THE BLOG
09/03/2015 10:05 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2016

Opera's Blurred Lines

I just completed a week singing chamber music and song repertoire that was composed for men. It was a bit of a struggle because the vocal part, even though an octave higher, still did not sit quite right. It made me think of gender and what I do. Much song repertoire can be performed by both men and women but some pieces have gender specific words. However in the operatic world it is a bit different.

I watched Caitlyn Jenner on the ESPY's a while back and was quite moved by her struggle and transformation. I am of the generation that also remembers tennis pro Renee Richards' transition. Being in the theater/classical music profession, sexual orientation, gender assignment, etc. rarely, if ever, is mentioned. It really is not of importance when one is an artist. I am lucky to work in a field that is extremely open and welcoming to people of all genders. We do not live in the world of stereotypes as some in the non-theatrical world do.

Recently a young man contacted me for voice lessons. He laid out his story in advance; that he was transgender and had completed four years of hormone therapy. I met him and taught him, not as a transgender person, but as I would any voice student- in this case a high baritone. Admittedly, I half expected him to have a higher voice, or be a counter tenor. I continue to work with him and I enjoy his excitement of finding his true voice.

Opera is a field that had a horrific history of castrating young men who were great boy sopranos right before puberty in order for them to sing male operatic roles but with much volume and color which at the time apparently was different from the female voices of the day. Fortunately this practice waned. (For interesting reading one should pull out novelist Anne Rice's "Cry to Heaven" ) In 1994 the bio pic "Farinelli" was released. His birth name was Michelangelo Nicola Broschi and was perhaps the most famous opera singer of the 18th century. Both men and women fainted when he sang.

The practice of castration for vocal reasons was used for the Catholic Church, most notably perhaps for the Sistine Chapel choir in the 1500's. Of course, at the time women were banned from such choirs. 1600's when operatic roles were specifically written for the castrati. Their voices were stronger an cleared than a male falsetto sound. Some castrati performed female roles early on but this practice also waned but they continued to sing the male roles. Apparently, at the height of the castrati era in the early 1700's nearly 4000 boys were castrated annually. Only a select few made it to the operatic stage and the rest were in the service of the church. Some church leaders did try to stop the barbaric custom but without much success. After the unification of Italy in 1861 the practice was outlawed. The roles once sung by these men were transferred to heroic tenors.

But what of young women singing roles of young men? Operas premiered with male roles sung by women or an occasional countertenor. Perhaps the female voice captured the innocence and adolescent femininity of boys. Having a man with a mature sound sing these roles might not make the story work.

I have made my career by singing what are customarily called "trouser roles". I remember the first time I was cast as Nicklausse in the Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" at age 19, I was advised by a woman singing the leading roles to "walk like I had something between my legs". My 19 year-old self blushed but persevered. At the first stage rehearsal the director asked me why I was walking like Frankenstein. That was a tough rehearsal. To this day I remember the first day I had my wig and makeup, looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself.

As time went on, I would try to observe young men and also channel the fellows I knew when I was in high school. It became more of a mindset than anything else and this then dictated how to act and think. In some roles I had to portray boys and at other times young men in their 20's. Luckily for me, Richard Strauss and Mozart both composed many roles for these characters and their music suited my voice. I spent many hours of my life with my breasts bound, first by ace bandages, and later by the miracle of Spanx. I had to forget I was female on stage when having just breast fed my son at intermission or when it was "that time of the month'. I have had my share of women coming on to me at the stage door which I took as a compliment of my performance. It is irrelevant that I am heterosexual and this just happens to be what I do for a living.

I remember reading with envy the rave reviews and statements of amazement when a particular actress was appearing on Broadway in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The critics and public were amazed at how convincing she was as a boy ( well, actually a girl disguised as a boy). It is a normal night's work for me. Operatic audiences are not amazed but instead have come to expect the trouser role mezzos to be believable. Heck, I have sung Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in which he impersonates a woman to falsely seduce and shame a male character. Imagine: a girl playing a boy playing a girl. Confused yet? In this case I had to keep reminding myself I was young man for it to be successful. In the opening scene in bed with the Marschallin (a soprano role) with whom Octavian is having an affair, one director actually had me dressed in just a sheet wrapped around my body with only my shoulders and legs showing. He wanted to bring out he feminine side of the young man. In the long run this did not work because the sheet have gave way in a dress rehearsal in front of an audience and I was exposed for who I really was. The solution was a nightshirt.

Just as when the boy Cherubino is dressed up as a girl by Susanna and the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro there is a fuzzy line between masculine and feminine. Back to the role of Nicklausse in Les Contes d'Hoffman who doubles as the female Muse. The Muse assumes the role of a young man in order to be a visible part of Hoffmann's life as his best buddy. Ultimately by doing so The Muse wins and Hoffmann is left without women but with his art and his Muse.

At any rate, what does this have to do with Caitlyn Jenner? My student took hormones (among other procedures) to help his transition from outwardly female to male. No doubt Caitlyn Jenner did the same but in reverse. When it comes to voice much has to do with hormones. My own voice changed to a darker color when I had my son at age 31 and now post-menopausal it has again changed, more comfortable singing higher. (Why did this not happen when I was younger so I could sing those great soprano roles?)

I guess the point I am trying to make is that quite often in the performing arts, gender is blurred. After all, look at Shakespeare's day when only men were allowed to be on stage.
This year the great American composer Carlisle Floyd's opera "Prince of Players" will premiere in Houston. The main character is based on a real person: the British actor Edward Kynaston who, in the 1700's portrayed females as well as males on stage. Samuel Pepys called him, "The loveliest woman I ever saw in my life." More art reflecting life reflecting art.

Some of us as actors go back and forth between genders. However, we are never trapped.
I admire the courage of transgender people to be who they really are.