Life as a Trans Opera Singer

June 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

170512 HGO's L’incoronazione di Poppea

Playing Nerone for HGO’s L’incoronazione di Poppea – photo by Laurent Compagnon

 

The National Opera Studio asked me what it was like, to be a trans opera singer – and how we could all make our industry better.

So I wrote them this – I hope you enjoy it.

An incredibly busy year

April 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

There’s a reason why there was no blogging for the rest of 2017…or for the beginning of 2018, and I think it’s a good one: I’ve been on book tour, on album tour – and writing and speaking everywhere else but here. Only so many hours in the day – and a lot to try to remember – but I’m finally remembering to fill everyone in on the blog.

2017 was UK based: book festivals, community events, training days, university conferences, scratch nights and book shops. The kind of things I’ve been talking about – trans lives, gender, change and hope – are all featured in the BBC Radio 4 show below  – and in the accompanying article.

Word of Mouth

CN Lester on language and gender identity

For the Photographer’s Gallery, I wrote about the challenge of the cis gaze – in the street, and backwards and forwards in time:

Being seen

And for the Barbican: the struggle to understand other trans people without collapsing their realities into our own.

Trans lives: whose words?

 

The highlight of 2018 so far has to be the trip to Sydney to speak to the All About Women feminist festival as part of a trans panel featuring Sally Goldner, Jordan Raskopoulos, and Eddie Ayres. I’m still processing how transformative the whole experience was – but the panel is on YouTube for all who want it:

Feminism Beyond Gender Binaries

And I had the best interview experience ever with SBS…

SBS CN Lester

 

The rest of 2018 is shaping up to be just as full: shooting an art project with Daniel Barter, recording the audiobook for Trans Like Me in May, getting ready for American publication in June , preparing for the most ambitious Transpose ever in December, and gigging/speaking around the country. And trying to finish my PhD.

Twitter and Facebook are best for more regular news – but I’ll try to update here more often. Enormous thanks to everyone who’s read this far – and in particular the people who’ve been reading for years, and the book besides. Onwards and upwards. And, finally, in white tie and tails…

 

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 19.26.44

credit to AbsolutQueer photography

The Lion-Faced Man

June 23, 2015 § 3 Comments

The last couple of months have been some of my lightest blogging ever – and there’s a pretty good reason behind that. I’m lucky enough to be friends with the wonderful Hel Gurney – performance poet, fiction/non-fiction writer, researcher and activist – and, last year, we decided to write an opera – Hel taking care of the words, I the music.

So that is what I’ve been doing. It was, unsurprisingly, intense. And now we have an opera, The Lion-Faced Man, opening with Tete a Tete Opera Festival at King’s Place this August, performed by incredible mezzo Alison Wells.

 

Stephan

 

We had long wanted to collaborate on a piece exploring difference and looking. With The Lion-Faced Man, we felt there was an opportunity to tackle the audience’s assumptions and completely reverse them. Instead of watching a captive performer, the audience is made captive themselves – strapped into a viewing headset, unable to look away as Stephan Bibrowski, the lion-faced man, stares them down. The singer barrels through a litany of characters – doctor, ringmaster, narrator, side-show spectators, the titular man himself – one single voice contorting through speech and song to populate Stephan’s world. How does looking change the substance of what we see, and how are we changed in the looking? Where does biography end and fiction begin?

Hel and I will be discussing this in greater depth over the next couple of weeks – but I wanted to share the good news, and give a heads up for anyone interested in the UK – tickets are extremely limited and selling fast.

Any questions? Let us know. I’ll be back with a more regular blog next week – until then, it’s more opera for me.

Music, gender, sexism – stirring things up

December 10, 2014 § 10 Comments

The game is afoot.

