The ‘Trans Opera’ debate

Reddit has proved to be a very useful source of research when it comes to gathering initial debate about prospective research projects. I recently posted on Reddit, in multiple different communities, sharing one of my current projects: an opera for trans opera singers that aims to rethink traditional opera narratives and create more repertoire for trans opera singers. For in-depth information about the themes my opera explores, see my ‘writing an opera’ series. But as a brief summary, this opera also explores identity and plays with traditional notions of gender a lot. Other related topics are involved such as ‘queerness’ (the project is called “Queering Opera”) and drag (in the sense that “We’re All Born Naked And The Rest Is Drag”). The opera also plays with clichés, again things that come out of tradition: gay anthems, social norms, traditional convention compared to taboo subjects (that are only taboo because they go against convention – read Adorno who explains all that much better).

enoa documentary

I should add at this point, and this is the interesting thing, the reddit forums dedicated to discussion about all things related to trans had a really positive reaction to the opera and understood what it was trying to do very clearly. In fact, the opera needed very little explaining in these forums.

trans forum on Reddit

The forums dedicated to composers needed further information in order to understand the point of the opera, and, bizarrely, a debate about whether or not voice is indeed gendered ensued. For me, this heightened the need to rethink traditional opera because such rethinking evidently has wider implications in society as a whole: namely, that there are pre-existing assumptions about voice and gender that serve to hinder discussions about trans opera voices and the progression of opera today, and this needs to be tackled. To put it very basically: it heightens how a progression in society needs to come from our art and it can’t come from our art of the artists aren’t open to understanding the people around them.

Overall, I’ve found the discussion in the composers forum really useful when it comes to considering how to clearly explain this project to wider audiences who are less willing to accept a rethinking of traditional opera.

A rather large debate ensued about this opera in the composers forum and I’d like to tackle all the strawmen here:

First: there was a consensus among a very loud minority that voice isn’t actually gendered and SATB can be sung by any gender. Well done you amazing minds from the future who have somehow eradicated all notions of gender. HOWEVER, I do think the misunderstanding here arose because they were thinking about traditional choral music and not opera. When it comes to choral repertoire, women weren’t allowed on stage and in church and so men used falsetto and, in some drastic cases, were forced to castrate themselves to either keep their treble range or save the church from sin. HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference between a countertenor and a female soprano, for instance. The difference is there in timbre and agility. Also, the extensive literature on vocal fachs that have been used in opera for literally CENTURIES are inherently gendered. A soprano is a female. A countertenor is a male. A female has never been called a countertenor (traditionally). Yes, mezzo sopranos sang trouser roles and effectively hit those countertenor ranges, but as I’ve just said these were also called trouser roles: roles that played with gender. For more information about all the voice categories and how they’re gendered, please see my very thorough YouTube series on this topic

composer forum on Reddit
composer forum on Reddit
composer forum on Reddit

Second: Trans and Drag are not the same thing. This opera simultaneously explores both trans and drag deliberately in order to make a point about how trans and drag are not the same thing. In fact, in Act 1 Finale, a man in drag (who has become a woman for that moment and is therefore treated as a soprano despite having a countertenor voice – go figure) and a trans woman (who also enjoys drag – drag is for everyone) enter the scene. These are both drag queens and they’re the saviours in our narrative. The trans woman sings with a tenor voice and despite this being the norm in choral repertoire, in opera the tenor roles are reserved for heroic male characters (again, see my lecture series on the operatic voice).

Third: someone asked if a trans woman can play a soprano despite being a countertenor. NO, a trans woman with a soprano or mezzo range is not a countertenor (unless they wanted to do drag or en travesti) because the countertenor is traditionally a male role. Again, this shows how voice is traditionally gendered in opera.

composer forum on Reddit

Fourth: someone said ‘oh so you’re writing an opera where the baritone can be a woman’. Yes. But this is just one facet of the whole melange of ‘identity, categorisation, gendered-voice’ topic that we’re exploring. We want this to be the norm. We don’t want there to be a need for the statement “an opera where the baritone is a woman”. After all, no one says “an opera where the baritone is a man”. But maybe one day they will. Or maybe they wouldn’t need to, I don’t know.

Fifth: there was also a confusion between timbre and pitch/vocal range. People saying “but men can sing high, women can sing low”. Yes all genders can sing high and low. But if you even have to say that statement, you’re implying a significance between pitch and gender. It’s the Adorno ‘is and is not‘ dialectical argument.

composer forum on Reddit

The notion of voice being gendered isn’t news. If you can hear the difference between a traditional male voice and traditional female voice, then you understand how voice is gendered. It’s also something that’s discussed and debated in much of the existing literature on classical voice categorisation. But the notion that voice is traditionally gendered isn’t the point I’m making: my point is that I’m writing an opera for trans voices that rethinks gender, identity, conventionalisation, tradition, and voice categories such that one day no one will even notice a woman singing with a voice that was once “traditionally” viewed as a male vocal fach.

yes indeed.

For in-depth information about my research into traditional voice categories and how we might rethink them today, see my lecture series on the operatic voice.

For in-depth information about the themes my opera explores, see my ‘writing an opera’ series


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