City Opera's Botched Trans Casting

Sometimes, you have to bend the truth to sell an opera. From the initial casting call, New York City Opera has been advertising their new Stonewall opera, with libretto by Mark Campbell and music by Iain Bell, as the first opera commissioned by a major company to feature a trans character specifically written for a trans singer. It’s a claim that’s been picked up by outlets from OperaWire to the New Yorker, but while the larger claim may be narrowly true, the specific way the role has been cast in this production is a travesty, not a triumph.

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The Tonys Nominate: Transmisogyny

As a trans theatre-maker and critic, many people have asked me my thoughts on Tootsie, and most of them are surprised when I say I think it’s unsalvageably transphobic. After all, the show doesn’t have any trans characters, nor does it contain any explicit messages of hate directed at trans people. But just as a celebration of German culture can still be antisemitic even if it never mentions Jews and a boss who calls his secretary “sweetie” can still be sexist even if he never explicitly tells women to die, the core conceit of Tootsie’s plot strengthens tropes that harm trans women in pervasive, implicit ways.

Even a one-sentence description of the show raises red flags. Tootsie is a musical comedy (adapted from the 1982 movie of the same name) about a hard-pressed male actor who disguises himself as a woman in order to get a job. Any time male-to-female cross-dressing like this is played for laughs in contemporary US culture, the man-in-a-dress joke is inevitably in the air. The core premise of the man-in-a-dress joke is that it’s ridiculous and unnatural for a man to wear a dress. Because mainstream society, by and large, thinks of trans women as “men in dresses” instead of women, the man-in-a-dress joke perpetuates the idea that trans women are “unnatural” and fit for ridicule and scorn. For a recent example of how this man-in-a-dress joke framing hurts actual trans people out here in the world, see this recent post from trans actor Maybe Burke, who was explicitly misgendered as a man in a dress in one review of a play they are currently in.

This would be bad enough, but pushing further into the plot reveals more problems. Once Michael, the main character, lands a job as a woman, he’s wildly successful, to the point of getting a Broadway team to rewrite their entire show to revolve around him. Even before we get to the transmisogyny here, this is already a slap in the face to cis women acting in musical theatre. (Cis is an adjective that means not trans.) Cis women have to compete for fewer available roles than their cis male counterparts — in the 2017–18 Broadway season, only 37% of the leading roles were for women — and, once cast, they face ongoing sexism in the rehearsal room. And this is exactly where the transmisogyny comes in.

One talking point among those intent on driving trans people out of public life is that treating trans women as women instead of men will be unfair to cis women. This argument is usually a muddled mixture of two claims: 1) That trans women will be “naturally superior” to the cis women in the same space and 2) That cis men will pretend to be women to score an easy win. You see this argument most clearly when it comes to gender-segregated sports leagues — an issue there isn’t space in this article to address — but Tootsie is a clear example of it in musical theatre. The show is a transphobic talking point come to life: A man pretends to be a woman to get a job that was meant for a woman, outclasses everyone around him and finds success that he never had when he was living as a man, and is richly rewarded for as long as he keeps up the act.

This does not happen in real life. In the real world, coming out as trans tends to torpedo an acting career, not boost it, and being a cis woman is a decided disadvantage compared to being a cis man. It’s hard to say which of these is more pertinent for Tootsie — Michael is either being read as a trans woman by the characters around him or he’s passing as a cis woman (and it could, admittedly, be different for different characters, just as passing in real life is highly contextual and can vary from person to person and day to day) — but insofar as Michael is read as a cis woman, the show denies the reality of misogyny, and insofar as he’s read as a trans woman, the show both denies the reality of transmisogyny and strengthens the literal transphobic talking point that trans women are a threat to cis women’s livelihoods.

Note that none of this analysis hinges on a close, line-by-line reading of the script. These issues are baked into the core of the show; they cannot be fixed with a line tweak here or a few re-writes there — addressing them requires completely reconceptualizing the show from the ground up. Note also that I’m not saying anything about the creative team’s personal beliefs. Yazbek, Horn, and everyone else involved in the show may have only the most positive and affirming thoughts when it comes to trans people, but the show they have created, intentionally or not, is a show that strengthens ideas that directly harm trans women.

I also want to emphasize that these complaints are not new. Trans people have been raising concerns with this show since it was announced, some of us publicly and some of us only privately, out of concerns that voicing public criticism could have repercussions for our careers down the line. So far, this has felt like screaming at an automated steamroller — utterly ineffectual. Even when the show pulled a line of breathtakingly transphobic merchandise, they offered no public explanation or apology, seemingly assuming that they can get away with quietly brushing trans complaints under the rug or ignoring us outright. With eleven Tony nominations to show for it, that assumption seems to be correct.