 

Or, rather, it’s now officially afoot. If you’ve been following my music for a while, you’ll already know that I have a bit of a thing about how ideas around gender – and gender discrimination –  work in the musical world. So, from January, I’m taking that thing and turning it into a performance doctorate at the Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity (MuGI) at University of Huddersfield.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I hope it’ll pique the interest of some of you reading now. Why does one type of person end up symbolising ‘the composer’ or ‘the artist’, to the exclusion of others? Why do some pieces of music enter the canon and not others? What do audiences hear, when what they see is interpreted along culturally conditioned gender lines? How does the gender (actual or perceived) of the performer enter into this? How are we going to make things better?

I’ll be charting my doctoral studies online – blogging, livestreaming, discussions, surveys, audio, new manuscript editions – so do please watch this space for new links and content.

 

And before that?

 

This Friday (December 12th) I’ll be hosting a talk/discussion on gender and music at the London Feminist Library. Entry is free, the wine will be plentiful, and I’ll do my best to bring cookies. 7:30pm start time – bring your opinions, come join a lovely informal debate.

I’m following the theoretical with the practical – Saturday (December 13th) is a performance of Baroque music written by the often neglected, often maligned Barbara Strozzi. A poet, vocalist, composer – as well as a single mother, illegitimate child, unmarried woman – it’s fascinating/depressing to realise how so many sexist tropes leveled against working women today were leveled against Strozzi then.  Her music is witty, moving, catchy, inventive gold – if you haven’t heard her before, you’re in for something special. 7:30pm start at St Peter’s Vauxhall tickets £10/7 on the door – and 2-for-1 entry for those who came to the Friday debate.

 

When I was at school, I was told there were no women composers. When I was at university, I was told that there were no women composers worth bothering about, and that trans people of all kinds didn’t have a place in music. I’m really excited to get to do something that challenges those lies.

A break from your regularly scheduled blogging…

September 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

…to let you know that, with the academic year starting, I have space for three more students – who wants in?

 

For those of you who only know me as a blogger, or an alt. musician – like most freelance musicians, I also teach – voice, piano and composition. There’s more information on my classical training/career and alternative career on my website, but the short version:

  • I received my Bachelor of Music from King’s College London, and my Master of Music from Goldsmith’s. Vocal training with Alison Wells, Cameron Burns, Dai Miller and Emma Kirkby.
  • I’ve been teaching for more than ten years now – beginning informally, with choir coaching and student support when I was a student myself, and more formally for the past six years.
  • I teach all ages (youngest so far has been 4 years old, and the oldest 60), and absolute beginners to those preparing for university/higher grades/diploma. My teaching style is very much focused on foundational technique, with genre requirements/requests led by my students.
  • I have a particular interest in helping trans people to train their voices – on or off hormone treatments.
  • A lot of work with my students focuses on bodily and mental relaxation and confidence, and just generally having a lovely time making noises. I’m a firm believer in the ethos that music is every human’s birthright – and I love helping people explore their musical possibilities.
  • I teach from my home in Zone 2 South London – £30 for an hour’s lesson.

 

If that sounds like something you might be interested in – or if you know someone who might be interested – do drop me a line at cnlester@hotmail.co.uk.

Thank you – regular blogging resumes next week.

Headshots for all

December 3, 2013 § 3 Comments

So this is the photo which lays bare my desire to play Tolomeo

So this is the photo which lays bare my desire to play Tolomeo

This Saturday I had a photoshoot with the absolutely incredible Dr J – go here for more information and glorious pictures – so here are my new headshots, both alternative and classical. I couldn’t recommend Dr J enough – fun, relaxed, beautiful results. You should totally book them now.

Alt shot 5 colour Alt shot 5 Alt shot 4 colour Alt shot 4 Alt shot 3 Alt shot 2 Alt shot 1 colour Alt shot 1

Classical shot 4 Classical shot 3 colour Classical shot 3 BW Classical shot 2 colour

November 9th 2013: Schoenberg, Schubert and Brahms

November 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

November 9th, 7pm

Schott Music

48 Great Marlborough Street, W1F 7BB

£12 (concert and reception) – please call 0207 534 0710 to reserve

All this and a Steinway

In less than a week I’ll be performing some of my all-time favourite classical music with the extremely talented Elspeth Wilkes (see bio below – she’s amazing) on piano – won’t you join us?

