On the Subject of Trans Voices (by Jake Bellissimo)

On the Subject of Trans Voices
by Jake Bellissimo


The story starts out the same for many people—in the case of my friend (hereinafter referred to as Beth, a placeholder name), she is looking through craigslist and sees a familiar ad:

“Female singer needed for upcoming project”

Beth feels her stomach start to sink. Her identity is challenged, because (as a trans woman) she thinks that she is just as female enough for any “female singer role”, but deep down she already knows what the ad wants—a light, breathy soprano or alto.

If that’s what the ad wants, then why go the unnecessary step to associate voice type with gender?

This issue is present across the board in music, but it has a special position in art music. Unlike many other genres and practices (whose definition of gender is mainly informed by societal prejudices), art music has a well-accepted history of distorting the role of gender in vocal analysis alongside (but still intertwined with) cultural progress.

Some examples are:

  • Castrati, a mainly Italian practice involving castrating young choirboys before puberty as a means of developing the pre-pubescent vocal range as they grow older. Starting with the ban of women singing in churches in the early 1600s, choirs needed to be well-rounded, and castrati where henceforth valuable in society, with both celebrity and monetary wealth. As a result, many families seeking some extra cash would castrate their sons in hopes their talent would shine through later on, and this practice became engraved in art music culture until outlawed in the late 19th century.
  • Contratenors, a similar attempt at incorporating a higher “male” voice into the vocal realm. Having singers who would typically be baritones or tenors sing in falsetto, this style of singing was a popular Baroque tradition, later on replacing castrati, and now has a wide breadth of early music and new music repertoire.
  • Female tenors, who have less of a professional presence than an amateur one, but still take up space in community choirs around the world. They are typically Assigned Female at Birth (hereinafter referred to as AFAB) people whose voices have a lower breaking point than AFAB Altos.

As you can see, though, we have already come to a crossroads with how we label things. The concept of calling an AFAB tenor a Female tenor unnecessarily complicates the issue of identity. If Beth saw an ad saying “Female tenor”, would she be able to apply? Because she is female, and she is a tenor.

See the problem?

The system we have in place is uniquely flawed, because it simultaneously offers a lot of variety for describing voice type (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, Contralto, Mezzo-soprano, etc.) while boxing in vocal characteristics with gender.

And this is the issue with how many musicians think about writing for voice. When somebody hears “male soprano”, sure, they’re expecting a vocal range that is typically perceived as feminine (transcending the gender portion of the dilemma), but they ground the image in other vocal aspects we wrongly associate with gender: timbre, articulation, and other nuances.

This is the root of the issue: we have gone surprisingly far in separating gender from voice-type. Even though we may not perceive it as such, having male sopranos and female tenors breaks the current system in certain respects.

So why is it so difficult to go all the way when separating gender from voice?

Contemporary composers have no problem with intricately notating scores and preparation, and the same amount of care and specificity should be taken when approaching vocal writing.

But in scores, it is important to keep it simple for the performers. However, this does not mean we should resort to complicating the issue further by wedging gender next to performance practice. I see no problem with continuing to use gender-neutral terms like soprano, alto, tenor, etc. when indicating the type of singer pieces require. But our system needs to be updated in its execution, because if I’m looking for an alto to sing Billie Holiday’s rendition of “lovesong”, am I really interested in the specific gender of the person, or am I interested in the nuances of their voice?

Most of the time (bar some theatrical pieces) it tends to be the latter; the sopranist Edson Cordeiro shows this in his rendition of the exact Billie Holiday song, in which he replicates her signature voice without error. Singers like Cordeiro show that the line between what we consider male and female ways of speaking/singing is more within acting and technique.

Research shows this too; this study from Northeastern University does a thorough exploration of the qualities we typically associate with gendered voices.

Of course, this puts more responsibility on vocalists in general. A soprano who was Assigned Male at Birth (hereinafter referred to as AMAB) might have more trouble getting down the nuances of a stereotypically female voice needed for Verdi’s “Pace, pace mio Dio” aria, but—in a world where vocalists strain their voice for extended techniques and new music—this is not an impractical thing to ask.

And in the long run, adjusting our ways of speaking about vocal technique beyond the gender binary only makes classical music a more progressive world to exist in. For people like Beth (and many other members of the trans community), the second we start to revise our system brings a glimmer of hope.

Thankfully, many trans classical musicians have already taken action. The visibility given to sopranos like Breanna Elyce Sinclair and ensembles like the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus are already doing a lot to transform the space vocalists occupy to suit a more progressive agenda.

And, frankly, as composers and performers who will spend hours arguing about different types of instrumental preparation and technique, we should be doing the same.

REFERENCES not linked in article

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Composer and Arranger, Violist, Music Producer