.” Especially because for him this story has all the trappings of a classic opera and its protagonist is “a tragic hero.”

When I spoke with Davis over Zoom last month he was in the middle of rehearsals in Detroit, so X was very much at the forefront of his thoughts. But what I didn’t realize is that this new production might have never taken place had Davis not spent a good deal of the pandemic re-engraving performance materials, which is something he worked on just to make good use of the time.

“All stuff was cancelled… So, I thought, what am I gonna do?” Davis explained. “X was a score I’d done by hand before computers. And then Schirmer had done parts and it was done in Score. So I thought, I’d like to make the piece so that it could be done as, you know, excerpts. … I worked like four or five hours on it during COVID. I had to have something to do. I just about finished the excerpts, which is little more than half of the opera, about an hour and a half of music, and then Yuval [Sharon, Artistic Director of the Detroit Opera] called me, and said he wanted to do the whole thing. So I said, great. Well, I’ve done half, I might as well do the whole thing. … And the revised version of the opera emerged from that. It’s like looking at a mirror and seeing, you know, the Dorian Gray thing or something, see your 30-year-old self staring back at you. But I had to protect that 30-year-old self from my 70-year-old instincts to re-write; I couldn’t change everything. I have to be faithful to what I was thinking then, what my musical ideas were at that point.”

Since X was Davis’s first opera, as he pointed out, “There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time.” But before X, Davis had already established a career as a highly successful contemporary jazz composer, pianist, and leader of the progressive ensemble Episteme. He had also made significant in-roads into the world of so-called contemporary classical music, an early pinnacle of which is his idiosyncratic piano concerto Wayang V, a work informed by his fascination with traditional Indonesian gamelan music. It’s a piece that has been recorded twice, both times with Davis as the piano soloist performing with two different orchestras–the Kansas City Symphony led by William McGlaughlin and, more recently, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose (who is also conducting that new recording of X). Before all of that, Davis was actually an aspiring classical pianist.

“I was playing a lot of Schumann then, so I was playing that Fantasiestücke stuff,” he remembered. “I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me…. I actually did a couple concerts in Italy where I played a half program of classical piano, and then a half program of doing Monk tunes. And then I started doing my own compositions. That’s when I first started writing pieces that I could improvise around.”

The fact that many different musical traditions have shaped Anthony Davis’s aesthetic is something he views not as “eclectism” (another bad word in his estimation), but rather as “a resolution of identity, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies.”

So, in a way, it’s inevitable that Davis has devoted so much of his compositional energies to opera, and in particular to using the operatic medium to tell stories that either deal with significant historic events or which focus on important social concerns. Aside from X and The Central Park Five, Davis’s eight operas also include: Amistad, about a rebellion on a slave ship in the 19th century; the Patty Hearst-inspired Tania; and Lear on the 2nd Floor, which re-imagines the famous Shakespeare play as the story of a formerly highly-respected woman who is now living in an assisted care facility because she is suffering from dementia.

Curiously, what first triggered Davis’s interest in opera was reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy during his student years. “I thought that what Nietzsche was writing about in terms of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and the kind of binary that he created, was more applicable to American music than it was to German. Because we’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.” But now he sees creating these operas as a mission. “What we face now is so much like the early-‘30s in Germany: the present danger that we could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it has made it more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.”

  • Where I grew up in State College, my brother and I were the only black people in the school. So I began to think about that. And I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me.

    Anthony Davis
  • We’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.

    Anthony Davis
  • I used to imagine playing with Blackwell and Ornette, I was thinking how I could be Charlie Haden in the left hand and Don Cherry in the right.

    Anthony Davis
  • Opera is so much about memory. You can always go back to things that are in the opera. You’re creating your own kind of world in it, but it also has the extra world of what it refers to in terms of the whole genre of opera, and also what other music you bring into opera.

    Anthony Davis
  • I had this image of Malcolm listening to John Coltrane’s quartet, or Sonny Rollins. I felt that the link to music was really evident.

    Anthony Davis
  • One of the advantages of working with black singers is that they have many experiences. They sing in church. Maybe they sang in the black church. They’d sing opera, but some of them of have sung jazz too. It’s not an alien artform. ... So you can find the hybrid musician.

    Anthony Davis
  • Sometimes they call it eclectism, which I think is a bad word for it. ‘Cause that’s like thinking or picking pebbles on the beach or something, you know. It’s actually a resolution of identify, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies. I think what that can relate to is subtext in a dramatic sense, what is the subtext of what’s going on. And so the music always provides a subtext.

    Anthony Davis
  • It was kind of a pejorative the way it was used: CNN Operas. It was kind of dismissed as this trend. We’re just borrowing. It’s about the headlines, etcetera.

    Anthony Davis
  • Right now, it’s a really dangerous time in America. We can be on the edge of Fascism; that’s something I worry about every day. ... We could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it made more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.

    Anthony Davis
  • Someone asked me, how do you write music for Trump? I said well, first of all, he’s a tenor. Second of all, he repeats things a lot. Third thing is he never finishes a sentence. Why was that appealing to people? I mean, this launched his whole career as a politician. He exploited the racial divide for his own personal benefit as a political figure.

    Anthony Davis
  • There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time. There’s a flame that goes, it’s like you’re discovering all these things.

    Anthony Davis

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

  • I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • I’m the guy who writes hybrid.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • There is no such thing as history or then and now.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.

    Ricky Ian Gordon

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 4: The Framework

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy.

By Brin Solomon & Aiden Feltkamp

This is Part 4 of a four-part series. We strongly encourage you to read Parts 1, 2, and 3 before continuing.

Preamble

We’re almost done. Having laid out some trans theory and heard from trans practitioners, we’re about to lay out a framework for responsible trans casting in singing theater.

We intend this to be a minimal framework, in two senses. First, we have kept the number of guidelines to a minimum, balancing thoroughness with flexibility to produce something that is clear and concrete while also being adaptable to a wide variety of on-the-ground circumstances. Second, however, we want to emphasize that this is not a maximum standard to aspire to, but a minimal bar that must be reached. Following this guide cannot guarantee you will make good trans representation, but it will hopefully help you avoid making bad trans representation.

We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible.

We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible. Swastikas mean something different on contemporary US white-supremacist rally flags than they did in 12th-century Buddhist iconography. We know how things stand where and when we are; we do not know how things are in every single other place, nor can we anticipate how things will change in the future. We offer this guide to those who share our cultural context; writers working outside it will need to adapt it to the specifics of their own surroundings.

Please don’t refer to this as the Feltkamp-Solomon Test or any similar moniker. We may be the two people putting these words in this order, but this guide has grown from innumerable conversations, formal and informal, with other trans people over the course of years of our lives. This document is inseparable from the community it emerges from.

That said, we are under no illusions as to the unity of trans communities. We anticipate that other trans people will disagree with us—indeed, the writers do not even agree with each other on all things trans related. We welcome this disagreement and look forward to engaging with it. We offer this guide as part of an ongoing conversation, an attempt to publicly draw together numerous threads into a document for others to remark upon, critique, and add nuance to.

In particular, we know that not all trans people will agree that cis people have any business writing trans characters at all.[1] While we are sympathetic to this position, and while cis writers’ track record is far from exemplary here, we feel we must disagree. Trans actors need jobs. Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia. The stories you see shape the worlds you can imagine, and we do not wish to encourage cis people to keep imagining worlds in which we do not exist. To forbid cis writers from writing trans characters is, in some ways, to forbid cis writers from imagining trans people as real, complex human beings, which, we feel, casts trans people as an unknowable Other. We find this profoundly dehumanizing.[2]

Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia.

This obviously raises the much larger issue of which writers are “allowed” to tell which stories. Discussions of this question frequently lack even a rudimentary understanding of structural power imbalances between marginalized and non-marginalized groups. This lack inevitably dooms them to confusion. To put it bluntly, asking who is “allowed” to write which stories without analyzing the power imbalances at play is rather like doing a harmonic analysis by looking only at the bass drum part—you’re simply missing critical information.

Analyzing the underlying power imbalances reveals facile accusations of having unfair double standards—if cis actors can’t play trans characters, why can trans actors play cis characters?—for the vacuities that they are. These purported equivalencies fall flat because cis people and trans people are not equivalently situated in society: cis people have far more structural power. Trans actors cannot have stable careers if they aren’t cast by cis directors. Trans writers cannot reliably get their work produced without cis producers. Trans artists of all stripes depend on the support of cis-led institutions. The most prominent stories about trans lives, stories that have real consequences for how safely we are able to live those lives, are overwhelmingly created and controlled by cis people. In all cases, the reverse is not true. Until this changes—until we root out transphobia at every level, dismantle these pervasive inequities, and create a society truly founded on Justice—it is absurd to propose there is any double standard to questioning cis writers’ ability to write trans characters without also questioning trans writers’ ability to write cis characters.[3] Build utopia, then we’ll talk.

This brings us to the scare quotes we have been putting around “allowed.” That phrasing crops up often, but it is fundamentally misleading. There is no all-powerful trans cabal whose permission you must secure before undertaking a new work. No one can stop you from writing whatever you want. Indeed, judging by Tootsie’s Tony nominations and American Opera Projects’ continued pride[4] in Three Way, you may even be richly rewarded for it. The success of these shows (and many others like them) should put to rest any fears from cis people that they will not be “allowed” to write about trans people.

If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you.

A better framing of this question is to ask not who is allowed to write what, but who is able to do so without hurting members of a marginalized group. If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you. Nor can we help you if you refuse to believe trans people when we tell you what hurts us. But if you do care, and if you are willing to listen, we hope that the guide below will help you tell trans stories responsibly.

The Framework

This framework has two tiers. The first tier is a bar to clear—any production that cannot meet it may be presumed transphobic with no further analysis. The second tier is a series of questions, each of which is a common red flag. The more you answer yes to, the more likely your show will hurt trans people. If you answer no to all of them, you are likely fine. If you answer yes to all of them, you should almost certainly not proceed as planned.

There is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory.

As will be discussed at more length below, it is possible to handle most of these things well, and we certainly don’t mean to imply that any show that does any of these things must, necessarily, be transphobic. But there is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory. Handling these things well is difficult, and cis people, not having lived these experiences, are starting at a considerable disadvantage. Attempt them at your peril.

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy

Tier 1: The Bar To Clear

Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor, and, where applicable, that actor’s assumed gender at birth must match the character’s assumed gender at birth.

Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor

The reasons why it is unacceptable to cast a cis actor in a trans role have been covered extensively elsewhere, so we will not reiterate that reasoning here. If you still feel that you do not understand why this is important, we ask that you simply believe us when we tell you what we need.

The second clause, however, requires explication. In recent years, there have been several instances where a trans man, for example, has been hired to play the role of a trans woman. We are surprised that cis people need to hear that men and women are, in fact, different, but here we are: Men and women are different, and one cannot simply be subbed in for the other. As Brin has articulated elsewhere, doing so not only confuses cis people about what basic terms like trans man mean (thus undoing countless painstaking educational efforts by trans activists) but also encourages audiences to misgender the actor, the character, or both.

Human beings are complex creatures, however, and we wish to respect that complexity. Insisting that an actor’s gender exactly match their character’s would trample this complexity, potentially forcing, for example, a transmasculine actor to hide his nonbinary identity lest he be precluded from playing a trans man in a new show. Such rigidity would also give rise to interminable, unanswerable disputes about whether, say, a transfeminine agender person is the same gender as a transfeminine neutrois person, disputes that would only grow more intractable when it comes to contemporary actors playing historical figures. While grouping trans people by gender assumed at birth may, understandably, be uncomfortable for some, we believe that this approach strikes a reasonable balance between respecting the differences among different kinds of trans people and allowing for the multifaceted fluidity of specific individuals.

That said, there are many situations where a character’s assumed gender at birth may be nonexistent or irrelevant. Your show may involve a Biblical angel, the Personification of the Abstract Concept of Forgetfulness, or a singing loaf of bread—all cases where gender assumed at birth does not apply. Or your show may involve a character that must be nonbinary, but whose gender assumed at birth does not matter to the drama at hand.[5] Your show may well read differently depending on whether you cast an AFAB or an AMAB actor in such cases, just as your show may read differently if you cast a bombastic actor to play your villain or a calculating one. Every individual actor will bring a unique energy to the roles they play; that energy will naturally be shaped, in greater and lesser ways, by many different aspects of their being. We cannot anticipate every possible production of every possible show; we trust creative teams to know what they need in their actors for the dramas they are creating to make sense.

Tier 2: The Ten Questions

These ten questions represent the most frequent and pernicious possibilities of bad trans writing.

Tier 1 had more to do with casting than writing. In Tier 2, we’ll reverse that. These questions are not presented in any particular order, and nor do they exhaust the possibilities of bad trans writing. We included ten questions because ten is a round number, and we included these ten because they represent the most frequent and pernicious tropes that the actors and writers interviewed for this series complained about. Here they are:

  • Is it a coming-out story?

Coming-out stories are important, but they’re also massively over-done, and their prevalence makes it seem like transness is something unfamiliar that must always be explained. These stories usually imply that coming out and transitioning are tidy, finite processes, and they also limit our ability to imagine trans people living rich, long lives after telling everyone we’re trans. There’s so much more to us than these initial announcements.

  • Is the trans character deadnamed, misgendered, or otherwise subject to transphobic violence? Are they sexually assaulted?

Obviously, conflict is the heart of drama, and conflict more or less requires characters having bad things happen to them. But there’s a difference between an ordinary plot-related bad thing—a natural disaster, a surprise betrayal, untrammeled arrogance—and a bad thing brought about because of a character’s transness. Basically, we want you to imagine transness not as a source of suffering, and trans people not as tragic figures who inevitably wind up getting raped.

  • Are the trans character’s emotions explained or excused by hormones?

Hormones may alter our emotional landscapes, but testosterone doesn’t make someone an aggressive monster, nor does estrogen make someone a weepy mess. Trans people on and off hormones experience a full range of emotions and can control our reactions to them; trans characters shouldn’t be let off the hook because hormones are making them “emotional,” and nor should their emotions be dismissed as “just a side effect of hormones.”

