Three Transgender Opera Singers on the Risks They Took to Live Authentically

28 min
From left to right: Lucia Lucas, Elliot Franks and Breanna Sinclairé.  (Photos by Josh New, courtesy of Lamplighters and JP Lor)

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The human voice is ultrasensitive.

Even a minor head cold or a small amount of stress can make you feel like there’s a car alarm going off in your throat.

So if the human voice is responsive to even tiny amounts of change, the shift for someone undergoing something as massive as gender reassignment can be nothing short of cataclysmic.

Elliot Franks, Lucia Lucas and Breanna Sinclairé are three California opera singers who all happen to be transgender.

They have taken enormous risks to live their most authentic lives.

And they’ve navigated one of the most competitive and rigid industries — an industry that has been slow to evolve with the times.

Opera has a long history of gender play, with women performing young male roles on stage for hundreds of years.

Yet this rarefied world, with its strict casting codes and ridiculously high barriers to entry, is probably one of the most cloistered industries around.

"Opera is still a very gendered profession," said Franks, who sang both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles as a professional in the San Francisco Bay Area but now sings in the baritone range. "They want to put you in a box."

According to the research by the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in four transgender people have lost a job due to bias.

It's hard for anyone to break through and make a living as an opera singer, much less a person who doesn't fit in with the industry's mostly rigid gender codes when it comes to casting.

Living Authentically: Life As A Transgender Opera Singer
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Nevertheless, Sacramento-born-and-raised baritone Lucas, who decided to keep singing with her booming, low-voice type after her physical transition rather than trying to retrain her voice to sing soprano or mezzo roles, is rising to the very top of her profession.

In May, she became the first trans singer to perform a lead role in a classic operatic work in the U.S. when she starred in "Don Giovanni" with the Tulsa Opera in Oklahoma.

In October, she will play a lead role with the English National Opera in London.

Yet Lucas said she often dons fake facial hair and standard menswear for auditions to prove she can play roles that normally go to cisgender male performers.

"A lot of people are really confused because they have 'Ms. Lucia Lucas' on their paperwork as a baritone," Lucas said. "But I'm presenting with a beard in masculine attire."

Lucia Lucas' masculine stage persona
Lucia Lucas' masculine stage persona. (Johannes Kaplan)

Hormones & the Human Voice

When it comes to perceptions around gender transition, most people tend to focus on external physical changes.

But taking the male hormone testosterone doesn't only tend to increase body hair and muscle mass. It also lowers the voice.

"Testosterone thickens the vocal folds," said UCSF voice speech pathologist Sarah Schneider, who specializes in working with transgender singers.

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."

Schneider said surgery for lowering vocal pitch exists. But few people go that route, because of the lowering effect of testosterone.

It’s a completely different story for people taking estrogen.

"For trans females, taking female hormones does not actually change the voice," Schneider said.

She said surgery on the vocal folds is a possibility for people who want to sing higher. But it’s a major risk.

"The outcomes are not always predictable," she said. "And we don't know if it's going to impact that accessibility to the upper range."

It's possible to develop a higher speaking and singing register with careful training and consistent practice.

Schneider said the best way to keep the voice healthy through the gender reassignment process is to keep using it — without pushing too hard.

"It's just a matter of looking at it like training," she said. "We work on these different muscle patterns so they feel accessible."

Opera singer Breanna Sinclaire is the first trans vocalist ever to have sung the national anthem at a professional sports event. This was in 2015 at an Oakland As vs San Diego Padres game.
Opera singer Breanna Sinclaire is the first trans vocalist ever to have sung the national anthem at a professional sports event. This was in 2015 at an Oakland As vs San Diego Padres game. (Major League Baseball)

Opera Companies Begin to Address Diversity

Opera's diversity and inclusivity challenge extends well beyond transgender singers. As an African American, Bay Area soprano Breanna Sinclairé is especially troubled by this reality.

"In the classical world, there are still other issues that we have to deal with first before we get to the transes, because there is a history of racial discrimination," said Sinclairé, who abandoned the tenor range she was mostly forced to sing in while growing up, and has focused on extending her voice upward as a soprano. "It’s not a diverse genre of music. And I don't see many African Americans or many Asian or Latino women playing lead roles."

Opera companies are very slowly starting to address these issues. For example, the San Francisco Opera just launched a new Department of Diversity, Equity and Community.

Most of its efforts are currently geared toward audience outreach. But director general Matthew Shilvock hopes the success of singers like Lucas will pave the way for change on the production side.

“The potential doors that this is now opening for trans singers is a very exciting step forward,” Shilvock said of Lucas' U.S. debut as Don Giovanni. "If the voice is right for the role and right for the house, I would gladly hire that person.”

Franks, Lucas and Sinclairé don't necessarily consider themselves activists. But each in his or her own way is working to bring about change.

For example, in a recent speech she gave, Lucas said she didn’t once use terms like trans, gay, lesbian or queer.

"Because I wanted to make it an inclusive speech and not an exclusive speech," Lucas said. "When we support each other it's better for everybody."

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