 

A chilly Autumnal night seems the perfect time for some lush German (and Polish) Romanticism, a glass of wine, and one or more Black Forest brownies. We’re pairing our favourite songs by Schubert and Brahms with solo works by Chopin and Brahms – and finishing the evening with the work of the Second Viennese school which is closest to my heart, Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens.

 

Those of you who haven’t heard or studied this work before – it’s hard to express in a few words just how special this piece is. A good place to start would be with Schoenberg’s visual art, rather than his music. The hallucinatory colours, disintegration of order and piercing emotional scrutiny are common to both – as a synesthesiac, performing The Hanging Gardens feels dizzying – like falling through the back of your own head into a swirl of different kinds of darkness. It’s strange, and somewhat creepy, and utterly beautiful – like the best kind of nightmare. You don’t have to be an expert on atonal composition to love it – you just have to like the really of having your mind blown by something bizarre and wonderful and new.

 

The Red Gaze

The Red Gaze

 

The concert will be a little over an hour long – please stay to talk about music/art/baking etc. – can’t wait to see you there.

 

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March events for anyone?

February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

 

Two months into the year, and already in need of a holiday – just as it should be. If you want to come support one of the events I’ve been working so hard for then that would be just fabulous – three alternative gigs and one new opera (fun fact – my character has an STD – yes, they really do). Play your cards right and I’ll buy you a drink.

 

March 3rd, 6pm onwards

Transpose

 

 

March 11th, 7pm onwards

Blue Monday

March 17th, 4pm

The Silence of the Bees: A Science Opera

 

March 20th, 9pm onwards

Trans London after party at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

So January wasn’t all bad…

February 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

…it’s still my least favourite month, but it had some pretty sweet moments.

 

Dark Angels had its first review – possibly the best review of my career so far. “This is no less than creativity at its most lucid and profound.” There’s no way it can be anything other than downhill from that, but I’m overjoyed, nonetheless. Many, many thanks to So So Gay.

 

We also had a lovely message from composer Jonathan Kulp,  whose settings of Emily Dickinson form an integral part of the Dark Angels programme. A really fantastic composer (and former competitive skateboarder!) – check him out.

 

I hopefully managed to talk some sense about media transphobia and Burchill to Pride Live Radio and, with Trans Week at the New Statesman brought forward, was named as a trans role model (in some very good company). Writing this makes me feel somewhat bashful but also, it must be admitted, rather proud.

 

Start as you mean to go on, right? Come on 2013 – let’s have at it.

Singing and T – some tentative thoughts

January 15, 2013 § 4 Comments

UPDATE

My singing teacher shared a video with me this morning that I found extremely helpful, demonstrating just how much of a change relaxing and opening up makes on the vocal mechanism and on the sound – the difference between a high, tight larynx and a lower, released one (with a nice, floated tongue). The whole video is invaluable, but if you want to see just how much of a difference it makes, have a look from 3:20 onwards:

 

As promised, an update on the (gradual) research I’m doing into the effects of testosterone on vocal production in FAAB people (with a soupçon of information on singing for other trans people, MAAB and FAAB). 

First, obviously, a proviso or two. My research, is it stands, is a combination of anecdotal evidence and theoretical exploration. Given the time and the opportunity I would love to do something more formal – but, for the moment, everything I know is based on working with my students, cis and trans, and all the pedagogical works on singing I can get my hands on and find time to read. What I know about the voice I know as a singer, not a doctor – background here, if you’re not a regular reader.

 

So, with that out of the way…

 

…When I first started writing about this, about two years ago, this was the situation as I understood it:

Trans guys can keep a singing voice, though, depending on age and level of vocal expertise before hormones, there seems to be an astonishing level of risk. Too many men lose their ability to vocalise altogether. I haven’t heard of a single incident of a classical singer going through this process, and I have yet to read of a trans guy keeping a vocal range and quality after T that would leave him capable of singing in the classical style as a professional.

