Recently I sang at a wonderful event called Opera on Tap here in Neukölln at Prachtwerk. It was the first time I had sung publicly since my recital in October, and I was terrified. I walked up to the front door of Prachtwerk, and stared from the outside in at the lighting and bar, and then after a few moments noticed my friends scarfing döner kebabs next to me.
“Holden, are you OK?” they asked.
“Um, yeah, I just gotta, um, chill out,” I replied with the acute awareness that my voice was shaking as much as my body was from the cold.
After drinking a gallon of water and taking off my jacket which I realized was too formal for the event, I looked around for someone (a friend, not just anyone) to hug my feelings out.
As I was on stage singing “Svegliatevi nel core” (a fast, vengeful baroque aria), I felt alive, but hollow at the same time. The warm, golden, chocolatey colors that was so prevalent in my voice as a mezzo-soprano were now vacant and substituted with the cold, chilling sounds of a young counter-tenor. No matter how hard I tried to reintroduce this warmth, there was a physiological wall that I couldn’t climb.
I felt my body get hot from embarrassment. Only a few people had ever heard me sing seriously, but it was enough to feel intense shame. I had worked so hard for my voice, and I also had a natural talent.
How could I have done this to myself?
How could I have traded such a beautiful voice for something so weak and colorless?
How could I stand up on that stage and call myself a singer while knowing that I traded in my voice for testosterone?
The feelings I had the year before started to swarm back: loss, mourning, regret for my voice that was now hanging onto my vocal cords in futility. I felt vulnerable in a way I had never felt before. I wasn’t just presenting myself as a trans person, but as a singer who had lost his purest talent. Friends will disagree. They might be right in saying that my musicianship was still good, and that my coloratura was still good. But the true voice–the thing that makes you weep at the end of Tosca or during the Rosenkavalier trio–was gone.
After the show, I felt happy and relieved to have sung something–to have that physical release. The loss coupled with relief was a bit confusing.
Without time to think, a couple of other friends asked me to be involved in another project, and to sing in a friend’s wine bar. We’ve been coordinating singers, practicing music, doing the social media thang, etc. This has kept my mind off my voice, but has also made me come to the realization that I must work with what I have from day to day. There is absolutely no use fantasizing about what my voice used to be like, because what I have now is still my voice, it’s just different.
I also must be grateful for the voice I have. Just from talking with other transmasculine singers, not everyone is able to sing to this capacity the way I have been. I’m lucky to be able to sing not only my mezzo rep (albeit differently), but also to have a burgeoning tenor range to play with. It’s exciting, if I’m being honest with myself. I just can’t control it. That uncertainty is terrifying to me. I can play all I want, but this voice could turn into a different beast that I’m not ready for. I’m not ready to be a tenor, but I might be turning into a tenor. I might be a countertenor, but am I ready for that either?
I joke about being a transmezzual, but I think there’s something to it. Not only is my physical voice changing, but how I think about my own vocal identity is just as important as how I think about my gender identity; they just happen to coincide.
As I was practicing today I sang through some arias both in my mezzo voice and my tenor voice (for lack of better terms). As I was singing some coloratura in my chest voice, I went to sing a high note which in my head voice would be laughably easy. Instead, it cracked like a middle-school boy in mixed chorus. I surprised myself, and had to laugh. I was a tenor! Maybe not all the time, maybe not forever, but in that moment I recalled how all of my tenor friends would try to approach a high note, and finally understood what it must feel like. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t harder than being a mezzo, but it sure was different. It made me realize that there’s no way I can control my voice at the moment, and I shouldn’t try.
As a wise aria once said, “Things Change, Jo.” We might not know how, but they will, and that’s one constant that we can rely on in life, for better or for worse. If I think about it in another way, my voice would be changing anyway. If I hadn’t taken testosterone, maybe my voice would have changed from lyric mezzo to coloratura soprano. Maybe I’d be a dramatic mezzo. Who knows? Are these changes any less traumatizing for a singer? Nope! Change is change and change is hard.
A side-effect of this change that I didn’t foresee happening, was that simply the strange circumstances of my transition (being a trained classical singer) have caused me to constantly out myself and/or talk about my trans identity. This isn’t something I mind talking about, but it should be noted that most trans people aren’t necessarily so keen to make it a topic of casual conversation. A sample everyday conversation with a stranger might be something like this:
Me: Hi I’m Holden!
Stranger: Hi, I’m [insert generic name of your culture here]! Nice to meet you!
Me: You too! So what do you do in Berlin?
Stranger: I’m a freelance [insert freelance profession here]! What do you do?
Me: Well, I’m a barista, and do freelance voice work, and sometimes do classical singing.
Stranger: Whoa! Classical singing?! Like opera?
Me: Yeah, sometimes!
Stranger: That’s far more interesting than your other professions/interests! I want to know everything about it! What’s your voice type? What kinds of operas do you sing? What are you singing right now? Are you with a voice teacher?
Me: Um, well it’s sort of complicated right now. I’m sort of in between voice types…
Stranger: I bet you’re a tenor!
Me: Um, well not exactly…I used to be a mezzo-soprano, but now I have a tenor voice, but also maybe a counter-tenor. *nervous laugh*
Stranger: I don’t think I understand?
Me: Well, I’m trans, and I’m taking testosterone, so my voice is changing, and so I’m literally in between Fachs right now. I have no idea what my voice type is.
And so it goes. Sometimes they’ll understand what trans, testosterone, and Fach mean, but most often I will have to give a more detailed explanation of my situation, then proceed to explain the intricacies of the physical affects of testosterone on the voice, what that may or may not mean for my musical career, and how there’s a buttload of uncertainty as to how my voice will change, and that it’s heavily based on genetics and exercise of the voice.
For me, this is a lot of personal information that I choose to divulge most days. Sometimes I choose not to talk about my background in classical singing. This makes conversations much easier, but also feels a bit dishonest for me personally, because for better or for worse, singing is still part of my life. I like to talk about the things I’m passionate about, and to give people information that will help them understand me more fully. This doesn’t mean it’s easy, and this doesn’t mean I always enjoy it. I’m allowed to feel weird about these conversations, even if I’m actively and voluntarily participating. That’s just how life is sometimes I guess.
As a reward for making it to the end of this post, here’s a little sample of my tenor voice that I’ve been playing with. Disclaimer: I have no idea how to be a tenor. I’m essentially a mezzo-soprano singing tenor drag. *shrugs* Enjoy anyway! 😀