Where Are the Operas About People Like Me? Imagining a Trans-Inclusive New Music World

Last June, I participated in a panel called “New Voices: Composers of Today” at the League of American Orchestras National Conference along with Daniel Bernard Roumain, Jennifer Jolley, Evan Williams, and Derrick Spiva, Jr. We focused on issues of inclusion and representation, and we covered a lot of ground—but I want to talk about one particular moment that stuck with me.

When we opened up the conversation to the audience, someone mentioned that Laura Kaminsky’s trans coming-of-age story As One was currently the most-performed opera by a living composer in North America. Murmurs of approval bubbled up around the room: what a sign of progress!

“Can I throw a wrench into things?” I asked. In the periphery of my vision, I saw a nonbinary friend mouth their approval. Yes, I said, the popularity of As One is a sign of progress. Unlike most well-known art about trans people, it was actually co-created by one—librettist Kimberly Reed. The opera doesn’t rely on insulting or exoticizing stereotypes, and it has also been conducted by a trans woman, Alexandra Enyart. All of that is great, but it’s only the first step. 

Rebecca Krouner as "Hannah After" and Scott Ballantine as "Hannah Before" in Laura Kaminsky's As One--Photo by Dan Busler

Rebecca Krouner as “Hannah After” and Scott Ballantine as “Hannah Before” in Laura Kaminsky’s As One–Photo by Dan Busler

We live in a media environment that’s obsessed with coming-out stories but almost completely ignores people who have comfortably settled into their identities. Depictions of early transition have gotten less prurient and more nuanced, but audiences are still encouraged to see trans people in relation to how they appeared “before.” As One is not only a transition story, but one that splits the protagonist into “Hannah Before,” played by a baritone, and “Hannah After,” played by a mezzo. The bulk of my own transition was in 2011–12, I told the panel audience. “Before” feels like a lifetime ago. Where are the operas about people like me?

Consider also that, while testosterone lowers trans men’s voices, estrogen and testosterone blockers don’t raise those of trans women. Voice surgery is possible, but opera singers are unlikely to take the risk. Writing Hannah After as a mezzo thus means that the role is inaccessible to most trans women singers. Moreover, the paucity of roles for low-voiced women is already a problem for trans women in opera. It’s why Lucia Lucas has largely had to build a career by playing men. I was glad to learn that Lucas will have the opportunity to play trans painter Lili Elbe in an operatic adaptation of David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl. This is certainly much better than casting a man in the role of Elbe, as in the novel’s 2015 film adaptation. However, this is still an opera written by a cis composer (Tobias Picker) and a cis librettist (Aryeh Lev Stollman), based on the work of a cis author.

This is where people often ask why cis artists aren’t “allowed” to create work about trans people. I think this is the wrong question. Nobody is stopping cis people from creating whatever they want. We’re asking why trans people’s work about trans people—which almost always captures nuances that cis authors are unaware of—is so often relegated to the margins. In a truly inclusive new-music world, we wouldn’t have to make do with other people’s depictions of us; we’d be able to represent ourselves.

Lucia Lucas--Photo by Thibault Gregoire

Lucia Lucas–Photo by Thibault Gregoire

The next day, I attended a panel called “Engaging the LGBTQ+ Community” as an audience member. During the Q&A, a representative of a Bay Area orchestra asked how he could bring in more trans audience members. I raised my hand and said, “I know a lot of trans people in the Bay Area. They mostly live in Oakland, they’re mostly broke, and they’re mostly socialists.” Admittedly, I was being a bit flippant, but I wanted to address the cultural gap that so often goes unacknowledged in these sorts of questions, well-intentioned though they are. As someone who grew up on classical music, I sometimes forget about it too, only to be jerked back into awareness when, for instance, a friend en route to one of my concerts asks if security will have a problem with the spikes on their jacket. The reality is that most of the trans people I know are more likely to see queer punk bands, nerd-folk groups, noise artists, and electropop singers, and their experiences at those shows are worlds away from what they’re likely to encounter at a contemporary classical concert—not just musically, but also socially.

I usually operate in the classical world myself, but in July, I performed my piece Imogene at a show organized by Bodymilk Tapes. The label is run by a trans composer, Hedra Rowan, and the other two acts were trans as well: Kybele, a singer-songwriter-guitarist, and Nevi, a goth synthpop artist. Tickets cost $5, and the show was held in a casual DIY venue. The environment was supportive and encouraging: if someone had to pause and start a passage over, the audience responded with applause—a stark contrast to the culture of judgment and evaluation that pervades too many new-music concerts. Nobody treated us as activists first and artists second. We spoke freely and unselfconsciously about our polycules. Kybele cheerfully prefaced one of her songs with, “this is about climbing a mountain and chopping your dick off.”

Bodymilk Tapes presents Dreamcrusher--Photo by Tim Porter

Bodymilk Tapes presents Dreamcrusher–Photo by Tim Porter

Before my set, I told the crowd how I’d written Imogene in 2009 during a time of gender exploration, and then stopped performing it in 2013, when I became uncomfortable using the lower part of my vocal range. I let a pause hang in the air before adding, “but now I don’t care anymore.” The crowd cheered, because they understood. Without stage lights in my eyes, I could watch the audience’s reaction as I wound my way through this dreamy story of obsession and repression. From the blue skies of the protagonist’s childhood to an artificial sunset in an East Berlin nightclub, they were right there with me.

So how do you get trans people to come to classical concerts? By creating social environments where we can feel at ease. By not treating us as guests in someone else’s world. By bringing us in as artists and curators and designers, not just as audience members. By recognizing that while outreach is valuable, it’s nothing compared to inclusion.