  • For transfeminine characters: Does the trans character commit sexual assault?

It is a core plank of many transmisogynistic attacks that trans women are inherently sexually predatory. While some real-life trans women do commit sexual assault, just as some real-life cis women do, it is extraordinarily difficult to depict this in fiction without strengthening the idea that all trans women are inherently predatory threats.[6]

  • Do we know more about the trans character’s genitals than the cis characters’ genitals?

Cis people tend to fixate on our genitals, stripping away every other aspect of our personhood to obsess over what’s between our legs. If you’re writing a sex farce, it may be appropriate to mention a trans character’s genitals, but if we don’t know whether the cis men in your show are circumcised, or if the cis women shave their pubic hair, we shouldn’t know anything about the trans character’s junk.

  • Is the realness of a trans character’s gender made contingent on medical interventions?

It’s obviously abhorrent to say that a cis woman isn’t a “real” woman because her body is the wrong shape and she hasn’t gone to a doctor to change it. Similarly, trans people aren’t less “real” if we never step into a hospital or swallow a pill.

  • Does the trans character exist primarily to teach the cis characters a lesson?

The archetypal example here is probably Angel[7] from RENT: A larger-than-life figure whose unshakable authenticity inspires the other characters to be truer to themselves and embrace living in the moment. This frames trans people as primarily existing for the benefit of cis people, and denies us the possibility of having goals we pursue for our own sakes. A very concrete red flag is if the trans character is called “brave” merely for existing.

  • Is “being trans” the character’s only defining feature?

Trans people are just as individual as everyone else, with interests, projects, and goals that have nothing to do with being trans.[8] Flattening out that individuality to write a role whose defining traits begin and end with being trans not only paints trans people as an interchangeable monolith, it’s also just bad writing. Your characters should be characters—rounded creations with depth and nuance, not a collection of half-baked stereotypes thrown together in a rush.

  • Does the trans character die?

Stories where trans characters die re-enforce the idea that trans existence is tragic, doomed to come to an untimely end. Imagine us living, and living well, instead.

  • Is there only one trans character in the show?

If writing one trans character is hard, writing two is easier. When there’s only one trans person on stage, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll be seen as representing All Trans People Ever. Having multiple trans people on stage diffuses this tendency and helps root the characters’ traits in the individuals themselves rather than in their demographic. In fact, you could do a lot worse than filling your entire cast with trans people—we do like to hang out together, after all!

Again, these questions do not exhaust the catalogue of transphobic tropes. Some runners-up that didn’t make the final list:

  • Is the trans character’s violation of Western gender norms tied to moral deviancy?
  • Is your only trans character an antagonist?
  • Does the trans character transition for deceptive purposes?
  • If the trans character is nonbinary, is their assumed gender at birth the topic of speculation from the other characters? Are they treated as a 50/50 mix of masculinity and femininity?
  • Is transness conflated with drag?

Still, the above reflect issues that were repeatedly raised by those interviewed for this series, as well as issues that the authors have encountered frequently and perniciously in our own lives. If you can say no to all of them, you’re off to a solid start.

The Secret Third Tier: Sensitivity Readers

By this point, gentle reader, you have probably realized that this guide is not a cut-and-dried checklist that can be mechanically applied to greenlight your work. Indeed, we do not intend it to be. As has been emphasized throughout this series, responsible trans representation must always be grounded in trans communities. We, the authors, can speak to our own communities, but we cannot speak to all trans communities, potentially including the specific trans community (or communities) your work engages with. You will need to engage with members of those communities directly.

Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants.

Fortunately, there’s a framework for this. Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants (also called sensitivity readers). The specific details will vary from situation to situation, but the underlying relationship is the same: You hire[9] them to read your script, and they tell you where you’ve gone wrong in telling the story you’re trying to tell. Ideally, this should be an ongoing relationship that lasts for most of the writing and development process, though they need not be consulted for every single line edit. Some actors may be willing to serve this role in addition to acting in your show, but this is emphatically not part and parcel of an actor’s job; any actor who steps into this role in your production should be compensated and credited appropriately.

It bears repeating that you should be looking to hire someone who is part of the community you are hoping to represent. If you are telling a story about a black trans woman, don’t hire a white sensitivity reader. If you’re writing a transmasculine character, don’t hire a transfeminine person. As has been emphasized again and again in this series, trans people are anything but monolithic; we cannot simply be swapped out for one another like interchangeable assembly-line parts. If you cannot find anyone who’s part of the community you’re hoping to represent, you may not be the person to tell this story. To put it bluntly: If you aren’t connected in any way to the community you’re hoping to write about, you will almost certainly not be able to write about it responsibly. Gently but firmly, we suggest you set your sights on something else. “Kill your darlings” applies to entire projects, too.

We wish it went without saying, but experience shows this needs to be said too: Once you hire this person, you need to actually listen to what they tell you. The point is not to add a team member as a pro-forma publicity stunt and then proceed with your original plan. The point is to change your show—potentially all of your show—in response to their feedback. If you blanch at this, if there are parts of your show that you cannot bear the thought of parting with no matter how insistently and adamantly you are told they are harmful, that is a sign you are not ready to do this work.[10] Please don’t write about us. The show you produce will almost certainly do more harm than good, and more harm from cis people is the last thing that trans people need.

A Brief Aside on Character Flaws

If the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.

Whenever members of a marginalized group ask for more sensitivity in how they are portrayed in media, they are invariably charged with censoriously advocating for flat, flawless characters who are bastions of goodness and who never have anything bad happen to them ever. To take that from this piece would be a gross misreading of our position. By all means, write messy, flawed trans characters who get thrown into conflict with themselves, other people, and the world. But if the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, and the only conflicts you can imagine us facing stem directly from our transness, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.

A Longer Aside on Trans Creators

It may happen, gentle reader, that you see a trans creator making art that has several red flags in it per the list of questions above. Indeed, you may even see a trans creator make art that does not even clear the initial hurdle we propose. You may then feel an urge to critique this work for its transphobia.[11]

Please don’t.

For starters, as stated explicitly above, answering yes to any of the questions on our list does not automatically make a work transphobic, it just makes it far more likely that the resulting work will be transphobic. Having lived as its targets, trans creators have an insider’s knowledge of how transphobia works, and thus have an automatic bonus in navigating these issues deftly on stage.

That said, in and of itself, being trans is no guarantee of getting it right. Sometimes trans people, wittingly or not, make deeply transphobic art. Even more likely, we may create art that some trans people find reprehensible and other trans people find responsible. We’re not a monolith, any more than any other demographic is.[12]

Being trans is no guarantee of getting it right.

In cases where there’s no community consensus—and, frankly, even in cases where there is a strong community consensus—against a trans-led project, we urge you to stay on the sidelines. By all means, share trans-written critiques if you find them compelling, and, if you are in a position to, offer trans people a platform to discuss such works, but think twice (or, really, three or four times) before diving into the fray yourself.

Trans people are constantly critiquing other trans people, and also constantly discussing how public to make these critiques, knowing that there are cis people out there who will gleefully leap on any chance to say negative things about trans people, not as a means of pursuing justice, but simply so they can give their transphobia a veneer of social acceptability. There is just too much hurt here for critiques from outsiders to be effective. Your energies will be better spent on building a world where we are not a community perpetually at siege.

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy.

Towards Transphilia: What Are Cis Roles, Anyway?

So far, this series has more or less tacitly ceded the premise that almost all singing theater roles in existence are cis roles, even where we have argued that trans people should be cast in them.

Strictly speaking, this is not true. Certainly, the vast majority of singing theater roles are either men or women,[13] but it’s quite rare that these roles are specifically cis men or women. The text of Don Giovanni may be quite clear that Don Ottavio is a man, but it tells us precisely nothing about his genital anatomy. We may feel quite confident that West Side Story’s Anita is a woman even as we know nothing about what assumptions people made about her gender when she was born. The vast majority of theatrical roles cannot accurately be described as cis because they do not contain the information necessary to apply such a label.[14] The perspective shift called for by trans liberation goes beyond opening “cis” roles to trans performers, it requires dismantling the notion that these roles were ever cis to begin with.

Some may object that, even if these roles aren’t explicitly marked as cis by the text of the show, the creators certainly thought of them as cis, because it would be “unrealistic” for trans people to occupy, say, the status of a minor noble in 1600s Seville, or a core member of a group of Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1950s.

This is silly.

First, we reiterate that historical conceptions of gender were often quite different from those in the present.[15] If you actually do the painstaking work of exploring the historical record instead of making assumptions about it, you will find many instances in which someone who lived a life that resonates with contemporary trans experiences was accepted and embraced by members of their community. Such figures include those with prominent, high-status positions in society—their stories are not confined to the societal margins,[16] though they do exist there as well.[17] If you exclude people who could now be considered trans, your show isn’t historically accurate, even if the original creators didn’t explicitly envision this possibility.[18] Trans people can be dignified nobles, scrappy underdogs, dashing rogues, romantic leads. None of these things are implausible; they are our past and present realities.

Singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song.

And anyway, singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song. They do not perform elaborate choreography to leitmotif-laden dance breaks. They do not hold for applause after particularly bravura turns. The unreality of singing theater is among its chief joys.

We also disregard creators’ intentions all the time. If Così fan tutte can survive being transported to Coney Island and Les Misérables to the present day, casting a male actor to play a male character shouldn’t ruffle any feathers just because of the assumptions people may have made about the meaning of said actor’s body.

Clearing away these stale preconceptions opens the door to imagining a world transformed. There is no inevitability to trans- and cisness.[19] Both are predicated on the act of assuming an infant’s gender based on their genital configuration. Stop making that assumption, respect the nested infinitudes of human variety by treating individuals as individuals, as they are instead of as you think they should be, and these categories will melt into air. To be sure, there will still be people who desire to change their names, their pronouns, their bodies, but there will not be trans or cis people per se. There will just be people, choosing of their own accord how they wish to move through the world.

There will still, probably, be men and women, too, but those two genders will no longer be seen as two complementary halves of a system with no other parts, nor even as two ends that anchor a spectrum, but as two pinpricks in a vast, radiant nebula, popular ones, perhaps, but no more central than any other mote, nor any less fractaline in their variable complexity. We do not know exactly what this world will look like, but on a clear day, you can almost see its outlines dawning on the far horizon.

This calls for both individual and societal change, and our society, in its present form, is deeply invested in binaries of all kinds, gender chief among them. There will be active, sustained resistance to making these changes, resistance that will not be swiftly overcome. This is the work of lifetimes. Imagining the destination is only the start.

Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization.

And yet it is a necessary start. We invite you to join us in this collective endeavor, in imagining this world into existence. Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization. Write characters in your shows, rounded and messy and deeply human. Make room for the unruly wild array that genders and bodies come in, without forcing this exquisite natural chaos into artificial, sterile boxes. Cast trans people in everything, and don’t remark on it, because it shouldn’t be remarkable. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.

We look forward to seeing what you make.

A space telescope image of a portion of the Milky Way Galaxy

Further Reading

There is always more to say. We expect that trenchant critiques of this series will emerge, and regret that we cannot link them here. In the meantime, here are some avenues to explore:

 

Notes


1. As a middle ground, some suggest that cis writers should write stories that include trans characters but that are not about the experience of being trans. This solid guiding principle underlies much of what follows, but the boundary line between these categories is vague, and we believe greater specificity is required.


2. We see no point in pretending this isn’t an unwinnable double bind: Some trans people will be upset with you if you do include trans characters in your work, and some will be upset with you if you don’t. Sometimes, these will even be the same people.


3. For a lengthier discussion of how things that are just can look unfair when analyzed outside of the pertinent context, see part ten of this extended essay on rape culture.


4. In a recent e-mail newsletter, American Opera Projects described Three Way as one of their “favorite operas.”


5. And indeed, it’s a fairly common trans experience to be friends with a nonbinary person whose gender assumed at birth you do not know.


6. There isn’t an exact counterpart here for transmasculine characters. This asymmetry stems from a variety of factors that are too thorny to go into here. Those wishing to explore this in more depth are encouraged to read Julia Serano’s discussion of effemimania in Whipping Girl and Jay Hulme’s breakdown of how transphobes target trans men.


7. Angel’s precise gender is a matter of some dispute. We feel comfortable reading her as a transfeminine person written by a rather clueless cis heterosexual who died before he could revise a messy draft, but we recognize that others may disagree.


8. Brin, for example, is teaching themself 1920s shorthand and enjoys baking bread, while Aiden loves reading historical fiction and doing Zelda cosplay. Both of us also write opera.


9. And note, we do mean hire, with money. In a theatrical context, you should also strongly consider giving them credit in scripts, scores, and programs. If you run an organization that develops new works, we urge you to budget a sensitivity reader for new works as needed.


10. Depending on the circumstances, it may be worth it to give the sensitivity reader contractual veto power lest their advice be utterly disregarded.


11. These remarks apply exclusively to instances where a cis person, as a cis person, critiques a trans person, as a trans person, for transphobia. It is of course permissible for, say, a black cis person to critique a white trans person for racism.


12. See, for an easy example, all the cis women fighting against abortion access.


13. Or, better: The vast majority of characters are referred to with either he/him/his or she/her/hers pronouns (or the equivalent in the language of the work) — many characters are never directly described as “a man” or “a woman” by themselves or any other character.


14. The most obvious case in which we might have this kind of information are women who get (or fear getting) pregnant. Yet even this may not be conclusive, depending on the setting of the production—uterus transplants are not unheard of, after all.


15. Indeed, we should be as cautious about calling historical figures cis as we are about calling them trans. This contemporary language has been developed in a contemporary context; applying it outside that context is almost invariably reductive and misleading.


16. And it’s not like there’s no history of Puerto Rican trans people working on the streets of New York City.


17. Unsurprisingly, the reception histories of these figures are complex. They are often written about in sensationalized, exploitative ways, and their own words and actions are often erased in favor of equating their “real” gender with their genitals.