The mood in the trans theatre circles I’m a part of on Tuesday morning was bleak. People were bitter, exhausted, furious, and demoralized as we once again saw a show that harms us and our communities being blithely celebrated by an industry that likes to paint itself as a safe, inclusive, and progressive scene. Each one of Tootsie’s nominations is an embarrassment to the entire field of musical theatre; each award that it wins will be a damning indictment of this industry’s ignorance of trans existence. Broadway must do better. The time is long overdue.

So You Want To Change Your Name

All right! So you've questioned your gender, tried a bunch of alternatives with your friends, and settled on a new name for your new self. Now you’re ready to take the next step: Officially changing your legal name. Congratulations! A name change is a routine legal procedure that thousands of people do every year in this country alone. Follow the twelve steps outlined below, and you’ll be on your way in no time!

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New Recording!

Hey all! As my first year in grad school winds to a close, I’m super pumped to share a recording from one of the big projects I’ll be working on in my second year. Defiant, Majestic, and Beautiful is a theatrical song cycle about people who face transmisogyny, ranging from advice on dissociation to an ode to salt. I performed the finale — a prophetic vision of a possible future — at a cabaret last week, and there’s a video recording of it! Watch it below, or click on over to YouTube for performer information and the complete lyrics.

Music Monday: LeBaron: After a Dammit to Hell

Let’s be real, this was pretty much inevitable. Music Mondays very deliberately don’t have a theme or central organizing principle (beyond being music I like), but still, there are patterns. Twentieth–Century works, works a little off the beaten path, bassoon features — these are all things I’ve come back to again and again. So how better to wrap up the last Music Monday with an off–the–beaten–path work for solo bassoon from late in the most recent century?

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So You Want To Write A Song

Composition is a mysterious thing. I mean this in the typical artsy sense of “I don’t actually know the precise mechanism by which things ‘come to me’ when I’m composing”, but also in the sense that I don’t think most non-composers know what we do when we disappear into a practice room for hours at a time. To be sure, some of it really is just staring into space and trying to imagine something musically compelling, but some of it’s considerably more plodding, methodical, and mundane. It’s art, sure, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to the rhymes. So today I want to open up the hood and give you a peek into my compositional process.

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Music Monday: Ginastera: Harp Concerto

Going by the ones I know, at least, harpists aren’t overly thrilled with their repertoire. Admittedly, my harping acquaintances are heavily biased towards the ones who apply to new music–friendly festivals, but still, the point stands: There’s an awful lot of frivolous harp music out there (much of it, unsurprisingly, French), and while one or two pieces like that can be a nice change of pace, at a certain point, you want something with a little more crunch and substance. And that’s where composers come in.

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Recital Recap (Thoughts on Success)

My recital wasn’t perfect.

This isn’t surprising. I haven’t counted exactly, but I had several thousand notes to play, and there are a lot of ways a note can come out wrong. It can be the wrong note, or out of tune, or not attacked cleanly, or left cleanly, or the wrong length, or not well blended with the notes on either side . . . and that’s not even getting into issues of phrasing and making compelling musical shapes. Playing a note correctly involves an intricate coordination of fingers, breath, and tiny muscles in the mouth, and a minor change in any of those can lead to failure.

So yeah, I made some mistakes. Some of them I noticed in real time as I was playing, and others I’m sure I’ll discover as I spend time with the recordings. In many ways, this is what classical training is: a relentless honing of one’s ability to ferret out mistakes and correct them. I’ve had a lot of that training, and I’d like to think I’m at least halfway decent at said ferreting out and fixing. I have a running list of areas for improvement in my playing, and I’m sure some of those will be reinforced by listening to this recital.

But I think it’s important to note that fixing everything on that list isn’t really a goal I have. It’s very easy to equate technical perfection with musical success, but I think that’s wrong. I don’t make music to show off my technical prowess. I make music to make people feel things.

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The Road Ahead

Given my impending recital and then cross-country move, my blogging schedule is about to become wildly erratic, so instead of putting out Yet Another Take on the Orlando shooting (let’s be real, there are already more than enough white voices involved in that conversation anyway), I want to outline what my plans are as far as the blog goes so that we’re all on the same page and no one is surprised by a lack of Content they were expecting.

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Music Monday: Gardner: Perseids

As much as I like many aspects of city living — the density, the hustle and bustle, the major cultural institutions, just to name a few — there are other aspects of it I’m less fond of. Like many kids, I was fascinated by space growing up, and loved to go stargazing whenever I could. I don’t really remember if I had many opportunities in Columbia, but Amherst is rural enough that finding a sky free from the worst of the light pollution isn’t terribly difficult, and the UMass stone circle (not quite as imposing as Stonehenge, but constructed along similar principles) was basically walking distance from my house, so I have many memories of summer evenings spent staring heavenwards.

Rather unsurprisingly, Los Angeles is . . . not like that. I’ve definitely seen stars here, but only the brightest of them, and even then not reliably. The fainter tracings of nebulae and the dusty sweep of the Milky Way are all blotted utterly from view. I’ll probably be living in cities for the rest of my life. I may well have seen the majority of all the stars I will ever see in my life. So pieces about stars and stargazing have a special resonance for me, tinged with nostalgia both for the past and for an imagined future.

