Transgender Opera Singers Find Their Voices

AUSTIN, Tex. — Holding his whiskey in one hand and his Stetson in the other, the opera’s hero — a tough stagecoach driver — offered an unhappy barmaid some advice in a strong, clear tenor voice.

“You could be anything,” sang the tenor, Holden Madagame.

He should know. Mr. Madagame, 28, is part of a new wave of transgender opera singers. Trained as a mezzo-soprano, he risked his singing career when he transitioned several years ago and began taking testosterone, which lowers and alters the voice — a voice he had spent years fine-tuning for opera, where success is measured in the subtlest of gradations.

“A couple of my singer friends were sort of like, you’re ruining your career, you’re ruining your life, the voice is everything,” he recalled recently. “And I thought, it’s not. I would rather enjoy my life, and pursue singing if it happens. I didn’t know if I’d be able to.”

It turned out that he could. Now he is one of several transgender singers who are beginning to make their mark in the tradition-bound world of opera. Some, like him, found new voices, either with the help of hormones or through retraining. Others kept the voices they had built their careers on — even if it meant continuing to perform in the gender they had left behind. Now some are getting higher-profile roles — and upending preconceptions about voice and gender.

At first, testosterone did not seem like an option.

Mr. Madagame, who was assigned female at birth, moved to Berlin after graduating from the University of Michigan, where he had studied singing, but things were not working out as planned.

“I got massively depressed. I just couldn’t sing,” he recalled. “And I kind of knew that it was about gender, but I didn’t want to admit it.”

By that point, he had put in years of hard work becoming a mezzo-soprano. A whole new voice could jeopardize it.

“Frankly, I did not have any experience with what would happen,” said Stephen West, one of his voice professors at Michigan, who remembered him as an exceptional mezzo.

Opera singers rely on their unamplified voices for their livelihoods, and they spend years perfecting their techniques — so they tend to be wary of anything that might strain or damage their voices. But Mr. Madagame had grown so unhappy that he decided to take the leap into the unknown.

“I decided that if I’m not singing, and the only reason that I’m not taking testosterone is that I want to sing, then I should just take testosterone,” he said.

After the first few shots, he recalled, the timbre of his voice — its overall color and resonance — began to change. “At first, it’s not the actual pitches that are dropping,” he said, “but it’s like the overtones are lowering.”

Then came a period when his voice grew unsettled: “I had no singing voice — I had, like, an octave range,” he recalled. “It was terrifying. I thought, What if it stays like this?”

He felt better emotionally, but grew concerned when he still had trouble singing after the first few months. He began to wonder if he would be able to work again.

“I have no idea: Nobody knows,” he recalled thinking. “So, yeah. Terrifying.”

He returned to some of the easy Italian arias he had learned as a teenager, not too hard and not too high. But they were suddenly not so easy.

“They teach you a lot just by singing them,” he said. “I thought, Well, my voice just needs to be retrained to do these things. But at first I couldn’t even sing those.”

Stephanie Weiss, a voice teacher with a private studio, coached him as his voice settled, and saw him through tough early moments when his voice would crack. Mr. Madagame had a breakthrough while working on a Mozart aria. He was having trouble, as many young tenors do, gracefully reaching the high notes, Ms. Weiss remembered, so she gave him a few tips — including which vowels to hold as his voice climbed into his upper range.

Something clicked.

“He said, ‘Oh my God, I never thought I could make that sound,’” Ms. Weiss recalled.

It helped, she added, that Mr. Madagame had already developed a solid technique. “Now,” she said, “he really has found his voice — in every way.”

“It was always a question of, So, when is my career going to be done, so that I can transition?” she recalled in a recent interview in New York, explaining that she had felt disconnected from her birth gender since her childhood in Sacramento. “I never thought that they would coexist.”

But in 2013, she decided not to put off her transition any longer. She came out at the annual opera ball in Karlsruhe: Her wife, also a singer, wore a tuxedo, and Ms. Lucas wore a gown.

The company was initially supportive. “It was a good case study: Can somebody who is trans have a career in opera?” Ms. Lucas said. “I thought, Can I have a career after if I only change one little thing? It’s actually not something about the stage, it’s something personal. Because I’m going to continue singing baritone; I’m going to continue playing men on stage.”

Since hormones would not alter her voice, and retraining as a contralto seemed impractical, she remained a baritone. Now the vast majority of her stage roles are male — a gender she was uncomfortable with in life. But she said she had made peace with it.

“I’ll just go and put a beard on,” Ms. Lucas said, noting that she impersonates all kinds of characters onstage. “Clearly it is a disguise. It’s not bringing you back to an old life.”

When she had facial feminization surgery, she did not let her doctor do anything to her sinus cavity, nose or Adam’s apple.

“As much as I was putting my transition in front of my career,’’ she said, “I didn’t want him messing with anything that would mess with my voice.”

“The Verdi was so astonishing that I thought, Well, it’s time to start casting ‘Don Giovanni’ anyway — so I asked her to do it,” Mr. Picker said.

Her appearance in Tulsa was an event. When an excerpt from a documentary that is being made about her was screened at a local art house, the Circle Cinema, Ms. Lucas told the audience that much of her work aimed to show people that being trans was not a big deal.

“I’m trying to show that being trans is not the story,” she told the crowd. “It’s sort of like anti-advocacy.”

“ID?” a transgender character asks a police officer in “Stonewall,” a new opera about the raid that helped spur the modern gay rights movement.

“I’d love to have an ID!” the character continues. “But the powers that be won’t give me one — at least not one that represents me.”

The line resonated with Liz Bouk, the mezzo-soprano singing it. Mr. Bouk is a transgender man who had only recently gotten a new driver’s license listing his sex as male.

“I felt like a teenage boy when I got that driver’s license,” he said. “After getting the driver’s license I went out and bought a pickup truck and learned how to drive stick shift.”

But Mr. Bouk’s transition, which came just as a hard-won career as a mezzo was finally beginning to blossom, involved difficult trade-offs. As much as he has sometimes longed to take hormones, he fears what they could do to his voice. So he decided to forgo them, and to keep playing what he calls “fiery women” and trouser roles on stage.

“If I’m working, if I’m singing,” he said, “can I stand the dysphoria of being in the wrong body, and being misgendered at the grocery store, or by people I don’t know?”

“Please rise and remove your caps for our national anthem,” the announcer said shortly before the start of a 2015 Oakland A’s baseball game, “as performed by San Francisco Conservatory of Music graduate Breanna Sinclairé.”

Ms. Sinclairé raised a microphone and became what is believed to be the first transgender woman to sing the anthem at a major league game.

“We were working with what was already there.” Ms. Conklin said, noting that Ms. Sinclairé could already sing quite high.

Next came San Francisco, and its conservatory.

“We had never had anyone come in and audition for us who was transitioning,” said Ruby Pleasure, her teacher there. “And it was obvious that she was a diamond in the rough.”

Last New Year’s Eve, she appeared with the San Francisco Symphony. She continues to study, and is expanding into higher soprano roles. Next spring she will return to Canada to sing in an opera at the Against the Grain Theater in Toronto.

“I’m going to be in Toronto as my true self,” she said. “Singing soprano.”

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