18. If, instead of historical accuracy per se, you’re going to insist on being accurate to the creators’ intentions, no matter how historically inaccurate those intentions were, you’re in for several worlds of trouble. In many cases, those intentions cannot be determined with certainty, but even when they can, we cannot necessarily adhere to them. After all, the creators of Don Giovanni intended it to be performed by 18th-century European singers in an 18th-century European theater for an 18th-century European audience, none of which you’re going to be able to find today. If you’re flexible enough to allow a soprano born and raised in Boise in the 21st century to play Zerlina, you’re going to need a convoluted argument indeed to argue that that same soprano should suddenly be disbarred from the role just because some people mistakenly thought she was a boy for a while.


19. We wish to reiterate here that these concepts were developed in a specifically Western cultural context, and everything we are saying here is limited to that context, too. The relationship between Western projects of trans liberation and projects like decolonization that seek the broader undoing of Western hegemony are complex, to say the least.

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 3: The Writers

A woman in a black shirt posing in front of a purple background

This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Part 1 introduces many of the terms and concepts used in this piece, and Part 2 offers the perspectives of performers. This article will make more sense if you read those first.

Introduction

Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence.

Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence. Who are the trans writers bringing trans stories into the world, and how do they handle trans issues in their work? This article starts to provide an answer.

Barriers to Entry

Let’s start with the undeniable: the interviewees for this article are, as a group, much whiter and more NYC-centric than those in the previous installment.[1] I have no doubt that there are many brilliant, diverse trans writers that I simply have not been able to find in my research, but I also believe that these skewed demographics reflect deeper systemic issues.

I suspect these disparities are especially marked on the composition side because vastly fewer people are taught to write music than are taught to write words. The classical composition world is well known for being hostile to those facing some form of marginalization, and similar dynamics play out in other musical genres as well. So it’s hardly a coincidence that the trans people most likely to have compositional training are those, like me, who have the protective insulation of whiteness working in our favor.

But of course, just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage. There are quite a few trans composers out there, but very few of them have written singing theater pieces, just as, statistically speaking, very few cis composers have. All of which makes the pool to draw from on the compositional side much shallower and more homogenous than I would like. Accordingly, this article is much less balanced than last week’s; it disproportionately reflects the experiences of white trans people in New York City.[2]

Just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage.

Those working in this field have no illusions about these obstacles. “What are the barriers to being a trans music theater writer?” said Sandy Gooen, a transmasculine composer, lyricist, and playwright, “Stigma, time, money, race, education . . . should I keep going? It’s a lot of things, there’s a lot working against you.” AriDy Nox, a femme lyricist and playwright, highlighted the barriers trans people face before even getting to the starting line: “A lot of the barriers are the barriers of being able to live, with your stomach full, with water, with housing — you can’t even get to the art-funding barriers because you have to meet the basic-survival barriers.”

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Aspiring trans artists often must navigate this landscape on their own. “[Early on,] I didn’t have access to any kind of trans community, or any sort of apprenticeship with trans artists,” says Éamon Boylan, a transfeminine composer, playwright, and director.

Lacking specifically trans mentors, many turn to academic training programs. These can be a mixed bag. Even when the teachers at such programs are generous and well meaning, their curricula are often not trans-inclusive—class materials will call all baritones and tenors men, and will presume that all characters will be either male or female, for example—and they may stumble repeatedly over pronouns. Individually, these are small things, but cumulatively, they add up. “It gets tedious when you have to explain [these things] for the 100th time,” says Grey Grant, a nonbinary transfeminine composer currently based in Michigan.

Of course, sometimes the pushback is more explicit. Gooen told a story of one professor who insisted he remove a trans character from one of his shows. “I tried to push back, but when it’s about the grade, sometimes you have to be like ‘OK.’” Sarah Schlesinger, the chair of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, was one of my thesis advisors there. Throughout the thesis process, she deliberately misgendered me and all three nonbinary characters in my thesis project, at one point telling me she was doing so because she thought our pronouns “just don’t make sense.” With training grounds such as these, it’s a wonder there are as many trans writers out there as there are.

The world outside of school is rough enough for writers to begin with. “It’s hard to make a musical already,” says black nonbinary queer trans woman Ianne Fields Stewart. Mika Kauffman, a nonbinary, transmasculine composer, lyricist, director, and producer, agrees: “Being a writer, across the board, is hard. You do a lot of self-producing.” “We’re really into purposeful DIY aesthetics,” Grant says, of their own self-producing work, “But it still costs a lot of money.” And that’s where structural oppression makes things more difficult.

“I know so many trans people who are living in poverty,” Kauffman says. The statistics bear them out. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 38% of trans people live in households making less than $25,000 a year, compared to 17% in the US population as a whole.[3] That’s not a lot in a city like New York, where the median income ranged from $44,850 to $70,295 (depending on the borough) at that time, and it becomes even less when you factor in the costs of being trans. Simply changing your legal name can cost upwards of $650, and building a new wardrobe from the ground up as your gender presentation (and, potentially, body shape) changes isn’t cheap either.

Neither are medical procedures. “Most of my trans friends are in some kind of medical debt,” says Natalie Elder, a nonbinary lyricist and songwriter. “These absolutely medically and psychologically necessary treatments are not cheap, and they’re not covered by insurance.”[4] Faced with these costs, many trans people turn to crowdfunding, but success is far from guaranteed. In 2018, Kauffman organized a campaign to benefit the much-beloved Drama Bookshop, raising nearly $10,700 in around two months. The campaign they organized for their own medical expenses went much less smoothly.

Natalie Elder

Natalie Elder (Photo by Luke Anthony)

“My surgery was projected to cost $1 more than the amount I raised for the Drama Bookshop,” Kauffman recalled. “It was so easy to raise money for the Bookshop — people came in droves. And then when I did my own fundraiser . . . crickets.”[5]

Despite the uncertain odds of success, these crowdfunding campaigns are so commonplace they’ve become something of a bitter inside joke in the trans community, new ones frequently launching more with a sense of beleaguered inevitability than excitement. As in so many cases, one of the best ways to ally yourself with marginalized communities is to just give us money with no strings attached.[6]

Trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations.

Hearing a performer audition, and even casting them in a limited run, is a relatively small commitment for an arts organization to make. Commissioning a writer to create a new work, or even mounting the world premiere of one that already exists, requires considerably more investment (of both time and money), and organizations are, unsurprisingly, hesitant to risk that investment on people without a proven track record. So trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce their way into a hefty résumé makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations, which in turn makes their résumés look even scanter in comparison, in a grinding feedback loop that can gradually force people out of the industry.

Intersections

Unsurprisingly, these barriers compound when other forms of marginalization enter the mix.

“Musical theater in particular is one of the last bastions of white supremacy,” Stewart asserts.[7] Echoing sentiments expressed by performers in last week’s article, Nox said that they’ve held back from applying to trans-specific grant opportunities: “There are not a lot of opportunities in general, and the opportunities that there are demand that you be trans and that’s it. Even when they say they want people of color to apply, they still want you to be mostly trans and not a person of color, which is really limiting.”

AriDy Nox

AriDy Nox (Photo by Kyla Sylvers)

Gooen described a similar dynamic when talking about navigating his gender, sexuality, Judaism, and neurodivergence: “It’s tricky to put all the pieces together, and it’s been hard to find people to mentor me who don’t try to limit the amount of things I am.” Stewart concurred: “There are black people who won’t see me because of my transness, and there are trans people who won’t see me because of my blackness.”

These attempts to limit people to one facet of their personhood fly in the face of the inextricable interconnections that many feel between parts of themselves. “The parts of my identity don’t feel separate,” Nox says. “One of the reasons I identify as a femme is that black womanhood is less binary than white womanhood, especially for black women who are descendants of chattel slaves — this femininity wasn’t meant for us anyway, so why take on the more toxic constraining features of it?”

Accounting for these intersecting identities requires careful, nuanced analysis, and many diversity initiatives miss the mark. Transmasculine people, in particular, are often erased by simplistic gender analyses.

“When I was seen as a woman,” Kauffman says, “I was working more. And then suddenly, when I started going through my transition, I was working less.” They described one show where, once they started transitioning, other members of the creative team began praising their pre-transition self. “They were idealizing this person in a way that I was never actually treated. I wasn’t treated fairly pre-transition, and I’m still not treated fairly now.”

“I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas.”

Some gender parity initiatives have started describing themselves as promoting equity for “women+” in an attempt to deepen their analysis, but this is far from sufficient. “I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas,” Gooen says. “But I’ve also been in rehearsal spaces where I’m the only person who’s not a cis man, and I’m at a big disadvantage.”

Navigating Whiteness

Given the stark racial disparities between different groups of trans people, how do white creators navigate race in their own artistic practice?

“I have a Stay-In-My-Lane approach,” Grant says. “I mean, I’m not the one getting murdered around here.[8] I’m here to support my non-white trans siblings, friends, and colleagues, but I’m not trying to speak for them.” Elder was similarly circumspect, but raised the issue of financial constraints: “To be perfectly honest, the shows I’ve cast so far would have been way more [racially] diverse if I had more of a budget. The people who can afford to do theater for little to no money are predominantly white.” Elder and Kauffman both said they leave most roles they write racially unspecified, but Kauffman tied their approach to their own experiences of oppression: “I cannot do to another person what cis writers have done to us.”

Grey Grant

Grey Grant (Photo by Grey Grant)

Boylan takes a more self-critical approach. “You always have to be accountable for what you produce. If I’m in a room, whiteness is present, so I will never work on a project that doesn’t include whiteness in some way. That is simply how whiteness operates — it is an insidious, deadly thing. It doesn’t stop there, but acknowledging that is an important initial step before doing any work.”

Making Trans Theater

“I feel like there’s a lot of anger in what I’ve been talking about,” Kauffman said towards the end of their interview, “I want to talk about how grateful I am to know who I am. It’s a wonderful journey, and the more I discover who I am, the more honest I am in my work. And as a writer, honesty is my best friend.”

That feeling of honesty rooted in a deep sense of self was a recurring theme among these writers. “Transness, to me, is a lens through which I see the world,” says Boylan, explaining how their work as a writer grew out of their work as a director at the same time as they began to grow into their trans identity. “So for me, writing has always been about what a trans voice is, as a young trans person coming into myself.”

Éamon Boylan

Éamon Boylan (BLUE Photography)

These writers are unapologetic in their political vision, visions that challenge basic conventions in the field and broaden beyond the confines of trans stories as they usually exist today. “I am really uninterested in education,” Stewart says. “I’m much more interested in liberation. I think of everything I do as being in service to that.” “I don’t know what it means to say ‘This is a man’ anymore,” Boylan explains. “Weirdly, saying ‘This character uses he/him/his’ is much more specific and grounded, because now I know how people refer to this character.” “I can’t wait to write an opera that’s not about transness,” Grant says, “But that still requires characters to be trans” — in other words, a story about the fullness of our lives beyond the bare facts of our genders.

These lives shape the work that trans artists produce. “[Trans characters in my shows] just happen,” Elder says, “Because [trans people] happen in my life.” “My work is all about celebrating and centering black trans women,” Stewart says, “And, most importantly, making sure they survive and thrive.” Grant, meanwhile, ties their work to their home in the Midwest: “A lot of people think the Midwest is very monochromatic, but it’s really not. My Midwest is queer, and radical, and very trans-centric.[9] And so with [Michigan Trees],[10] I’m trying to codify this world I would like to see.”

Grant drew heavily on mythology to write Michigan Trees, just as other writers have used other genres to explore trans themes. “I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” Grant said, “But I’m obsessed with supernatural moments of transformation in works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and trans people are kind of magical super-beings anyway, so the mythological approach works well here.” Kauffman, conversely, uses genre to process trauma: “It can be horrifying to exist as trans in a world where transness is taboo. As a horror writer, the genre is so much about confronting your trauma and finding catharsis.” Some of my own work treads similar ground: my musical about murdering conversion therapists is built around the idea of thwarting transphobic power structures by embracing the monstrosity that transphobia ascribes to our bodies — if you’re going to say that we’re monsters no matter what, we might as well draw power from that and destroy you.

Working in various singing theater forms, of course, means that vocal quality is a rich avenue for characterization. How do these artists navigate issues of gender and vocal range?

Vocal Range and Characterization

“I react to voices as embodying a certain way of being,” says Nox, “I think that’s a benefit of being a jazz kid, and hearing all these men using really high voices as a show of power. It’s the Prince Effect: look at how I can control my voice! And that ties in with ideas of authority and seduction that feel more masculine. And then conversely, with singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, they have these deeper voices, but they’re not devoid of femininity! These associations really depend on cultural context. Ultimately, I think of vocal types as reflecting how characters navigate power: soft vocals feel like negotiated power, whereas belted vocals feel like authoritative power.”

“It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine.”

Elder used a different example: “It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine. I mean look at Hadestown! You have a romantic lead who’s practically a countertenor.” They’ve played on these associations in their work for dramatic effect; in one of their shows, Dragarella,[11] a trans character drops to the lowest point in her vocal range as she’s preparing to fully present as herself. “That’s her last moment of doubt, her last remnant of ‘Am I sure I’m not a man?’”

All stressed the need for flexibility. “As someone who has now dealt with two puberties,” Gooen said, “I’ve had to go through a million different keys.” Gooen now regularly creates versions of songs in three different keys, but Boylan will tailor things even further: “Every single case is individual; every performer deserves dignity and respect. I change my music very significantly based on who’s singing it, because they find the story that they need to tell. But just because I changed something for a performer doesn’t mean I change the way I sing it. There are multiple versions of my songs in perpetuity.” They see this practice as normal in the musical theater world, citing the myriad versions of old (and new) standards that all coexist without issue.

Allies Weigh In

Since this series is so tied up with discussions of effective allyship, I wanted to include a few cis writers here as well. In deciding who to interview, I took my cues from trans performers: I heard repeatedly that the teams for Opera Kardashian and Good Country were doing the work of responsible allyship, making their works and rehearsal rooms genuinely welcoming to trans people. I asked one member of each team to share their experiences.

