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.
We will almost certainly never be able to conclusively identify the first trans opera singer. This is, in part, due to the difficulty of teasing out trans history. In many cases, the only evidence we have of people challenging the Western gender binary comes from sensationalized newspaper stories or police records. Even in the rare cases where we do find gender-variant people writing about their experience in their own words, their language does not necessarily map neatly onto ours. Less than a century ago, for example, the theory of sexual inversion treated what we would now distinguish as homosexuality and transness as a singular phenomenon; it’s not always possible to tell how someone who, in 1928, identified as an invert would identify today. Projecting contemporary frameworks for understanding complex social phenomena like gender backwards in time is a perilous business; the best approach is usually a cautious one of suspended judgement.
But, in part, the difficulty in pinning down the first trans opera singer also comes from the gender bending in the genre itself. The long tradition of pants roles — young male characters who were meant to be played by grown women — has long been a source of exuberant gender subversion, to say nothing of castrati. For centuries, vocally promising young Italian boys were castrated to keep their voices from changing during puberty; the most successful of these castrati went on to become iconic celebrities in their day. Did every singer who specialized in pants roles identify simply and solely as a woman? Every castrato as a man? It’s certainly possible, but it seems equally likely that at least one of them might, if time-warped to the contemporary United States, find a home under the trans umbrella.
Even if we set this historical uncertainty aside, major is doing a lot of work in NYCO’s claim, as is the definition of opera. It’s true that operas featuring trans roles written for trans performers are not thick on the ground, but there are a few. Good Country (libretto: Cecelia Raker, music: Keith Allegretti), a chamber Western, featured Holden Madagame in an academic workshop in Austin, TX, this past April. #adulting (libretto: Natalie Elder, music: John Brooks, additional music and libretto: Austin Nuckols and Stefan Melnyk), a millennial sitcom opera, featured Jacob Michael in the role of Tony in a multi-week run this spring at St Luke’s Theatre in midtown Manhattan. Opera Kardashian (libretto: Tom Swift, music: Dana Kaufman), which features a role for Caitlyn Jenner, had a reading at the University of Miami Frost School of Music in April of 2018. I composed Silver and Stars, a Holocaust memory piece, with a libretto by Aiden Feltkamp (a planned performance this February fell through), as well as Project Tiresias, a science-fiction opera with a libretto by AriDy Nox that has featured Aneesh Sheth and Futaba Shioda in readings at NYU and The Tank in 2018.
To my knowledge, this is an exhaustive list, although loosening the definition of opera even slightly would open the floodgates — at least a dozen musicals could go here, some of them structurally indistinguishable from shows people happily call operas, and some that have been performed at major institutions like the Public.
Still, I get it, marketing a contemporary opera is hard. If this were merely a matter of semantics, I would probably roll my eyes and let it slide. Assuming you use an ad-hoc definition of opera to rule out the bulk of the contenders, the premiere of Stonewall is unarguably a higher-profile event than the productions of the other operas mentioned above, so tacking on major does let them claim first. But in casting a trans man, Liz Bouk, to play a trans woman, Sarah, the Stonewall creative team have botched things so spectacularly that one can’t help but wish they had spent more time studying the above works instead of sweeping them under the rug.
It’s difficult to convey how bizarre this casting choice is. It’s like they wrote a character who’s a lesbian, cast a gay man to play her, and then boasted of writing a homosexual character for a homosexual actor. The boast is literally true, but it also reveals that those responsible have failed to grasp even the most fundamental rudiments of the issues at hand. Trans men and trans women may share some experiences by dint of our transness, but we’re not interchangeable.
More than bizarre, though, it’s also harmful. There isn’t really an interpretation of this setup that doesn’t involve misgendering Bouk, Sarah, or both. Sitting in the audience on Saturday night, it felt an awful lot like the creative team had decided Bouk’s gender could be ignored; it felt like they wanted the audience to see a woman when they looked at Bouk. But even if we insist, as we should, on correctly gendering Bouk, this only creates another problem: They have cast a man in a dress to play a trans woman. Bouk himself hits the crux of it perfectly in his earlier New Yorker interview when he says that he “pretended to be a woman for thirty years of [his] life.” The thing is, trans women are not men pretending to be women. The idea that trans women are “really” men dressing up as women is one of the biggest reasons trans activists have agitated against casting men to play trans women; the fact that Bouk is a trans man does not make this casting any less inappropriate. This is a grotesque parody of representation, one that sees transfeminine people, bodies, and voices as superfluous, unnecessary for the telling of our own stories.
Bouk is a fine singer, and he fits in well with Stonewall’s cast. There’s no plot-related reason that Sarah needs to be a trans woman instead of a trans man. Changing her gender would, admittedly, mean reworking the text of her aria, but this would be no great loss. The current lyric, at least to my ear, feels flat and lifeless. It’s at once anachronistic and clichéd, like Campbell rifled through several trans women’s memoirs and pasted together the most common phrases. Sitting through it, I couldn’t help but wonder what a trans librettist could have done with the same material.
These critiques are not entirely new. Most have been circulating for months in private conversations and closed Facebook groups. By and large, they have not been aired publicly because trans artists are afraid of jeopardizing their careers. In addition to the thirty libretti he has written, Campbell has deep connections to most major contemporary opera institutions in the US, is in high demand for the creation of new works, and sits on the faculty of the only two professional librettist training programs in the country. Rightly or wrongly, people are afraid of getting on the bad side of someone with so much perceived power.
I wish I didn’t have to write this. In a moment where so many people are working to destroy trans lives from a place of active malice, I wish I didn’t have to spend time explaining to our purported allies that the things they are doing to try to help us are hurting us instead. I would much rather write about what it was like to see myself represented on an operatic stage. But here we are. Campbell, Bell, and NYCO have produced nothing more than a strange new spin on a deeply transphobic trope.
Still, what’s done is done, and this is, technically, the first major opera with a trans character written for a trans singer. That laurel is claimed. But there’s another laurel out there still ripe for the taking, freely available to some enterprising opera troupe: Commission the first major opera to do it well.
Correction 26 June, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of the presentation of Good Country in Austin, TX.