 

Well, I have yet to hear of a professional classical singer going through the process of taking T and emerging as a professional classical singer on the other side. But I have, I’m very pleased to say, now heard and taught a few trans men on T who’re singing beautifully as amateur singers. Of my students (hi students!), none were professional singers before T – but all are now more than capable of singing in amateur classical choirs should they want to, or as folk/alt/rock/blues performers (hint to students to whom I have been dropping hints). The majority have found voices in the baritone range – but I’ve also had a few tenors, and a bass. Again, reminder that this is a self-selecting group (men invested enough to singing to pursue lessons) – but I haven’t heard a single case of a ‘lost’ voice. In fact, the problems they’ve had in singing appear to have the same root as the majority of the problems my others students have, one that I certainly share and have to work on in my own singing – of having a high, tight larynx, of trying to deliberately sing from the larynx, rather than relaxing and using the whole body as an instrument. It was that tightness and stress that was causing my cis male students’ voices to crack and strain – turns out it was the same for the trans male students too.

 

Linked to that general problem, of trying to deliberately force out the sound from the throat, was the one of getting used to a different size and placement of the larynx. It was a problem I’d work on with my adolescent cis male students, and I figured it was worth trying the same approach with my trans male students – it seems to work. Many people are taught to belt rather than to sing, and get used to trying to control what the vocal mechanism is doing (again – this was the case with me) – they create the sound through deliberate effort. Problem is, when the larynx grows and moves into a slightly different placement, you’re left unable to do what you used to do and, therefore, unable to sing. Pitching becomes particular difficult for those used to pitching ‘by feel’ because ‘the feel’ isn’t where it used to be. The only solution I’ve found to this is what I work on with my teacher – hearing the note before singing, and allowing the breath to reach it, rather than trying to force a sound out – of relaxation and visualisation, not ‘vocal’ effort.

 

These are only hints and questions – but I do wonder if, maybe, a lot of what we assume about T and singing isn’t correct? That the stories of people losing their voices utterly might, in some cases, have had happier endings with a good teacher and time to work on a different technique? I know we’ve all heard the classic choir boy story to support the idea that male adolescence is a crapshoot when it comes to the voice – I heard it from my father: start puberty with a beautiful treble, voice breaks, never sing again. But I haven’t heard that story from anyone invested in singing. The majority of male classical singers I know were choirboys – some of them had a period of several years where their voices were too all over the place to sing, and some had an easy transition from treble to alto to tenor. They all had good technique to get them through. Again, I’m not claiming to know it all, or saying that losing your voice at adolescence can’t happen – just that the only people I know who talk about it happening to them didn’t work on the issue with a singing teacher or two, but just gave up.

 

I’m sorry I can’t give a more definite answer, and tell people whether or not it’s safe to risk their voices on T. Another factor with my trans male students on T is that the oldest is not quite 40 – I don’t know if the same would hold true for someone beginning T at the age of 60, for example. What I can say is that things seem far more optimistic than I initially thought they were. Again, for me, taking T is out of the question – but that might not be the case for every singer, whether amateur or professional. I suspect that, if I only had my alternative singing to worry about, I would now feel that taking T was worth a shot (pun intended).

 

Before anything else, I would advise anyone reading this, of any sex or gender, to find themselves a sympathetic singing teacher if their voice matters to them. I feel it’s worth noting that, with my trans FAAB students NOT on T, the same work on opening up and relaxing the body, and getting away from deliberate strain on the larynx, helped them to find notes lower and richer than they knew they had – the same with my MAAB trans students (on HRT or not) with their higher ranges. Find a good teacher, invest in your technique and, if you’re having real problems, consider seeing a laryngeal specialist. And the very best of good luck, whatever path you decide to take.

 

Answers to questions after the jump:
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