Opera Kardashian composer Dana Kaufman never set out to write a trans opera. Long before Caitlyn Jenner came out, Kaufman saw an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians on her roommate’s TV, and instantly gleaned its operatic potential. She had already started working with her librettist, Tom Swift, when Jenner came out. She recalls, “Suddenly there was this issue: Is this even a story I should tell?” She spoke with a variety of trans advocates and performers—social media helped make these connections—who urged her not to abandon the project, albeit with the caveat that Kaufman and Swift take pains to note Jenner’s persona non grata status among large swaths of the trans community.

Dana Kaufman

Dana Kaufman (Photo by Ken Ge)

Charley Parkhurst, the historical figure that inspired the chamber opera Good Country, died in 1879, so there was no breaking news to disrupt the writing process, but there were still complexities to address. Librettist Cecelia Raker had been familiar with Parkhurst since childhood, but the stories of his life uniformly described him as a woman who dressed like a man. She decided to reject that framing. “The way we make history is by telling stories, and the loudest, most consistent narrative is what wins. Right now, there’s one very loud and consistent narrative about this person, and I want to trouble that. The trans version of this story should be part of the mix.”

But she also had doubts about whether she and her composer, Keith Allegretti, were the right people to tell this story. Like Kaufman, she reached out on social media to find trans advocates to talk to. She made sure to seek out multiple perspectives: “It’s really important not to tokenize your feedback. You have to be accountable to a community, not just one person.”

Both Kaufman and Raker described steep learning curves in the early stages. “I would like to say I knew about trans issues and identities,” Kaufman says, “But I really didn’t. I still feel like I’m uninformed, but I do feel much more informed thanks to the infinite patience of my interviewees.” “For me,” Raker explained, “The litmus test is: ‘Do I feel a little anxious and outside my comfort zone?’ If at any point I feel like I got this and I don’t need to run it by anybody else, that’s probably a sign I’m about to fuck up.”

That said, being too anxious can be a problem, too. Early in the development process, Raker was worried about a line in the show she felt might imply that Parkhurst was really a woman. She asked Holden Madagame, who had been cast to play Parkhurst, as well as one of the other trans artists on the project, and they reassured her that the line was fine. But it kept nagging at her, and she kept asking them about it until “we hit a point where they were like ‘Stop asking us this question! We told you our answer!’ Which, in hindsight, is really about trust.”

Cecelia Raker

Cecelia Raker (Photo by Cecelia Raker)

Stewart, who has worked extensively as a consultant, underscores this need to actually accept the things trans people tell you. “So many people dismiss what I say with ‘That’s not the way we do things,’” she said. “Of course it isn’t—that’s why I’m here! The way you do things is not good.”

Advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories: a willingness to abandon bad ideas.

When asked for advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories, Kaufman and Raker stressed the need for legwork and a willingness to abandon bad ideas. “Make sure you do extraordinarily thorough research,” Kaufman said, “And prioritize the act of listening over the act of composing.” “Be ready to hear that your favorite part won’t work,” Raker advised. “Be light on your feet, and trust in yourself as an artist. You will have more than one idea.”

A Familiar Skepticism

As with the performers profiled last week, trans writers are ambivalent about the role of cis allies here.

Some see potential in collaboration. “Both of my current collaborators have been in the musical theater game professionally for much longer than I have,” Stewart said, “So they have more expertise in this industry. But when it comes to telling trans stories, I am the expert, and my collaborators must be dedicated to prioritizing my word when it comes to how we are telling the stories of trans people.” When collaboration works, Nox explained, it can be phenomenal: “All collaboration is tricky, but the beauty of it is you can make something that couldn’t have come from just you.” Listening and collaborating deeply with trans voices is no guarantee of success, Boylan suggested, “But if you fail after listening to and following the voices of trans people in the room, you’ll be failing in solidarity.”

Others were more skeptical. “Cis writers could, theoretically, someday—with help, obviously!—write trans characters,” Gooen said, “I just think they need to be in time out for a bit based on the recent things they’ve done.” “My immediate reaction,” said Kauffman, “Is, ‘So you, a cis person, want to write a trans character. Why?’”

Mika Kauffman

Mika Kauffman (Photo by Mika Kauffman)

As Gooen indicated, these reactions stem from the stories cis people tell about us. “We’re dying,” Stewart says, talking specifically about black trans women, “And that’s all people want to talk about. People want to see the trauma, but they don’t want to see us as full human beings.” Nox was particularly critical here: “It feels like gatekeepers are saying ‘Please show off your trauma so we can decide if you’re human or not.’ And trauma stories can be useful! But no one’s life is pure trauma—even at my most suicidal, I still had moments of joy. Even at the worst moments, there is some light. When you’re looking at people surviving things you’ve never had to survive, from a privileged perspective, it can be hard to imagine they’re finding joy. And I think that imagining a group of people as incapable of joy is one of the most deeply dehumanizing things you can do.”

The real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators.

The overall consensus was that, while cis writers may have a role to play, the real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators. Or, as Boylan joked: “Trans people will destroy you. Everything you’ve heard is true. We’re tearing down the moral fabric of society, and it feels so good.”

Onwards

This article has been heavy on trauma. I’m deeply ambivalent about this, because it does feel, in some ways, like trotting out suffering to prove our humanity—no one should ever have to do that. But at the same time, it feels dishonest to skirt this pain, to pretend it isn’t there. These are the stakes you carry if you write about us.

Given the premise of this entire series, it’s probably not surprising that I come down, albeit somewhat tentatively, on the side of encouraging cis people to write trans characters. I still believe, ultimately, that saying cis writers are inherently incapable of writing trans characters implies trans people are insurmountably alien, an Other that exists across an unbridgeable gulf. I happen to think it’s phenomenally difficult to bridge the gulf between any two people, but insofar as such a gulf can be bridged at all, it can be bridged between cis and trans people. My cis friends know who I am. They know my voice, my goals, my reactions to various situations. And those are the things you need to know to make a character real on stage.

Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with.

I also believe that, in the spirit of generosity, it behooves me to offer concrete advice to allies of good will, so that y’all can stop failing so spectacularly at the most basic things. Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with. Next week’s article will take up this task.[12]

Further Reading

This article opens up many avenues for further exploration. Here are some potential next steps down a few of them:

Notes


1. Full disclaimer: As with last week’s article, many of those featured here are my friends and collaborators.


2. That said, I of course accept the final responsibility for my decision to write this piece with this specific set of interviewees.


3.  The full survey report includes specific breakdowns for various racial demographics, as well as a wealth of other statistical information. The other statistics related to trans existence quoted in this section come from this survey as well.


4. As always with US health insurance, whether or not gender-affirming medical care is covered varies wildly by health insurance plan and local anti-discrimination regulations.


5. In times of financial hardship, cis writers from well-off families may be able to turn to their parents for support, this isn’t always an option for trans people — 26% of trans people lose some or all of their immediate family ties on coming out, though mercifully that number seems to be shrinking over time.


6. Certainly, hearts starve as well as bodies, and L-rd knows I believe in the importance of live theater, but it is galling, to say the least, to be part of a community roiled by such desperation and then to receive an invitation in the mail to a fundraising gala where individual tickets cost more than my monthly rent. Personally, I have no doubt that if the rich divested themselves of their repugnant wealth—which it is patently morally disgusting for them to keep—we could secure both the basic material needs of all and a vibrant ecosystem of flourishing artistic institutions, but if I am mistaken there, I know where my priorities lie: let the Metropolitan Opera cease performances tomorrow and Broadway go dark forevermore if it means people shall not starve or perish in the streets. Lives matter more than art.


7. Needless to say, opera is hardly any better on this front.


8. There have been 19 reported murders of trans people so far in the US in 2019. The only one who was not a trans woman of color was killed in a mass shooting by his own brother.


9. It’s probably worth noting here that more trans people live in the Midwest than live in the Northeast, and more trans people live in the South than in both regions combined.


10. A chamber opera about a trans woman who turns into a tree.


11. Co-written with composer John Brooks.


12. In the spirit of these past two articles, which have brought together various different perspectives, the final article will be a collaborative endeavor: I will be joined by my dear friend and colleague Aiden K Feltkamp. We look forward to sharing our thoughts.

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 2: The Performers

A person in a blue shirt photographer on a street

Introduction

If you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person. Which is to say: If you want to glimpse the diversity of trans experience, you need to talk to a lot of different trans people.

So that’s what I did. The artists interviewed for this article[1] have performed everywhere from Germany to San Francisco, in grand opera houses and black box theaters, in revivals of standard repertoire and world premieres; they are different ages, at different points in their careers; they have different genders, and different ethnicities. Their voices capture a broad cross-section of contemporary trans singing theater communities. Where they disagree, they illuminate important tensions. Where they agree, they point to robust patterns that transcend the specifics of any one production and the artistic personalities involved. Let’s hear what they have to say. (I strongly encourage you to read the first part of this series before proceeding, as it defines many of the terms thrown around in the discussion below.)

Varying Experiences: Location, Medium, and Scene

The constant decontextualized churn of social media can obscure the very real differences between different places. In the general wash of Twitter, for example, it’s easy to miss the fact that one of the more virulent strains of pseudo-intellectual trans-antagonism[2] comes primarily from the UK, and is relatively scarce among US intelligentsia.[3] To get a feel for what it’s like in a place, you still do have to go there.

“When I’ve done work in the UK, there have been discussions about my transness that just don’t happen in Germany,” said Holden Madagame, a trans tenor currently living in Germany. “Nobody cares in Germany, for better and for worse.” Lucia Lucas, a transfeminine baritone who has also worked internationally, has found distinctions within countries as well: “As far as audience reaction is concerned, it totally depends on the region. Even in Germany, if I do something in Karlsruhe versus Wuppertal, I’m going to have a completely different audience reaction.”

Holden Madagame (Photo by Amar Productions)

Holden Madagame (Photo by Amar Productions)

Unsurprisingly, given its size, the United States has similar regional differences. Aneesh Sheth, a transfeminine performer who has worked both on stage and on screen, noted differences between NYC and LA: “LA is very focused on gender equality, so it’s very much about the gender binary, closing the wage gap, and uplifting women in the wake of the #MeToo movement,[4] and that’s all incredibly important, of course, but transness isn’t a thing there in the way that it is in New York.”

Actors may feel drawn to one medium over another based on how trans-friendly the workplaces are.

Even within one city, actors may feel drawn to one medium over another based on how trans-friendly the workplaces are. Samy Nour Younes is a transmasculine actor who has worked in both musical theater and television, and he says that “film and TV are making room for me faster than theater is, but I want to be in theater.” This has been a fairly recent development. Two years ago, he wrote an op-ed about the lack of room for diverse trans representation in theater and film; now, he says, “Film and TV have quickly proven me wrong, and theater has not budged. My struggles are still the same as they were two years ago.” CN Lester, a London-based trans performer, composer, and impresario who has been producing a regular showcase of trans talent since 2011, has seen audiences change: “General audiences definitely know more about trans issues than they did then, and (for our particular audience demographic) seem to care more—but [Transpose] also attracts more hostility now that it’s bigger.”

Other artists drew distinctions between different kinds of theatrical spaces. “Every Monday, I’m at Club Cumming [a queer cabaret venue] until 4 a.m. because it’s a space where I don’t have to explain anything that I’m doing. When you’re on that stage, it actually doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is ‘castable’ or has any capitalistic value. Having space to do that is so important for me as a performer,” says Jordan Ho, a genderfluid nonbinary transfeminine artist who has performed everything from opera arias to experimental devised works. Lucas expands on the kind of artistic liberation that can be found in performance spaces outside of the commercial mainstream: “Queer theater is where I get better. When you don’t have an entire opera machine relying on you to be perfect when you walk in the door, there’s more space to play.” Sheth discussed a particularly liberatory experience at an indie theater festival in NYC, then grew rueful: “I don’t know if that would ever translate into a larger commercial space.”

Jordan Ho (Photo by Daniel Potes)

Jordan Ho (Photo by Daniel Potes)

These kinds of out-of-the-mainstream shows tend to go up on shoestring budgets with little rehearsal, which means performers can’t sustain careers doing only this kind of work. Venturing into more mainstream spaces, however, often means taking on work that handles trans issues badly. “[Trans actors] need money,” Younes said. “I’ve taken plenty of jobs that were objectionable because I needed to pay my rent.” Breanna Sinclairé, an operatic soprano who made headlines singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at a Major League Baseball game in 2015, echoed the sentiment: “I’ve done gigs where I’ve been respected, and I’ve done gigs where I have not been respected. But at the end of the day, we’re professional singers; we just have to keep going.” Most of the performers I spoke to expressed similar sentiments of resigned fatalism, sentiments aptly summarized by soprano Alex Bork: “I’d rather take [a gig I don’t like] than not be working at all.”

Playing “Cis”

While most characters aren’t explicitly cis, most casting directors, audiences, and so on assume these characters are.

Because roles explicitly for trans performers are still rare, stepping into these mainstream spaces often means playing roles that weren’t written with trans people in mind. While most of these characters aren’t explicitly cis, the historical (and ongoing) erasure of trans people means that most directors, casting directors, audiences, and so on assume these characters are cis. This will be discussed at greater length in the final installment of this series, but is worth flagging here.

Unsurprisingly, many of the people I spoke with don’t fully trust cis directors to make such roles trans. “I plead with directors all the time, ‘Please don’t make this a trans story,’” Lucas says, of playing roles like Don Giovanni that are usually cast as cis men. “I don’t say this, but I just don’t think they’re going to be able to handle it well.” Sinclairé also suggested taking a circumspect approach: “I just want to be hired as a female singer. I’m a musician first, trans second. It doesn’t always have to be ‘trans opera singer’ all the time.”

