Transphobia Takes Center Stage in New York City Opera’s Stonewall

The original version of this article was published on June 25, 2019 on Brin Solomon’s blog with the title “City Opera’s Botched Trans Casting.” http://www.brinsolomon.com/blog/2019/6/25/city-operas-botched-trans-casting

Sometimes, you have to bend the truth to sell an opera. In the last two weeks of June 2019, New York City Opera presented Stonewall, a new opera with libretto by Mark Campbell and music by Iain Bell that tells a fictionalized version of the Stonewall RebellionStonewall features an array of characters all independently making their way to the Stonewall Inn on that crucial night in 1969, among them a trans woman, Sarah, played by trans opera singer Liz Bouk.

From the initial casting call, NYCO advertised Stonewall as the first opera commissioned by a major company to feature a trans character specifically written for a trans singer. It’s a claim that’s been picked up by outlets from OperaWire to the New Yorker, and while the larger claim may be narrowly true, NYCO’s decision to cast a trans man, Liz Bouk, in the role of a trans woman, Sarah, made this production a travesty, not a triumph.

Mark Campbell--Photo by Nacho Guevara

Mark Campbell–Photo by Nacho Guevara

We will almost certainly never be able to conclusively identify the first trans opera singer. This is partly due to the difficulty of teasing out trans history. In many cases, the only evidence we have of people challenging the Western gender binary comes from sensationalized newspaper stories or police records. Even in the rare cases where we do find gender-variant people writing about their experience in their own words, their language does not necessarily map neatly onto ours. Less than a century ago, for example, the theory of sexual inversion treated what we would now distinguish as homosexuality and transness as a singular phenomenon; it’s not always possible to tell how someone who, in 1928, identified as an “invert” would identify today. Projecting contemporary frameworks for understanding complex social phenomena like gender backwards in time is a perilous business; the best approach is usually a cautious one of suspended judgement.

But the difficulty in pinning down the first trans opera singer also comes, in part, from the gender bending in the genre itself. The long tradition of pants roles—young male characters who were meant to be played by grown women—has long been a source of exuberant gender subversion, to say nothing of castrati. For centuries, vocally promising Italian boys were castrated to keep their voices from changing during puberty; the most successful of these castrati went on to become iconic celebrities in their day. Did every singer who specialized in pants roles identify simply and solely as a woman? Every castrato as a man? It’s certainly possible, but it seems equally likely that at least one of them might, if time-warped to the contemporary United States, find a home under the trans umbrella.

Even if we set this historical uncertainty aside, the word “major” is doing a lot of work in NYCO’s claim that Stonewall is “the first time an opera has been commissioned by a major company that features a transgender character expressly created for a transgender singer.” It’s true that operas featuring trans roles written for trans performers are not thick on the ground, but there are a few. The chamber Western Good Country (libretto: Cecelia Raker, music: Keith Allegretti) featured Holden Madagame in a production in Austin, TX, this past April. The millennial sitcom opera #adulting (libretto: Natalie Elder, music: John Brooks, additional music and libretto: Austin Nuckols and Stefan Melnyk) featured Jacob Michael in the role of Tony in a multi-week run this spring at St Luke’s Theatre in midtown Manhattan. Opera Kardashian (libretto: Tom Swift, music: Dana Kaufman), which features a role for Caitlyn Jenner, had a reading at the University of Miami Frost School of Music in April of 2018. I composed Silver and Stars, a Holocaust memory piece with a libretto by Aiden Feltkamp (a planned performance this February fell through), as well as Project Tiresias, a science-fiction opera with a libretto by AriDy Nox that has featured Aneesh Sheth and Futaba Shioda in readings at NYU and The Tank in 2018.

Futaba Shioda--Photo courtesy www.futabashioda.com

Futaba Shioda–Photo courtesy www.futabashioda.com

To my knowledge, this is an exhaustive list, although loosening the definition of opera even slightly would open the floodgates—at least a dozen musicals could go here, some of them structurally indistinguishable from shows people happily call operas, and some performed at major institutions like the Public.

Still, I get it—marketing a contemporary opera is hard. If this were merely a matter of semantics, I would probably roll my eyes and let it slide. Assuming you use an ad-hoc definition of “opera” to rule out the bulk of the contenders, the premiere of Stonewall is unarguably a higher-profile event than the productions of the other operas mentioned above, so tacking on the word “major” does let them claim first. But in casting a trans man (Bouk) to play a trans woman (Sarah), the Stonewall creative team have botched things so spectacularly that one can’t help but wish they had spent more time studying the above works instead of sweeping them under the rug.

It’s difficult to convey how bizarre this casting choice is. It’s like writing a character who’s a lesbian, casting a gay man to play her, and then boasting of writing a homosexual character for a homosexual actor. It’s literally true, but it also reveals that those responsible have failed to grasp even the most fundamental rudiments of the issues at hand. Trans men and trans women may share some experiences by dint of our transness, but we’re not interchangeable.

More than bizarre, though, it’s also harmful. There isn’t really an interpretation of this casting that doesn’t involve misgendering Bouk, Sarah, or both. Sitting in the audience on the evening of June 22nd, it felt an awful lot like the creative team had decided Bouk’s gender could be ignored; it felt like they wanted the audience to see a woman when they looked at Bouk. But even if we insist, as we should, on correctly gendering Bouk, this only creates another problem: they cast a man in a dress to play a trans woman. Bouk himself hits the crux of it in his New Yorker interview when he says that he “pretended to be a woman for thirty years of [his] life.” The thing is, trans women are not men pretending to be women. The idea that trans women are “really” men dressing up as women is one of the biggest reasons trans activists have agitated against casting men to play trans women; the fact that Bouk is a trans man does not make this casting any less inappropriate. This is a grotesque parody of representation, one that sees transfeminine people, bodies, and voices as superfluous, unnecessary for the telling of our own stories.

Liz Bouk--Photo by Ali Mitton

Liz Bouk–Photo by Ali Mitton

Bouk is a fine singer, and he fits in well with Stonewall’s cast. There’s no plot-related reason that Sarah needs to be a trans woman instead of a trans man. Changing Sarah’s gender would, admittedly, mean reworking the text of her aria, but this would be no great loss since the current lyric is flat and lifeless. It’s at once anachronistic and clichéd, like Campbell rifled through several trans women’s memoirs and pasted together the most common phrases. Sitting through it, I couldn’t help but wonder what a trans librettist could have done with the same material.

These critiques are not entirely new. Most have been circulating for months in private conversations and closed Facebook groups. By and large, they have not been aired publicly because trans artists are afraid of jeopardizing their careers. In addition to the thirty libretti he has written, Campbell has deep connections to most major contemporary opera institutions in the US, is in high demand for the creation of new works, and sits on the faculty of the only two professional librettist training programs in the country. Rightly or wrongly, people are afraid of getting on the bad side of someone with so much perceived power.

I wish I didn’t have to write this. In a moment where so many people are working to destroy trans lives from a place of active malice, I wish I didn’t have to spend time explaining to our purported allies that the things they are doing to try to help us are hurting us instead. I would much rather write about what it was like to see myself represented on an operatic stage. But here we are. Campbell, Bell, and NYCO have produced nothing more than a strange new spin on a deeply transphobic trope.

Still, what’s done is done, and this is, technically, the first “major opera” with a trans character written for a trans singer. That laurel is claimed, but there’s another laurel out there still ripe for the taking, freely available to some enterprising opera troupe: commission the first major opera to do it well.