Breanna Sinclaire trains with her voice coach, Sheri Greenawald, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Breanna Sinclairé's voice has an enviable four-octave range. The classically trained Bay Area vocalist said she's capable of singing almost any part she likes.
"I could choose to sing baritone if I wanted to," Sinclairé said. "But no, that's just not who I am."
Sinclairé is in her early 30s and starting to hit her stride as a soprano. In 2015, she became the first transgender vocalist to sing the national anthem at a professional sports event &mash; an Oakland A’s game against the San Diego Padres.
She starred in the whimsical short film "Mezzo," has made solo appearances with important groups like the San Francisco Symphony and the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, and is scheduled to make her professional opera debut in Toronto early next year.
Living Authentically: Life As A Transgender Opera Singer
But her path hasn't been easy.
Sinclairé, who now lives in San Francisco, started out singing hymns and gospel songs in her local Southern Baptist church in Baltimore.
"The pastor always called me up to sing a solo, and all the church would be on the floor and crying," she said. "It was dramatic."
Sinclairé's home life was dramatic in a different way.
She said her father didn’t like the fact he had an expressive kid who preferred playing with dolls to playing sports.
"He would say, 'I don't want my child to be a faggot,' " she said. "So if I did something that was abnormal or different, he would take me in a back room and just beat me silly until I bled."
Sinclairé said the regular beatings eased up after her parents got divorced when she was around 13. She got accepted to the Baltimore School for the Arts and soon found her community among the crowd of misfits.
But she continued to struggle with her identity there, especially when it came to singing in the choir.
Sinclairé was stuck with the guys in the tenor section. And it felt wrong.
"And so I continually fought with who I was in high school," she said.
It was also in high school that she came face to face with a transgender woman for the first time.
"I was just like, 'Oh my God, like, she's so gorgeous!' I didn't know that even existed," Sinclairé said.
Sinclairé went off to the California Institute of the Arts for her undergraduate degree. It was during her junior year there, with the help of friends, that she began her physical transition.
"I had a party when I got my first hormones at Cal Arts," Sinclairé said.
She knew she’d embarked on a difficult journey.
"I'm 6-foot-2, so transitioning for me took a lot of work to get to where I am today," Sinclairé said, laughing.
It wasn’t just a question of taking hormones and undergoing surgery to transform her appearance into the statuesque, glamorous woman she is today. Sinclairé's transformation basically turned her entire life upside down.
"My family kind of disowned me," she said. "I didn't have much support."
During her transition, in the summer of 2010, she hit a low. Sinclairé said she’d saved up and flown across the country with a plan to study singing with a coach in New York.
She said the lessons fell through. The coach stopped returning her emails after she told him she was transitioning.
Then a roommate threw all of her stuff out onto the street.
"He said that he felt uncomfortable with me living there because of who I was," Sinclaire said.
She was homeless for more than two months in New York City. She said she sometimes slept in Central Park. Her only belongings were the couple of dresses and a black purse she’d managed to rescue from the trash.
"I put aside the singing," Sinclaire said. "Because when you're homeless, you're not getting employment and you're on the street, your mind is focused on survival."
One day, something unbelievable happened to Sinclairé — the sort of thing that usually only happens in the movies.
A man saw her while she was standing on the street. They struck up a conversation.
"I told him that I was a developing opera singer and I was training at Cal Arts," Sinclairé said. "And so what he did was, he wrote me a check."
She said this knight in shining armor didn’t want anything in return for the price of the one-way plane ticket back to Los Angeles.
"There was no sexual exchange," Sinclairé said. "It was just really random. Out of the blue."
She said the man just wanted to see her graduate. So she returned to California to finish her degree.
"If it wasn't for him, maybe I wouldn't be here today," she said.
Sinclairé said she texted him her undergraduate degree certificate, and eventually her master's certificate as well from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
They occasionally still talk.
These days, Sinclairé is focused on taking her career to the next level.
She has been taken under the wing of Sheri Greenawald, one of the top opera coaches in the country. They meet two or three times a month for a lesson, usually at Greenawald's cozy office at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where they work on many things, like testing the limits of Breanna’s range.
While testosterone lowers the human voice, estrogen doesn’t make it go higher. Taking estrogen has no impact on the voice at all.
So hitting those high notes is all about training. Cisgender males can also train themselves to sing up high. They’re known as countertenors. But it’s a different sound.
Sinclairé doesn’t want that sound. In fact, her greatest fear, she said, is being labeled as a countertenor.
"I've been through so much within my transition and who I am," she said. "I want the world to see me as a woman and as a trained classical singer singing soprano repertoire."