Breanna Sinclairé (Photo by JP Lor)

Breanna Sinclairé (Photo by JP Lor)

That said, sometimes actors take their own initiative. “I always secretly put myself into [whatever role I’m playing],” confides Esco Jouléy, a nonbinary actor working in New York. Marques Hollie, a nonbinary opera singer and writer, talked about finding resonances between their own experiences and the Baker in Into the Woods. “The Baker really wrestles with a lot of his patrilineal trauma; he has this really complex, rich inner life.” Coincidentally, Younes recently played Jack in Into the Woods, and while neither they nor the production team explicitly discussed playing Jack as a young trans boy, “there were people who came to the show and read it that way. And if they want to, I think that’s a valid interpretation.”

Indeed, several performers described this as an opportunity, not a challenge. “I honestly can’t think of any specific problems navigating the differences between me and the characters I play,” Lester said. “That’s the challenge and joy of performance.” Madagame sounded almost playful: “I usually don’t discuss it explicitly with the director, I just make certain choices and see how they react. Sometimes they ask me to do something else, but usually there’s a little bit of compromise.”[5]

These roles raise one of the biggest issues of trans representation in singing theater, the issue that poses a unique challenge for these works compared to works without music: gender and vocal range.

Gender and Vocal Range

Kristofer Eckelhoff is a trans voice teacher in NYC, and he is constantly grappling with the inadequacy of standard vocal terminology when it comes to trans singers. “I’m still trying to develop a terminology that works.” Standard labels like soprano or baritone have strongly gendered connotations that may alienate or affirm. “For trans men who are early on in their transition, they may not like the term head voice, but they might like the word falsetto because it’s a more gendered term.” Meanwhile, nonbinary students may have even fewer options. “It’s tricky. I don’t have a blanket way to talk about it. My nonbinary students don’t really like any of the terms; it’s easier to use numerical note names like C4 to D5. But it’s still messy. It’s really important to address the individual singer.”

Kristofer Eckelhoff (Photo by Taylor Eirá Lear)

Kristofer Eckelhoff (Photo by Taylor Eirá Lear)

That’s harder to do when you’re writing an open casting call. As a workaround for this, Aiden Feltkamp proposed a new vocal categorization system in this very publication. Their whole series is a worthwhile read, but I confess that I find their proposal rather fiddly—the more boundaries you have, the more boundary squabbles—and my default, as a composer, is increasingly to use note names to delineate the ranges of parts that I write.

“The piano doesn’t have a gender.”

It will come as no surprise that trans singers aren’t particularly fond of linking vocal range with gender. “The piano doesn’t have a gender,” Jouléy quipped, noting the breadth of its range. Lucas sees her different vocal registers and colors—she’s working to develop her contralto—as tools to illuminate characters’ emotional states: “If we’re doing The Danish Girl,[6] and it’s the first party where Lili goes out presenting female, maybe we can play with where that sits in the voice.” For her part, Sinclairé sees vocal range as an individual matter. “It’s in your body”, she said. “You work with what you have. I know trans women who sing soprano and develop that, and there are trans women who like to sing in the lower register and develop that. It’s who you are as a person; that’s authentic singing.”

There is an important asymmetry here: testosterone lowers the human voice, but estrogen does not raise it. This means that AMAB trans people can begin taking hormones without having to interrupt their careers to retrain,[7] but AFAB trans people cannot.

“Being a transmasc person, you lose a lot of your voice in your first year on hormones,” Eckelhoff said. Many of his students come to him in this first year, and he reassures them that it will be O.K., their voices will come back. “But this is where people run into problems with cis teachers, because teachers assume they’ve ruined their voice.”

This resistance from cis teachers can reach dangerous extremes. Eckelhoff told of one student whose teacher forced him to delay starting hormones until after graduation because said teacher didn’t want to deal with the changes that hormones would cause. In other words, this was a teacher forcing a student to postpone potentially life-saving medical treatment so the teacher’s job would be easier. This is not an exaggeration. The lifetime suicide attempt rate for trans men in the US is 46%, compared to a baseline rate of 4.6% in the general population. Hormone therapy is strongly and consistently correlated with a marked improvement in mental health for trans people who pursue it. Individual trans people may, of course, decide not to start hormones because of the changes hormones will cause to their voice, but it is completely inappropriate for a voice teacher to force this decision on them.

Testosterone lowers the human voice, but estrogen does not raise it.

At the end of the day, however, a human voice is a human voice. “Trans voices are really not that different than cis voices,” Eckelhoff affirms. This goes for the ranges trans people sing in post-transition, but it also goes for the variety that exists among cis performers. Every singer I talked to for this piece mentioned countertenors, contraltos, or both. “Bea Arthur is my favorite baritone,” Ho joked, discussing the roles xe’s studied during xyr vocal training[8], “I’ve been going through the Sondheim canon and learning all the female roles—it’s really interesting to see how many cis women in the musical theater canon were actually just baritones.”

Harassment, Assimilation, and Other Unpleasantries

When discussing the question of gender and vocal range, Sinclairé told the story about singing for a composer who had assumed that she was a countertenor, not a soprano. “When I opened my mouth and sang, he was speechless.”

That encounter ultimately ended well, but the interactions between cis and trans artists can become extremely fraught. “I was in a master class once where someone leaked information about me beforehand,” Bork recounts, “And [the guest teacher] spent the entire class berating me and telling me no director would ever cast me. Afterwards, I had to take a taxi home—I couldn’t walk.” She also discussed several instances of appalling treatment from fellow cast members, including deliberate misgendering and riffs on stock tropes of trans people as sexual predators. Sinclairé expressed frustration at techies during sound checks: “Some of them don’t think I’m a serious singer, so they like to mess with the electronics. It’s weird subliminal stuff that happens.”

Alex Bork (Photo by Simon Bennett)

Alex Bork (Photo by Simon Bennett)

Sometimes, the overall atmosphere leads to self-censorship. “There’s a rigidity of gender presentation in auditions,” Madagame said. “I have privilege coming out the ass, but I still feel it in small ways: I can’t have certain hairstyles, I can’t dye my hair, I can’t have nearly as many tattoos as I would like. All of these things that queer and trans people gravitate towards, aesthetically. You’re forced into this aesthetic, and it’s really uncomfortable.” These queer and trans aesthetic markers may seem trivial, but in a world where growing up trans is still such an alienating experience, and where trans people still have to fight so relentlessly to present outwardly as we know ourselves to be, being cut off from visual flags of communal belonging and forced into a rigid gender box can be a soul-crushing experience.

“There’s a rigidity of gender presentation in auditions.”

Given all this, it’s no wonder many choose not to stick it out. “It is devastating how much talent there is that no one’s going to see,” Younes said. For all the perspectives I have tried to gather here, there are so many more that we will never have.

Without impugning the abilities, experience, or work ethic of any trans performers, it’s also true that these barriers to trans careers in singing theater—clueless or hostile teachers, antagonistic workplaces, discrimination based on nonadherence to gender stereotypes, the lack of trans roles and the unwillingness of cis casting directors to consider trans performers for roles traditionally assumed to be cis—mean that trans performers will often have less formal training and scanter résumés than cis performers at the equivalent career stage. “I know that not every company has time to teach everyone all these things,” Ho commented. “But if a trans performer doesn’t have the music theory background or needs help learning the music, it’s worth it to teach them.”

This is a delicate point, but it’s worth pressing. Allying yourself with trans communities doesn’t just mean tweaking the language of your casting calls, it also means giving us material resources. There are real inequities in the educational and professional opportunities that trans people receive; redressing those inequities is an inextricable part of bringing our stories to the stage responsibly.

That said, transphobia is obviously not the only form of marginalization, and it is irresponsible to set about redressing it without also redressing other unjust inequities, many of which overlap in mutually reinforcing ways.

Intersections[9]

Younes, who is of mixed Lebanese and Puerto Rican descent, feels that their race and queerness are often forced to be at odds by the limited visions of those doing the writing and casting. “For Latino and Arab men,” he said, “There’s still a portrait of hypermasculinity that theater conforms to, so much so that I don’t get those roles either. It’s like I’m too brown for being trans and too queer for being brown.” Sheth, meanwhile, feels that her transness has overshadowed her ethnicity. “When people talk about me, it’s always about my transness. When people are talking about hiring Aneesh, they’re talking about hiring someone who’s trans. It’s very rarely a conversation of ‘We’re also bringing in someone who’s South Asian; what does that do for our script? For the trans South Asian community?’ There’s a whole other piece of me that’s being excluded from this conversation.”

Aneesh Sheth (Photo by Billy Bustamante)

Aneesh Sheth (Photo by Billy Bustamante)

This emphasis on transness over race can fly directly in the face of an individual’s own perspective. Sinclairé was adamant: “African American, Asian performers, we’re still not getting hired as much as our white counterparts. I feel like that’s the first barrier that needs to be broken down, before we even get to the trans issue.”

For others, issues of race and gender can’t be so cleanly separated. “I’m an average US size for white people,” Bork explained, “But beauty-standard-wise, the representation of Asian people in the West is skinnier, and so even if I’m the same size as my colleague on stage, people are going to call me out for being tall or fat first. And I’ve had that happen before, people telling me that I’m not castable because I’m not feminine or demure. And they’re not saying that to my colleagues who are the exact same proportions as me but who just happen to be white.”

“A lot of gatekeepers are not prepared to welcome talent outside their comfort zone.”

These critiques point to deep structural issues, many of which are exacerbated by the reliance on wealthy white donors who actively resist structural change. “Opera and classical music are still very much driven by older white men,” Hollie says. “A lot of these gatekeepers don’t know how to behave and aren’t trying to be better people. And they’re not prepared to welcome talent outside their comfort zone.” Younes sees similar dynamics at play in musical theater: “There are a lot of trans creators making work, but that stuff doesn’t get the big commercial funding. I love theater, but it hasn’t aged well. The boards haven’t changed for decades, they’re beholden to their aging pool of subscribers who can complain and pull their donations if they don’t like something, so they hew towards the more conservative plays. The most daring thing they can do is put an interracial gay couple on stage. And for me, the product of an interracial couple, I’m like, ‘That’s not daring, that’s life.’”

Marques Hollie (J Demetrie Photography)

Marques Hollie (J Demetrie Photography)

But Younes also sees these disparities being perpetuated within the queer theater community itself. “If you’ve opened a door, don’t shut it behind you. There are a lot of LGB people in theater who have done that. That’s not me trying to pit myself against them, or to say that it’s easy—I know quite a few people who are not out as gay in theater—but I also know a lot of cis gay people who got what they wanted and shut the door behind them for everybody else. I would hope that a win for one of us is a win for all, but don’t forget to take the rest of us with you.”

Some Rehearsal Room Advice

The previous sections have focused on problems, many of them large structural problems that will not be swiftly solved. Even so, gentle reader, there are steps you can take to make your rehearsal rooms more welcoming to trans individuals.

“It’s a matter of respect, respecting the artists in all ways,” Sinclairé said, when I asked what makes for a welcoming rehearsal room. One key way of respecting trans people is using the right pronouns. To do this, of course, requires knowing what the right pronouns are. The quickest way to be certain of this is to ask, and so the practice of sharing your pronouns along with your name at the start of a rehearsal is becoming increasingly standard in queer-centric spaces.

By this point, it won’t surprise you to learn that not all trans people are on board with this.[10] For some, being able to share pronouns in this way is essential. “I really like the pronoun thing,” Ho said, “And I like the ritual of it at the start of every rehearsal, just a check in. Because there are days where I’m so tired I don’t even want pronouns, just use my name today.” But having everyone go around and share their pronouns may put trans people on the spot, forcing them to decide whether to out themselves in a room full of strangers or lie about their gender and resign themselves to being misgendered in the rehearsal process. Sharing pronouns when there’s only one trans person in the room[11] can also single out and other that trans person, as Jouléy describes: “There should always be a question about pronouns. But if I’m the only one who’s going to be using ‘different’ pronouns, and you’re only doing it for me, I don’t need it! I know I look different, people are going to see that and know something’s up. If they have a question, they can ask.” A reasonable middle ground, I think, is to provide an opportunity for people to share their pronouns if they want without mandating that anyone do so. Respectfully asking any trans people involved in your production in advance how they’d like you to handle this is also a good idea.

Esco Jouléy (Photo by Ronnie Nelson)

Esco Jouléy (Photo by Ronnie Nelson)

If you need to be flexible in how you approach sharing pronouns, you may need to be even more so when it comes to making musical accommodations. As Eckelhoff pointed out, these kinds of adjustments are hardly unique to trans performers: “Tenors sing castrato roles down the octave all the time. Why can’t we do that with other roles?” Sheth called attention to accommodations cis people regularly make in re-arranging ensemble tracks to better fit their range: “It might take a little extra arranging work that people don’t want to do, but when it comes to cis people who need to jump staff lines, it’s very easy. Then when it comes to trans people, suddenly they get very in their head about it, like it confuses them somehow.”

If you need to be flexible in how you approach sharing pronouns, you may need to be even more so when it comes to making musical accommodations.

When octave shifts and re-tracking ensemble numbers isn’t enough, you may have to change a key or two. Indeed, it’s probably best to include options from the get-go. “When you’re composing, just write alternative stuff,” Lucas suggests. Madagame explains that in the development process for Good Country,[12] composer Keith Allegretti prepared three alternate versions of Madagame’s role in different ranges. “Be flexible, don’t be fussy,” Madagame advised those planning to write for trans singers. Lester had some tough love for composers who feel changing keys or vocal lines infringes on their vision: “As a composer with synesthesia, I’m not trying to dismiss the importance of specific keys and timbres. But, ultimately, the composer is only one part of the musical whole.”

Lucia Lucas (Photo by Josh New)

Lucia Lucas (Photo by Josh New)

Everyone stressed the need to have more than one trans person in the room. “There needs to be a trans voice therapist, a trans vocal coach, a trans pianist present,” Sinclairé insisted. “I always look at the team,” said Jouléy, when asked about how to decide whether to join a new project. “Who’s working on it? Because when I come into the room, I don’t want any problems.”

The presence of other trans artists can make it easier for trans actors to speak up when they feel trans issues are being mishandled, but often more explicit permission is necessary. Hollie explained, “Working with directors, it’s really hard to be That Person. It can be hard to bring these things up.” Madagame said that the most helpful thing was “to have people explicitly say, ‘If you are uncomfortable with something, we want to hear about it so we can solve it.’”

