Bay Area Soprano Elliot Franks Learns to Sing With a Whole New Baritone Voice

Elliot Franks performing as Prince Orlofsky in a 2014 Lamplighters production of 'Die Fledermaus' in San Francisco. It was his last professional operatic role.  (Courtesy of Lamplighters)

Earlier this year, Elliot Franks appeared as a special guest at a transgender singing symposium in San Francisco. About 100 singers, voice coaches and academic researchers met for a day to share their experiences and advice.

Franks did something that day that took a lot of courage. He stood in front of all those voice experts while samples of his singing — recorded at various stages of his gender reassignment process — played over the speakers. His voice had changed over a period of two years or so, from ringing high and clear as a bell, to sounding low and croaky.

"You feel sort of bad knowing that you did that to your voice, when your voice has been so good to you," Franks said.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Franks was one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s go-to classical singers, making regular appearances with acclaimed ensembles, like the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and the San Francisco Opera Chorus.

"Elliot's voice was magnificent," said Philharmonia Chorale director Bruce Lamott, who worked with Franks for about a decade. "He had a very agile voice with an extraordinary range."

Back then, Franks used his female birth name and sang traditional soprano and mezzo-soprano parts. But offstage, he always dressed in men’s attire and preferred to be addressed with masculine pronouns. This was in keeping with his lifelong belief that gender covers a wide spectrum.

"To be forced to conform to one of two standard gender norms is to deny a person’s individuality, freedom of expression, personal identity and integrity," Franks said.

Elliot Franks and his vocal coach Ruth Rainero present a session at the 2019 Transgender Singing Symposium in San Francisco.
Elliot Franks and his vocal coach, Ruth Rainero, present a session at Trans and Singing: A Symposium for Voice Teachers and Singers, in San Francisco in February 2019. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

The 56-year-old Richmond resident said he has felt this way since he was a kid growing up near Birmingham, England, in the 1970s.

As a teen whom others saw as a girl but who clearly felt differently about his own identity, Franks said he found the gender-neutral church choir dress code, with its baggy, tentlike robes, oddly liberating.

"That was my refuge really," Franks said. "To be in a situation where I could be myself, and at that point, sort of relatively genderless."

Franks watched the boys at school with envy, but couldn’t quite figure out why.

"All the other boys would go out and play soccer," Franks said. "And the girls, of which they seemed to lump me in with, had to stay in and do needlework."

A heavy silence hung over the singer’s formative years around questions of gender identity.

"Back then there was just really no information," he said. "So you sort of feel like you're the only person in the world that feels like that."

That feeling of isolation lingered long after Franks won a full ride to the Royal Northern College of Music, one of the most prestigious music colleges in the United Kingdom, and busted out of England in the late 1980s on a scholarship to pursue vocal studies in the U.S.

"I think I sort of trained myself to deal with that feeling of being wrong," Franks said. "Because I knew I had to, to be going on in my career and to do any auditions for anything. I had this female voice, and that was what people were expecting to see. And I cleaned up pretty well back then."

He felt fairly comfortable with continuing on in this way for a long time.

Living Authentically: Life As A Transgender Opera Singer
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"If I could have stayed just as I was and done all my auditions in a suit and tie, that would have been the best of all possible worlds," Franks said.

But as he headed into his 40s, Franks experienced a professional and personal crisis.

Due to irreconcilable differences with a conductor, Franks said he lost his most personally fulfilling and stable singing job, and he also broke up with his longtime partner. He started worrying about other people’s perceptions of his gender identity.

"I found as I got older, I was more concerned with how other people [perceived me], if I told them about myself or they found out through other channels," Franks said. "It bothered me that it would make people uncomfortable or upset people."

Franks had a couple of gender reassignment surgeries and started thinking about taking testosterone.

This was a long and hard decision.

When someone takes testosterone, it not only tends to make them hairier and increases their muscle mass, but it also lowers the voice.

"The testosterone thickens the vocal fold," explained voice speech pathologist Sarah Schneider, who specializes in working with transgender singers at UCSF.

Elliot Franks (right) and fellow singer Lucia Lucas (left) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May 2019.
Elliot Franks (right) and fellow singer Lucia Lucas (left) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May 2019. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

But learning a new lower-pitched way of speaking and singing often comes with enormous challenges. "Some people describe it as feeling locked in," Schneider said. "They're not quite sure how to navigate the lower voice."

Franks agonized about what taking male hormones might do to his beautiful soprano voice.

"I often heard people talking to me about how moved they were about my performance," he said. "How vocally I had moved them, but also dramatically. And I always took that as a great compliment."

But he figured he was aging out of his favorite opera roles anyway.

"And I thought, well, you know, I'm never going to be a young man. That's gone," Franks said. "But I can at least be a middle-aged, chubby guy, and maybe feel a little more comfortable in my own skin."

So six years ago, at the age of 50, Franks started taking testosterone.

Franks regrets not starting his hormone treatment earlier. He said his voice might have adapted more easily to the changes when his vocal cords were younger and more flexible.

He has largely withdrawn from professional singing.

Choral conductor Lamott said he understands Franks' decision, though it's hard.

"On a personal level, I knew that this was what was in his heart; that who you are is much more important than what you can do," Lamott said. "I did mourn the loss of that beautiful instrument, because it was really exceptional."

Franks also went through another radical shift.

These days, he makes his living not from singing, but rather from arranging funerals.

He quite likes his new job. Bespectacled, warm and smiley, Franks said he has a knack for cheering people up.

"If I've got a grieving person and I can get them to smile, I feel like I'm doing something really good," Franks said. "Because for a minute, for a second, they're out of the angst and the pain."

He's also dealing with his own feelings of grief around the loss of his voice and professional singing community.

"I grieve the ease of singing," Franks said. "I grieve not being able to participate in some of the groups that I participated in, because they are largely my family."

But lately, Franks' voice has been coming back. It's turning into a rich, emotional baritone.

He's taking singing lessons and is a member of New Voices Bay Area, a chorus for amateur trans, intersex and genderqueer singers.

"The good thing about it is, no matter where one’s voice is in transition," Franks said, "you can move to a part that you can sing most of."

He enjoys putting his many years of professional singing experience to  good use, helping his fellow singers in the choir explore the uniqueness and beauty of their new voices.

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