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Can You Pass an Ideological Turing Test?

I get into a lot of fights on the internet. This is not surprising: I have Strong Opinions about many things, and, having changed my own views after reading certain arguments on numerous occasions, I’m a big believer in the power of discussion to change hearts and minds. The internet and people both being what they are, these fights aren’t always the most civil affairs, and sometimes the rhetorical intensity escalates alarmingly. When it does, there’s one thing I try to do that frequently seems to steer things back towards calmer waters: I try to pass the pertinent Ideological Turing Test.

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Music Monday: Yano: Oboe Concerto

You know, as good as I like to think my musical memory is, sometimes things happen that really make me question it. Take today’s piece: I was absolutely over the moon for Marco Aurélio Yano’s oboe concerto in high school, and then I completely forgot about its existence until a brief notice in the most recent issue of The Double Reed* about the impending publication of the piano reduction reminded me of how many feelings I had about it. So, of course, I rushed off to listen to it again, and all of those feelings came rushing back.

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Some Pointers for Concert Logistics

I have never been shy about my opinions on the logistics of running a concert. I think they’re tremendously important, and also often overlooked, with the result that many classical music concerts are considerably more tedious than they need to be, a state of affairs that does nobody any favors. Like it or not, presentation matters. Concert presenters who don’t take these details into account come across as disorganized and inadequately prepared. My frustration is amplified, I think, by the amount of time I’ve spent in the theatrical world. As anyone who’s done a play or musical can tell you, the rehearsal process devotes a lot of time to hammering out logistical details like set changes and lighting cues, a hammering out that’s almost never been done for the classical concerts I’ve been a part of. Granted, the logistics for classical concerts are usually less daunting — most string quartet performances don’t call for hundreds of light and sound cues along with various large pieces of scenery flying in and out from above, after all — but that makes it all the more irritating to see them muffed again and again and again.

Some time ago, after listening to me gripe about a concert that was particularly bad at this, a composer friend of mine asked if I wouldn’t be willing to put together some kind of checklist or document that outlines specific things that concert presenters should keep in mind when hashing out the logistics of putting on a show. This is that document.

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OFAN Mini: Reviews

I’ve always had a lot of thoughts about concerts. It kind of goes with the territory of being a composer/performer — when you spend so many of your waking hours picking apart your own playing and writing, it’s pretty hard not to do the same to others. For the most part, I kept those thoughts to myself, or at most talked about them with whoever I happened to see the concert with. That was fine as far as it went, but that wasn’t very far; when your thoughts just disappear into memory, it’s hard to build on them or notice larger patterns.

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Music Monday: Montgomery: Source Code

One of the things I find most interesting about other performer-composers is seeing their different approaches to writing for their own instrument. I’ve always been hesitant about writing for solo bassoon (other than a few bits of juvenilia, Rotational Games was the first solo piece I wrote for it), but many performer-composers write primarily or even exclusively for the instrument(s) they play. Jessie Montgomery falls more in the latter camp. Introduced to the violin at the age of four, her first compositions grew out of her improvisations, and most of her works are for string instruments in various combinations. She’s gradually been expanding her comfort zone — she recently earned a Master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University, and her second work for full orchestra will be premièred sometime next month.

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Old Friends And New

My first few months in LA were lonely. I moved out here to take the job I currently have as a music archivist, but none of my friends were moving with me, and since I work in a room by myself with a bunch of old sheet music, I don’t exactly have a cohort of coworkers to bond with. I tried out for a spot in a youth orchestra towards the end of that first summer, but I didn’t win the audition, so playing bassoon — which in college was a great way to branch out and meet new people — became, like composing, something I would have to do by myself, in the solitude of my apartment. There were weeks where the only times I used my voice were singing along with the car stereo on my ten-minute commute and saying “hi” and “thanks” to cashiers in grocery stores.

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Music Monday: Cuong: Moth

Unsurprisingly, my first exposure to Viet Cuong had nothing to do with nocturnal lepidopterans. Instead, it was in the fall of 2010 when the Yale Concert Band played his Ziggurat, complete with a custom animation projected behind us that, for some reason, involved flying bicycles. At the time, Cuong was finishing up a Master’s of Music degree at the Peabody Conservatory (where he also did his undergraduate studies) and preparing to begin an MFA in Composition at Princeton, where he’s currently pursuing his Doctorate. Despite still being in school, he’s accumulated a truly staggering number of awards and performances — on all six permanently inhabited continents, according to his webpage — and I’m honestly kind of surprised I haven’t encountered more of his works. (The YCB played another of his band pieces, Sound and Smoke, in 2012.) I’m sure that will change going forward; he’s an excellent composer and his fame is only going to continue to grow.

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