Should Cis People Even Be Writing This?

Inevitably, conversations about including trans people in the rehearsal room circle back to the question of who’s writing these stories to begin with. The performers I spoke to were unanimous in their desire to see trans writers bringing trans stories to the stage; they were much more ambivalent about the role of cis allies.

Younes was the most optimistic. “Given the fact that [trans people] are a minority, it’s going to take cis people writing trans roles for us to see more employment opportunities. Obviously there need to be more opportunities for trans people to have our work produced, but simply based on the numbers, there’s never gonna be enough trans creators for the body of trans people who need to be working.” Bork was more hesitant: “This isn’t a hard rule, but I’m more cautious when people who aren’t from a particular community approach me about a project without explicitly saying they’re not from the community.”

These hesitations were often deeply rooted in having seen too many attempts from misguided would-be allies. “I’d rather not quote some of the lyrics I’ve seen,” Ho vented, “Because I understand that new musical theater writers are trying to learn, but like, learn faster.” Lester pointed out that many of these projects are bad art: “The main problem [with cis-led trans works] is that a project will be ‘trans themed’ but have no trans people involved at all. So the story is literally just a cis person’s imagined idea of how trans people live. These kinds of ‘trans’ projects aren’t just politically suspect—they’re artistically played out and stale.”

CN Lester (Photo by Raphaël Neal)

CN Lester (Photo by Raphaël Neal)

Most of the failures that these artists detailed stemmed ultimately from a limited imagination of what trans lives look like, offstage and on. “For some reason, cis writers can’t just write that a character happens to be trans and has characteristics like any other character they would write,” Sheth said. Hollie emphasized more emotional limits: “When it comes to trans representation, a lot of the works that are getting play are rooted in trauma and suffering. What about trans joy?”

“A lot of the works that are getting play are rooted in trauma and suffering. What about trans joy?”

One answer emerged clearly above all others: “I really hope more trans composers come out and compose full-on operas,” Sinclairé said. “That would be amazing.”

The good news is, those composers are out there. In the next installment, we’ll be turning our attention to them.

Further Reading

As with last week’s article, this post only scratches the surface of these conversations. Here are some avenues for further exploration:

Notes


1. Full disclosure: I have worked with several of these artists in the past, and have plans to work with some of them in the future. I write from the perspective of someone who is deeply embedded in this community.


2. The people spouting these views are often called TERFs, or Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists. TERF was originally coined as a technical shorthand for transphobia rooted in radical feminist thought, but is now thrown around pretty freely to refer to anyone who holds any trans-antagonistic position whatsoever, with the predictable dilution of its meaning. This has resulted in a confusing multi-player tug-of-war, with some advocating it be restricted to its erstwhile technical use, some accepting the diluted meaning, some trans-inclusive feminists arguing against it on the grounds that trans-exclusion is inherently unfeminist (a position often built on unfamiliarity with the specific ideology of radical feminism), and TERFs mendaciously claiming the term is a slur. (It is not.)


3. Then again, as was noted in the article linked above, these TERFs have been cited in at least one amicus brief before the US Supreme Court that could make it legal to fire any woman, including a cis woman, for wearing pants, so there’s some trans-Atlantic dialogue going on here.


4. Of course, trans women also experience sexual harassment in entertainment-industry workplaces and steep wage disparities, but there’s no denying that the highest-profile figures in these fights tend to be cis white women, and these women haven’t always been the most adept at including other women, let alone trans men and nonbinary people, in their gender activism.


5. The technical term for an actor bringing their own life experiences to shape a role and make it theirs is, of course, acting.


6. An adaptation-in-process of the film about Lili Elbe, currently slated to be composed by Tobias Picker specifically for Lucas in the title role.


7. Some AMAB trans people, of course, do retrain to sing at a higher pitch, but they won’t necessarily lose access to their lower registers if they do.


8. For a full breakdown of the xe/xem/xyrs pronoun set, see this guide. To practice using it (as well as other pronoun sets that are less familiar to you), go here.


9. This section was largely guided by what my interviewees shared with me, and as such, it deals fairly exclusively with intersections of race and transness. Obviously, other axes of marginalization exist, but many, like class and disability, are frequently invisible, and I did not think it appropriate to ask invasive questions about, for example, people’s legal, medical, and economic histories. The intersections not included here are just as important as the ones that are, but I am afraid I must leave it to others to fully explicate them.


10. Indeed, in the week before I sat down to write this, trans Twitter was consumed with an endless, acrimonious debate over this practice.


11. As will be discussed at greater length below, this is not ideal practice.


12. A chamber opera about the life of Charley Parkhurst, which will be discussed at greater length in next week’s installment.

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting, Part 1: Words, Words, Words

18th century style painting of a group of white men

Introduction

Nothing tests my conviction that cis people can write good trans characters like seeing the trans characters cis people actually write. In all the stories I’ve experienced across all forms of media featuring trans characters written by cis creators, only a handful haven’t been deeply misguided at best, and that number keeps shrinking because the creators who get it right keep coming out as trans.

Operas and musicals are no different. Although there are increasing numbers of trans characters on stage, the quality of that representation remains dispiritingly low. Still, I want to believe that cis people can get it right, albeit with some help. Hence this series.

Over the course of these four articles, I am going to take a deep dive into issues of trans representation on stage, culminating, in the final article, in a how-to guide for cis writers who want to tell trans stories responsibly. Because this guide will, necessarily, be tailored to the societal context it’s being written for, the first three articles will explore that context, beginning, in this article, with a survey of trans language and history before proceeding to a series of interviews with trans performers and writers navigating these issues in their lives and work.

My hope, gentle reader, is that this contextualization will equip you with a robust understanding of the values and stakes at play in telling trans stories responsibly, so that rather than viewing the guide in the final article as an inscrutable diktat for rote regurgitation, you have the tools to adapt it to whatever situations you find yourself in as you pursue your artistic career.

A Trans Vocabulary Primer

If you want to write trans characters from the ground up, you need to understand us.

If you want to cast trans people in your projects, you need to be able to talk about who you’re looking for. If you want to write trans characters from the ground up, you need to understand us, including the language we use to talk about ourselves.

This is a problem, because different trans people have conflicting needs when it comes to language, to the point that some trans people vehemently argue that no one should use the very terms that other trans people insist are crucial to their sense of self, in debates that can be as acrimonious as they are inscrutable to outsiders. Unsurprisingly, these differing linguistic camps are frequently demarcated by lines of age, race, class, geography, and so on, and if you spend much time deeply immersed in these debates, it quickly becomes apparent that you fundamentally cannot separate out trans issues from other kinds of social hierarchies.

As such, the vocabulary framework I’m laying out below is more of a set of least-bad compromises than best practices. This framework is informed both by my years living and interacting with trans communities in Massachusetts, LA, and NYC as well as by the perspectives of English-speaking trans people around the world I have encountered online. Even so, it is necessarily limited and imperfect, and it will become outdated as language evolves. To my cis readers, understand that much nuance is missing from the below, and best practice is always to defer to the trans people in your own community. To my trans readers, I hope you can forgive me if the terms you prefer are omitted by my infelicities and elisions.

Western societies[1] tend to divide people into two big categories: men and women. Sex refers to the physical markers of these categories — genitals, chromosomes, hormone levels, facial hair, and so on — while gender refers to the social ones — hairstyles, clothes, personality traits, and so on.[2] The underlying assumption is that these traits are all binary, coming in two neat, mutually exclusive sets.

Unsurprisingly, reality is more complicated. It’s fairly trivial to point out that social gender cues can be endlessly varied, remixed, and recombined — there are many more than two hairstyles, for example, and knowing a person’s hairstyle doesn’t reliably tell you what clothes they wear — but physical bodies are similarly unruly. For all that trans people are often accused of denying science, it’s those who insist that human bodies fall neatly into two distinct kinds who are ignoring the actual scientific facts of human sexual development.[1]

It’s fairly trivial to point out that social gender cues can be endlessly varied, remixed, and recombined.

The mainstream view sees the gender binary as growing out of the sex binary when, in reality, the relationship between the two is less linear. Doctors, believing in the gender binary, operate, without consent, on intersex newborns (whose bodies match neither the paradigmatic male nor female forms) to force them to conform to one or the other. Parents encourage children they think are boys to eat well and play outdoors while encouraging children they think are girls to watch their weight and stay indoors, with predictable physical effects. Thus, there are ways in which the gender binary gives rise to the very sex binary that people then use to justify the gender binary itself.

Western societies ignore all this. A doctor looks at an ultrasound, sees a penis, and tells the parents they’re having a boy. This process of assigning babies to a gender category based on their genitals leads, in queer circles, to the practice of calling people AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) or AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth).[4] Since the word assigned in this abbreviation leads many people unfamiliar with the underlying conceptual framework to think, not unreasonably, that these terms imply this assignation is random, I prefer to describe this as gender assumed at birth — like many assumptions, the assumption that any given baby with a vagina will grow up to be a woman could be correct, but it’s far from guaranteed.

When this assumption is correct, you have a cis person, someone whose gender matches the gender it was assumed they were when they were born.[5] When this assumption is wrong, you have a trans person, someone whose gender doesn’t match (or doesn’t always or only match) the gender it was assumed they were when they were born. The line between these two categories is fuzzy, and there are many edge cases.[6] But just as it’s useful to talk about the differences between teenagers and adults without being able to pin down a sharp divide between youth and maturity, it’s useful to talk about trans and cis people while acknowledging that actual humans are more complex.

Trans is a broad umbrella that includes both binary people (men and women) and nonbinary people.

In this usage, trans is a broad umbrella that includes both binary people (men and women) and nonbinary people (all other genders, including fluid genders and lack of gender). Nonbinary can itself be used as an umbrella: While some people use it and it alone to describe their gender, others identify with other terms under its broad canopy. Not all nonbinary people think of themselves as trans; this is a developing area where language is extremely in flux and there’s little consensus on standard usage.

As a way of including nonbinary people in discussions of the different experiences of different groups of trans people, people have developed the terms transmasculine and transfeminine (denoting “trans men plus nonbinary people who were assumed to be female at birth” and “trans women plus nonbinary people who were assumed to be male at birth”, respectively), but these terms have their flaws. For starters, not all transmasculine people are masculine, nor all transfeminine people feminine.[7] These terms also erase the experiences that nonbinary people have in common regardless of gender assumed at birth, and any grouping based on gender assumed at birth is guaranteed to alienate some trans people. Still, these terms are in widespread use, and many of the people featured in this series use them as self-descriptors. Language remains an imperfect tool, too clumsy and inexact to do justice to the richness of humanity.

A few final points before we proceed. There are a number of formerly in-vogue terms that are now broadly considered dated at best.[8] For example, it used to be common to refer to (binary) trans people as either Male-To-Female (MTF) or Female-To-Male (FTM). But many trans people feel they were never the gender people assumed they were when they were born, and feel invalidated by this framing. Similarly, terms like biologically female and biologically male should be avoided, as they’re often used to deny trans people’s actual genders.

Natural language being what it is, some shibboleths are profoundly arbitrary. Use transgender and cisgender, not transgendered and cisgendered. Put a space after trans in phrases like trans man; don’t make compound words like transman.[9] There’s no inner logic to this, just as there’s no inner logic to the fact that shortening homosexual to homo is pejorative while shortening bisexual to bi is totally fine. Language is weird like that.

Other terms are more of a grey area: Many trans people use transsexual[10] as a reclaimed self-descriptor, but it usually comes across as stigmatizing when a cis person uses it. Some trans people find terms like female-identifying empowering and welcoming, but many find such terms de-legitimizing. There was a brief window where it was de rigueur to use the label trans*, and some trans people still do this, but general practice has now come around against asterisk.

Three bad things and we’re done: Transmisogyny refers to the combination of transphobia and misogyny that AMAB trans people experience. Misgendering refers to the act of using the wrong pronouns for someone, or using other terms that don’t match a person’s gender. Those who adopt a new name as part of their transition often call their old name their deadname; using this name for them is known as deadnaming, and, as with misgendering, it is absolutely something you should not do.

With this terminology under our belt, we’re finally ready to talk about art.

Trans People in Singing Theater History: A Cursory Sketch

When I initially sketched this section of the article, I planned to give a brief overview of the difficulties of trans history, highlight a few areas in the singing theater[11] past that seem likely to have under-explored trans histories, discuss the failings of several high-profile[12] efforts in recent years, and close with a survey of more successful projects. But as I began interviewing people for later articles in this series, I quickly discovered almost everyone I talked to has been involved in projects I’d never heard of, and these projects frequently defy easy categorization.

Almost everyone I talked to has been involved in projects I’d never heard of, and these projects frequently defy easy categorization.

That’s great news for demonstrating the vitality of trans art, but it rather derailed the original plan. Adequately surveying just the works from the past half-decade now seems like a dissertation project to me, not something that can be satisfactorily done in one half of one article. I hope someone writes that dissertation, but it’s not something I can do right here right now.

I’m still going to give a cursory overview of some (potentially) trans histories as well as the difficulties in uncovering them, both because those histories help illuminate where we are today and because several of my interviewees allude to this past in more and less explicit ways, but when it comes to more recent years, I’m going to hold off on generalizing and opt instead to describe specific projects as needed in the conversations with performers and writers in the next two articles.

Most contemporary frameworks of transness treat gender and sexuality as different things. Historically, this is not how these two facets of human experience were understood. For much of Western history, attraction to women was seen as a necessary component of masculinity. If you weren’t attracted to women, you were, in some sense, not really a man.[13]

This framing persists in the stereotype of the mannish lesbian and the effeminate gay man, but it was once the dominant paradigm for understanding homosexuality. Nineteenth-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s theory of sexual inversion posited that homosexuality arose when the gender of a person’s psyche was somehow the inverse of the gender of their body — so lesbians, for example, had a “masculine soul heaving in the female bosom” — and many in the early 20th century described themselves with this terminology, especially after Radclyffe Hall popularized it in her iconic 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness.[14]

Radclyffe Hall in a jacket and tie holding a dog.

Radclyffe Hall c. 1930 (public domain image by unknown photographer via WikiMedia Commons)

Needless to say, this framing makes it impossible to cleanly divide the history of homosexuality from the history of transness. It’s like trying to divide composers from arrangers: Sure, some people focus more on one or the other, but by and large it’s not a distinction you can make. Forcing contemporary distinctions onto historical people not only risks misrepresenting them, it also distorts our understanding of the past. The best approach is to use the language of their own context — language that is often deliberately obscure[15] — especially when that language represents a totally different framework for categorizing these ideas.

Unfortunately, we don’t always have that language, and often it was deliberately suppressed. In perhaps the most dramatic example of the latter, the Nazis burned the entire archive of Berlin’s Institute for Sexology in 1933, destroying some 20,000 books and 5,000 photographs containing irreplaceable records of queer life in early 20th-century Europe. All of this makes studying trans history feel like trying to decode punch cards from an early computer that have been fed through a wood chipper and stored at the bottom of a lake. We know there’s something there, but that doesn’t mean we can actually find it with certainty.

To zoom in on a specific example of historic gender diversity in singing theater, I spoke with Dr. Imani Mosley of Wichita State University.

“The music theater and opera stage have a history of being this amazing place to have conversations about gender, gender identity, and gender presentation,” she said. “There’s a lot there — we’re talking centuries of it. If anyone is under the assumption that this is a 20th- or 21st-century situation: It’s not. It goes all the way back to Venice and the beginning of the dramma per musica. It didn’t always look the same, but these things were always present.”

She continued, “[In the 17th and 18th centuries,] there’s a lot of conflation between gender and sexuality, and castrati are the best example of this because you have all of these conversations surrounding them about the fluidity they moved through. There was space to talk about their gender portrayal as masculine in some aspects and feminine in others.” These conversations in the press didn’t always involve the perspectives of castrati themselves. “The more famous you are, the more likely your words have come down to us today. But there are lots of people we know far less about.”

A 1734 paintingFarinelli leaning on a harpsichord.

Bartolomeo Nazari’s 1734 Portrait of Farinelli. Royal College of Music London CC BY-SA 4.0

And indeed, while castrati like Farinelli who became international superstars have been extensively documented, their experiences aren’t necessarily representative. At the peak of the castrato craze, around 4,000 castrati were being created every year; at this remove, it’s hard to even find their names, let alone detailed information about how they thought about themselves and their genders. It’s easy to assume that any singer before the 20th century who lived a life that we might now read as trans of course would have entered historical memory[16], but it’s also easy to assume that any well-written pieces by people other than cis white men of course would have entered the canon, or that of course people today would remember if every major newspaper, magazine, and radio show in the US had covered a trans woman positively (for the time) for six months in 1952. It’s easy to assume lots of false things.

Many of the best trans shows I’ve seen were ephemeral, performed in small venues with shoestring budgets, receiving no press and minimal documentation.

Working as a trans artist, I see this historical amnesia happening in real time. Many of the best trans shows I’ve seen were ephemeral, performed in small venues with shoestring budgets, receiving no press and minimal documentation. Given the tendency of records to be lost and destroyed over time, any historian looking back at this era is guaranteed to miss much of the dynamic vibrancy of this artistic moment. I fear that the few pieces that do have lasting records will seem like isolated blips instead of snatches of a densely interwoven tapestry.

Next week, we’ll begin the work of illuminating a little of that tapestry with a set of interviews with trans performers.

Further Reading

For those interested in pursuing the topics discussed above in more depth, here are some places to begin:

  • Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl is an excellent introduction to many issues related to transness and femininity, and her two articles on the Activist Language Merry-Go-Round are a must-read for understanding why trans language is both so fluid and so contentious.
  • Noam Sienna’s Rainbow Thread is a vital collection of queer texts within Jewish traditions. The introduction’s clear, trenchant discussion of the difficulties of queer historical language deeply shaped my thinking in this essay.
  • As an entry point to the literature surrounding the relationship between Western and non-Western frameworks of gender and sexuality, “The Heterosexual Matrix as Imperial Effect” by Vrushali Patil is cogent and provides references to many additional sources.
  • Siren Songs, edited by Mary Ann Smart, remains a foundational collection of essays on the topic of representations of gender and sexuality in opera, albeit one that does not always adequately account for trans possibilities.
  • I linked to this in passing above, but “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”, the 1989 article where Kimberlé Crenshaw lays out her theory of intersectionality, is a lucid read on why single-issue politics will never adequately address the complex injustices of the actual world.

Notes

1. I’m limiting this to Western societies because the theatrical works I will be discussing were written and produced in that context, albeit in a tradition with deep roots outside of the West. Many non-Western societies have more than two gender categories, categories that were forcibly suppressed as part of the deliberate genocides of Western colonialism. While some members of indigenous communities use the language of transness to describe themselves, others feel that transness is a specifically Western concept that does not fit their work.

2. Because gender happens in the realm of culture, it is, unsurprisingly, vastly mutable, and the cultural expectations of men and women vary across time, space, and demographics. The mainstream expectations of what gay men and women will be like, say, do not necessarily align with the expectations of what rich, straight, white, able-bodied, etc men and women will look like.

3. NB: The language in that article isn’t perfect, and the legal landscape in the United States has changed somewhat since it was written.

4. Variations abound: CAFAB/CAMAB adds a “coercively” on to the front; DFAB/DMAB changes “assigned” to “designated” or “declared”; FAAB/MAAB rearranges the order of the terms.

5. As with all aspects of self-conception, the reasons someone does or doesn’t claim a certain identity are complex and hugely idiosyncratic, and there isn’t room to go into them here. I’m just going to take it as a given that people have or lack genders and are capable of knowing this about themselves.

6. These edge cases often involve other axes of marginalization. To give just two examples, there are non-trivial arguments to be made that effeminate gay men are excluded from cis masculinity, and that Black women are excluded from cis femininity.

7. When shortened to transmasc or transfem (sometimes spelled transfemme), these terms also collide with masc and femme, which are themselves important identity labels in queer circles that don’t necessarily have any relation to sex assumed at birth.

8. Though, of course, there are absolutely trans people who prefer these terms, and whenever you’re referring to a specific trans person, you should respect their preferences.

9. Nonbinary and non-binary, however, are both fine.

10. Usually with two S’s, but sometimes only with one.

11. I use singing theater as a catch-all term for pieces intended primarily for live performance that use sung text in some way to tell a story, because so many of the issues of trans representation are the same regardless of whether the specific work in question is an opera, musical, oratorio, or song cycle.

12. Well, high-profile in the world of contemporary opera and off-Broadway musicals.

13. This is, obviously, a gross oversimplification, but it will have to do for now.

14. The theory of sexual inversion isn’t the only place where different present-day queer identities blur together. To use a more recent example, drag has historically been a world where the boundary lines between identity categories are fluid to nonexistent; while many present-day trans people have nothing to do with drag scenes, many hugely important figures in trans history made drag a core part of their identities.

15. See, for example, the gay men who referred to themselves as Friends of Dorothy in a tip of the hat to Judy Garland’s role in The Wizard of Oz, which famously led the US Navy to search for an actual woman named Dorothy that all the gay men were friends with.

16. Though, of course, things that strike us as remarkable today may have struck our predecessors as too commonplace to be worth noting. “Our progenitors were not as puritanical as we might believe,” as Mosley wryly noted.

“This event is probably not unique”: On communication and metaphor in Robert Ashley’s Improvement

Stage performance with teal backdrop

Editorial note: The text of this article has been corrected. Though the Varispeed Collective (Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons) has worked deeply with the music of Robert Ashley previously, this production was performed by a larger vocal ensemble which also includes Amirtha Kidambi. Mimi Johnson, through Performing Artservices, produced the opera, and Tom Hamilton served as music director.

The opening words of Robert Ashley’s Improvement are a bit of a head-scratcher: “To continue, I must explain an idea that I am inadequate to communicate in the music.”

Continue what? It’s the first line of the opera. And communicate what? If he didn’t think himself capable of communicating via music, why write an opera, of all things?

Over the course of the next 88 minutes, seven voices attempt to communicate this unexplainable idea alongside an orchestral accompaniment consisting of a MIDI-controlled synthesized harmonic environment. The issue of communication was a concern for the composer throughout his life. Ashley, who was born in 1930 and died in 2014, composed “television operas” and other experimental theatrical works employing a vocabulary of ordinary folks mumbling, humming, chanting, and occasionally singing. Ashley conveyed quotidian experiences, such as getting old or getting divorced, in a United States vernacular woven through with grandiose metaphors and allegories: at the end of his prerecorded opening narration to Improvement, he intones, “For the sake of argument, Don is Spain in 1492 and Linda is the Jews.”

Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is Ashley’s first in a series of four operas exploring the experiences and consciousnesses of a collection of ordinary Americans: Don, Linda, Now Eleanor, and Junior Junior. The tetralogy is “based on the notion of a sequence of events seen from different points of view.” In Improvement, the seven vocalists converse with each other in question-and-answer sessions (“Do you have a ticket?” “Yes.” “Do you have baggage?” “Yes.”), interrogating each other Inquisition-style, and adopting different identities when the narrative demands it. The vocalists shift seamlessly from their roles as named individuals to Greek-chorus-style delivery, whispering and echoing underneath. The result is at times laugh-out-loud funny, as when Linda gets a ride from the “Unimportant Family” (“my name is unimportant, and this is my wife, whose name is unimportant, and our two lovely children, whose names are unimportant.”) Other moments are eerie, and still others are imbued with a profound sense of loss and isolation. But the opera never loses its sense of momentum, of getting the listener from one place to another.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked….An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked. Even though the texts burble along in a seemingly haphazard fashion, they are arranged according to Ashley’s careful cosmology. An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line such as Mr. Payne’s comments in Improvement that “still words would be useless, if the sound were not the meaning” or “The world moves on the air of music. There’s nothing like it. It’s the only thing we had before automobiles as four-dimensional.” Mr. Payne represents Ashley’s philosopher muse Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600), and his character betrays much of Ashley’s complicated approach to language and communication. Words can be helpful, but are most helpful when they are sounded out loud; music can convey the meaning of words while also transporting you from point A to point B.

Which is ultimately what Ashley’s music does so effectively. Ashley was more interested in the process of musical communication than in its end product. His metaphors and allegories aren’t nonsensical or tongue-in-cheek operatic devices; they illustrate the interconnectedness of human experience across geographies and temporalities and encapsulate human sensation on a much broader scale than a story concerned only with individuals locked into a specific place and time. For these reasons, I must disagree with Ashley: he is possibly one of the only composers who is adequate to communicate “in the music.” Ashley’s operas remind us that sound is metaphor—they make us hear what music really is: sounds that are meant to communicate something beyond themselves.


Improvement, which Ashley wrote in 1985, was first recorded in 1991. The first version existed only as a recording, with the vocalists doubling their own voices in live performance. The most recent production of the opera (presented to sold-out houses February 7–16, 2019, at The Kitchen in New York City) was reconstructed over a period of two years by producer Mimi Johnson (Ashley’s widow) and music director Tom Hamilton (Ashley’s longtime collaborator). (Production information and libretto available here.) Although the subsequent operas in the tetralogy were first performed live, Improvement first existed as a recording (upon which live productions had to be based) for almost 30 years. The assumption being that “this piece was not going to be performed live in concert,” Hamilton told me—ostensibly because it was the first in a tetralogy that its creators suspected would not be of interest to venues or live music programmers. Although some of the original tracks were found for the 2019 performance, some of them weren’t, which meant that the opera essentially was reconstructed from scratch.

Johnson, as producer, was involved in the process from start to finish. She told me that “the orchestra and voices had been mingled irrevocably,” and so both components of the opera had to be recreated. In the first version, the singers were doubling their own voices—which meant they could occasionally take a breath during a live performance, knowing their own voice would be doubled. But according to Johnson, “the new version is 100% live,” with only a click track in the vocalists’ ears to keep the beat. This presentation maintains the sound world of the original, but also imbues Ashley’s opera with a new sense of expressiveness: unexpected sighs or syllabic emphases or vocal inflections resulting in twists of humor or jolts of sadness.

Ashley’s libretto does not specify these sorts of things. His timings are exact down to the second —Improvement runs precisely eighty-eight minutes: no more, no less—but he granted musicians the freedom to interpret the stories and conversations and ramblings however they chose. Ashley’s textual narratives are inextricable from his musical scores: typically, there is one row for each line of the libretto, with columns indicating extratextual information, such as which vocalist should be speaking, a tonality on which the vocalist should be centering their speech, and how many beats per line and beats per minute. In the case of Improvement, the chorus is presented in all caps, solo voices are lower case, and Ashley indicated that “all lines for chorus begin on the first beat” and “underlined syllables fall on the beat and are somewhat accented.”

The team rehearsed the opera five days a month for roughly two years. The cast members—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—were not strangers to Ashley’s oeuvre, having performed in the 2011 remounting of That Morning Thing and in Ashley’s last opera, Crash. Gelsey Bell, who was tasked with reincarnating the role of Linda (originally played by Jacqueline Humbert), explained in the New York Times: “There’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from [Humbert’s] in many ways, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.”

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley's Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley’s Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) at The Kitchen, February 2019. © Al Foote III

When I sat in on a rehearsal in January, the performers seemed equally as concerned about doing justice to Ashley’s work as they were about adhering to their own personal sense of creativity and musicality. After Hamilton brought their attention to a problematic moment (line 614, in which Linda sings “right at the airline ticket counter” with chorus) the group hashed it out, with Bell ultimately deciding to “just do it the way I’ve been doing it” and the others making slight rhythmic modifications so as not to throw off the overall flow of beats and syllables and sentiments. Simons then began sifting through a box labeled “Bob’s ties,” selecting shirt and tie combos for McCorkle, Pinto, and Ruder before the three male cast members went out to get haircuts together. The cozy rehearsal space reverberated with warm excitement, mingled with a touch of silliness and a touch of reverence.


The performers did not need to attempt to communicate Ashley’s presence from beyond the grave; he could do that for himself. The only voice that was carried over from the first version was Ashley’s own: at three different moments in the opera, Ashley’s narration crackled through the air, slamming our ears and hearts with the weight of something that seemed much more solid than invisible sound waves. “I am inadequate to communicate in the music,” the voice ironically claims, but Ashley’s operas are so much more adept at communicating than “traditional” opera. The conversations, mumbled soliloquies, and half-remembered songs within Ashley’s operas refuse to objectify the sung voice. Instead they allow the spoken or sung voice to communicate universal concerns and human experiences within the immediacy of the sound waves themselves.

Ashley’s cosmology always concerned itself more with communicating big ideas through a focus on particular microcosms of American life. Ashley’s musical language reflects this interest in escaping traditional conceptions of time. As he himself put it in an interview with Kyle Gann:

The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple other guys, music had always been about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. … There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me. … That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.

In focusing on the sound rather than the event, Ashley’s music communicates events and entities and ideas beyond the sound. Ashley’s resistance to musical “events” imbues the entirety of Improvement, in which Don and Linda’s breakup (and their subsequent airport mishaps) represent suffering on a much larger scale and across a much grander scale of time.

Ultimately Don and Linda’s breakup is irrelevant. It’s not about Don leaving Linda; it’s about violence and persecution as central themes to human existence. Through repetition of words and sounds, Ashley makes us hear how Linda’s situation—even while isolating and alienating for her—is just another variation on the repetitive nature of human experience. When the “Unimportant Family” picks up Linda after she gets left by her husband, she is reminded that her discomfort—in the van, in her new life circumstances—does not make her special, no matter how lonely or isolated she might feel:

This ride is uncomfortable, I know.
…there is a certain wornness about it,
and this wornness makes the
passenger uncomfortable,
reminding him or her that this
event is probably not unique.

Bell’s rendering of Linda’s suffering was so apt, managing to capture the sadness of Linda as an individual as well as the sadness one goes through even while realizing that others have gone through it too. She is able to express this while also conveying the allegory of Linda’s role as a metaphor for much “bigger” and more abstract ideas.

And so Improvement, as an eighty-eight minute “event,” does not exist for the sake of sounds becoming ideas or vehicles for linguistic communication. As Ashley himself stated in the libretto for Improvement, “music has no calories.” Instead, the sounds become communication itself as they direct our ears to what exists beyond these sounds happening in this moment in time. They help us to see and hear and think beyond ourselves. Improvement is not “about” Linda and it’s not even really “about” the persecution of the Jews by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. It’s about how the event of heartbreak ultimately can be kind of funny and mundane—because there’s a certain wornness about it, because it’s probably not unique. It’s about how the universal can exist within the particular. It’s about the conveyance of human suffering with musicalized sound.

Work the Work, Daily: Community-Building, Music-Making, and Conference Culture with Tenderloin Opera Company

TOC members at PRONK

It is a dreary, late-fall afternoon when I knock on the door to Diamond’s apartment, a nice duplex in a tidy neighborhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She opens the door and quickly says, “Jacob, you’re not going to believe this, come look.” I walk through her living room, which is usually cozy but is now filled with twenty over-stuffed garbage bags full of clothes. They were given to her to donate to the homeless and at-risk people that are her clients at the shelter and service center where she works. As winter comes in Rhode Island, these clothes, shoes, and blankets are desperately needed. We get to her bedroom where she lifts a blanket sitting on a crate to reveal a small dog. The little black terrier with wiry hair is jumping and squeaking with excitement. “I’m watching her for a few days until she can get to her new home.”

Three years ago when I met Diamond, I do not think anyone could have imagined that she would be in this situation: housed in a good apartment doing two things she loves—fostering dogs and helping the homeless. Three years ago she was herself homeless and mourning the death of her good friend Wendy Tallo. That was when she first came to a meeting of the Tenderloin Opera Company.

Tenderloin Opera Company is a homeless advocacy music and theater group based in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded by playwright Erik Ehn and composers Lisa Bielawa and Joshua Raoul Brody in San Francisco. When Erik transplanted to Providence, he recruited local students and homeless advocates to start a new version of the group locally. I was one of them. We kept the name, Tenderloin, to honor the neighborhood in which it was founded. Now in our ninth season, TOC comprises about a dozen core members, including folks who are currently homeless, formerly homeless, homeless advocates, students, artists, and other friends. The members of TOC compose and perform one opera each year based on stories of homelessness, abuse, addiction, hope, love, and redemption. We also perform at social and political events, protests, and marches about issues related to homelessness.

  • Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years.

    Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
  • We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.”

    Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
  • I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.

    Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator

We meet weekly at Mathewson Street Methodist Church in downtown Providence. The church is a hub for homeless outreach non-profits and volunteer groups and hosts a number of free community meals every week. We meet right before the meal on Friday afternoons.

“Put your bodies in the space of someone else…It’s already a whole lot.”
-Helga Davis, New Music Gathering 2018 Keynote Address

Our meetings start with a group check-in, which is perhaps the most important part of the whole enterprise. Members share their names and how they have been doing this week. During check-in, which sometimes lasts up to half an hour, we learn who among the group has gotten housing, who is back on the street, who is sick, who in the community has passed away, who is excited about a new boyfriend (usually it’s Linda), who is doing well, who is recovering, and what is going on down the street at City Hall or the State House that affects the homeless, tenuously housed, and visibly poor populations in Rhode Island.

The rest of the session is spent working on the opera. It starts with generative writing exercises. These exercises are the genius method of Erik Ehn, and we have tried our best to keep the process since he moved away two years ago. They start very simply, with everyone getting index cards and responding to prompts, such as: “List three people you saw on your way to TOC today,” “Five signs of autumn you see on the streets,” “Who has been on your mind this week?” We then read our responses and mix them up: “Take one person you are thinking about this week, and one person someone next to you mentioned, and come up with two things they talk about together,” “Take one sign of autumn you saw, and one you heard from a friend, and make two lines that rhyme.”

Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years. The operas are technically more like musicals: songs mixed with spoken dialogue. The music for the songs is composed primarily by co-music director Kirsten Volness, some by me, and some with the group all together at the piano.

We have fun in Tenderloin and get to know people.
A place to meet and talk and sing.
A safe space.
My one hour of sanity!
A place to let people know what’s going on in the streets.
—Collective TOC members’ answers to the question, “What is TOC to me?”

We perform the operas each spring, and songs from all the operas (“greatest hits”) at least monthly all around Rhode Island. We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.” However, Tenderloin Opera Company performances are some of the most expressive and challenging that I have even been a part of. The music is pop-y, but odd, complex, not what you imagine songs for untrained musicians to be. Within each song are fragments of many people’s stories strung along a main narrative. There are sometimes dance routines, sometimes live sign language translation (also courtesy of Linda), and often extended rhythm vamps, opened up for members to approach a mic and tell a story.

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC works are truly “operatic” in subject matter and deal with stories derived from our members’ experiences with homelessness: loss, neglect, exploitation from landlords and politicians, and police harassment, but also love, recovery, magic, and spirituality. Homelessness is deadly, and almost all of our plays involve memorial songs we write about members and friends who have passed. Their ghosts and angels inhabit our operas, as do robots, talking dogs, half-baked superheroes, and villains who curiously resemble the local politicians, authorities, and land developers whose actions threaten the lives of our members and the character of our city.

An example of how a TOC member’s personal experiences transformed into a song is the case of founding member David Eisenberger and the song “Article 134.” The story derived from Dave’s experience as a veteran and having to deal with the unfair and dehumanizing aspects of the code of military justice and veteran neglect. Its lyrics include his stories and experiences, but also a smattering of those from other group members, including dealing with a pregnant teenage daughter, relationship drama, and a collapsing marriage.

“Work the work, daily”
—from the TOC song “Ranger Juan

For almost ten years, Tenderloin Opera Company has been effective in helping our members express themselves, find friendship and fellowship, but also find resources, services, donated goods, whatever is needed in a given week. It connects our members to a broader homeless services network, 134 Collaborative, headquartered at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church. We look out for each other, make art, and perform together.

What has allowed for this success is consistency and situating our activity within the homeless and homeless advocacy community. We meet, rehearse, and perform our operas in the place where people come to serve, eat meals, and get vital services.

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC On Tour: Community Art and Conference Culture

In 2016, TOC was invited to present at the New Music Gathering hosted at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The theme for that year’s gathering was “Community,” and we performed some songs and took part in a panel discussion that included other community arts groups from around the country.

I knew it was important to bring some TOC members who were currently experiencing homelessness or were closer to it than I and the other more privileged members were. When I asked the group, Diamond insisted that she was going.

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

At the time, Ruth “Diamond” Madsen was at a low point. She had been in and out of homelessness and was currently staying at Crossroads, the largest shelter and transitional housing complex in Rhode Island. Among other things, she was struggling with the loss of a good friend, Wendy Tallo, who had been found hanging from a tree in a cemetery off Broad Street, one of the most hard-up blocks in Providence. The official cause of death was suicide, though word on the street was that she was murdered. Diamond wrote a poem about it that we had set to music earlier that season. This horrific event came during a dark couple of years in which there were numerous attacks on homeless and visibly poor individuals in Rhode Island, including some TOC members.

It wasn’t easy making sure Diamond could get away. I had to talk to her case manager at Crossroads to convince them that the conference and her role as speaker and performer was legitimate, and to make sure her spot at the shelter wouldn’t be given up while she was gone. The lack of trust and leeway given to Diamond was very demoralizing.

Once that was settled, we piled four TOC members and luggage in my car and sped off south on I-95. As soon as we hit the road, there was a change in Diamond’s demeanor. She was excited, singing and dancing around in her seat. Then she quieted down and started furiously thumbing at her phone. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, Diamond had used social media to contact a number of homeless outreach organizations in Baltimore. She had scheduled time for us to visit the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, to work at the kitchen there giving out meals, sort donated coats, and perform with TOC at breakfast. She did all this in a couple of hours on her phone in the car.

We spent our week in Baltimore traveling between the marble palace of Peabody Conservatory to perform and talk about homelessness and arts outreach, and the Franciscan Center on West 23rd Street to play for homeless people, hand out coats, and share stories.

Diamond was a star at both locations. After our talk and performance at NMG, she was swarmed by new fans who listened to her share her experiences and asked nervous questions about building community through new music and art.

“What’s all this about community?…You know where I am. I’m homeless. Just come be with me and you’ll be my community.”
—Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, New Music Gathering 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

There is a disconnection between the ease with which Diamond approaches community and the way we approach it as community arts groups at conferences—just like there is often a disconnection between our rhetoric on diversity and inclusivity in the new music community and how we actually practice our art.

I was disheartened to see that many of the same discussions (“conversations,” as we often say) we had at the 2016 New Music Gathering were repeated at the 2018 NMG in Boston, without much having changed in the intervening two years. To understand this, it is worth watching Keynote Speaker Helga Davis’s brilliant, Socratic indictment of the difference between the stated aspirations and realities of the new music community.

“If you want to know what you want, look at what you have.”
—Helga Davis quoting August Gold, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

A number of times I have been invited to speak about TOC at conferences focused on the arts and community building, yet have been asked to leave my fellow TOC community members at home—to give my “notes from the field,” I suppose. Based on my own experiences at these conferences, they seem to achieve little in terms of the broad concerns they presume to address.

However, the effect that visiting the New Music Gathering had on Diamond was profound. Since the conference almost three years ago, Diamond has been continuously housed, has been awarded internships and paid trainings, and is now working at a homeless outreach center and women’s shelter in Pawtucket, RI. She attends TOC meetings almost every week and helps fellow bandmate Wendy organize clothing donations at Mathewson Street Church where we meet. She still talks about the crabs and spiked milkshakes we had at our splurge dinner in Baltimore.

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond: Risky Business

…and doing “Risky Business” at our hotel in Mount Vernon, Baltimore

Things were rough for Diamond when we left. But at the New Music Gathering she saw how much people valued her and her knowledge about the homeless community, and how people from different backgrounds can come together in a group like TOC to share stories and make music. The fact that she was asked to share this information and help people at both places of high privilege and extreme need made the process even more meaningful.

“EVERYBODY NEEDS A LITTLE TOC IN THEIR LIVES”
—Diamond

What my experience with TOC at the New Music Gathering taught me was that these types of meetings can make change, but only if you let people in. What if we invited more people from different backgrounds to a conference like NMG? What if we did outreach? Volunteered as part of the conference program? Held a student instrument exchange? What if we let performers of all kinds perform their own new music in the well-heeled institutions where these things are held, and also had the conference take place in community centers, schools, churches, clubs, and homeless shelters? I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.

“Make something with a group of people that includes people that don’t look like you…Just the invitation will begin to open a door…We’re interested in opening the door.”
—Helga Davis, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

We need to create community art that lets people in and lets everyone grow. I think we can do this by being more mobile, flexible, and accessible. Flexible in terms of where, when, and with whom we perform. Accessible not in the terms of the art we make—some TOC performances are as complex as anything I’ve seen or performed—but in terms of cost, location, and transportation options to the venue. We in the new music community will have to give up control and come out of our comfort zones.

Here’s my advice based on my experience with the Tenderloin Opera Company for almost ten years: Show up. Be consistent. Make friends. Meet in a space that is accessible to your community (geographically, economically, handicap accessible). Keep the performing group together for more than one show. Raise money to go on trips and small tours. Diamond demonstrated to me how important and impactful these excursions can be.

Prepare for it to be hard: the structures that separate us are old, powerful, and ingrained. There will almost always be something that trips us up and reveals the privilege, difference, otherness, and walls between people that your group is working to dismantle. But that’s okay. It’s necessary. Expect to be challenged. As Davis said, “Be willing to let go of your rightness of what you think you know.” If we are not able to do that, we should stop lying to ourselves about wanting to change.

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.