attling an archaic industry, Toronto-based trans* opera superstar Teiya Kasahara 笠原 貞野 (they/them) leads a new generation of performers, activists and self-proclaimed “shit-disturbers” making themselves heard—whether the classical music world likes it or not.
Kasahara is the co-founder of Amplified Opera, a Toronto-based collective placing artists at the center of public discourse. Their show The Queen In Me—scheduled to have its world premiere in June 2022—smashes conventional operatic gender norms in an unexpected take on the misunderstood Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Reimagining the canonical work is a full circle moment for Kasahara, since it was the first opera they watched at age 15.
Canadian Opera Company (COC) is co-producing The Queen In Me with Kasahara’s company along with Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Gargantua. COC also named Amplified Opera its “Disruptor-in-Residence” in 2020 and is expanding its traditional programming with some innovative works that challenge the canon, which Kasahara describes as a “hopeful thing for the industry.”
“Opera is still a Euro-centric, capitalist, colonial artform,” Kasahara said. “It’s still very much a teaching of old systems and old expectations of voice types and gender presentation, and recreating something that’s from bygone times.”
Centuries-old librettos enforce cisnormativity and make opera roles inextricable from voice-type; almost all female protagonists are sopranos and males are tenors.
“A certain gender expression or expectation becomes associated to those voice types, and that begins to limit how one needs to present themselves within the industry both on and off the stage,” they added.
DEFINITION OF LIBRETTO: A libretto is the text of an opera.
In a recent Canadian example, a production of As One by Orchestre classique de Montréal on Transgender Awareness Day 2020 was met with outrage by its Canadian audience, though it was named one of the most-produced new operas by Opera America. The show had been produced over twenty times in the U.S. with less than a handful of trans* artists hired for either cast or crew.
Canadian classical musicians want better, and the emerging presence of genderqueer voices is helping reimagine a more vibrant, sustainable, relevant future for opera.
“The more I tried to fit in with what opera wanted me to be, the more I lost myself,” Kasahara said. “It is so restrictive in how the industry wants you to present yourself.”
Kasahara still wrestles with the decision to take Testosterone (T) to fully express their gender identity, but risks losing their soprano repertoire which they’ve spent their life perfecting.
DEFINITION OF TRANS*: Trans* is an umbrella term referring to many identities on the gender spectrum, including transgender, genderqueer, transsexual, non-binary, non-conforming, two-spirit and genderfluid.
The Hoser: Why did you step away from the opera world?
Kasahara: Particularly for me, it was a very narrow perspective of hetero-femininity, and white passing hetero-feminity. And it was really difficult to understand that I was trying to be something, that inherently I wasn't, for so long.
It was really difficult because I kept walking farther away from my truest expression, who was gay, who was queer, who was trans and non-binary, and dismantling those very binary and restrictive structures and systems that the whole world just operates in. And then if you put that in an operatic context, it's like a microscopic lens on a society that operates in that bubble, so everything just felt magnified and felt so dramatic.
Once I started to nurture and understand more of who I am, then I was able to fold opera back in, and only the parts that I wanted to, because [opera] is so problematic and restrictive in how the industry wants you to present yourself.
The Hoser: In what ways do you feel like the opera world is holding performers back from exploring their true gender identity?
Kasahara: Often in the industry we expect the artist, when playing roles, to carry that persona even off the stage, in the dressing room, in the rehearsal hall, in the audition room. That's very difficult: you come in as yourself, but are expected to play the role that you're auditioning for, or the voice type that you are representing, so the casting directors don't have to be imaginative. They can just be like, “Oh, yeah, I can see that person perfectly fitting in that role.”
That's why we have wigs. That's why we have costumes. That's why we have acting training, so people can transform their bodies and play those characters. And I think that further puts stress on folks who are thinking about medically transitioning, and what that means, by changing a whole voice type. And there is very little evidence and research to show that this would be successful, say for someone who's wanting to take testosterone and lower their voice. And conversely, if there’s folks who have a baritone or a tenor range, but now identify as women, but can still only play the roles that are associated with the baritone and tenor fachs. It's very complicated in terms of how they're perceived within the industry.
For example, if you have a lyric soprano voice, you will be singing maybe 20 different types of roles that are in the canon. And they're generally the heroine, the love interest, usually the one who finds a tragic demise, that kind of thing. But you also expect a certain type of femininity to be represented with that. You're often not going to see a variety of bodies that will represent that love interest. It's still upholding that very cis- heteronormative expectation. It further perpetuates ageism, sexism, and fat shaming.
The Hoser: Why hasn’t opera progressed the same way theatre, film, or dance industries have?
Kasahara: Opera has an over 400 year history, and it’s about replicating the past, these past performances and trying to bring them to life. There's very much an emphasis on recreation and museum theatre. We do see a lot of new concepts from directors that are trying to bring more contemporary perspectives into these operas. But we often see depictions of the same 20 operas over and over again, because they're the ones that sell.
We need to acknowledge that there is a very capitalist agenda with opera, that there is a certain donor and patronage that is associated with that, maybe a certain demographic, a certain age, a certain political leaning.
I would say opera is in a very crucial moment right now, where it’s transforming and can transform into something better, if there is enough momentum, if there's enough to push it past that tipping point.
The German Fach system is a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, according to the range, weight, and colour of their voices.
The Hoser: What are some ways the opera industry could be more inclusive?
Kasahara: Opera serves that white hetero- patriarchy that opera really has thrived in. It could be something as simple as costume attire. When you're asked to wear tuxes and gowns, for men and women, it's a very binary expression and very limiting. If someone wants to express their personal style, in a fancy professional way, it's limiting for that person.
Also, we could think outside of the box more literally, for the voice type or the voice fach system that opera so rigidly adheres to. We can really start to be creative in terms of how we're casting folks, how their talents and their unique lived experiences can really blossom in a variety of roles, and not just base it on their vocal cords. We can be creative in how we arrange something, or transpose something. We have the technology, we have all of the systems and the programs to do that. It would be really great to see opera also evolve the way society is evolving.
The Hoser: Why do you do opera?
Kasahara: There's so much power in this art form, to be able to connect with so many different types of people, and to provoke. To make us think, to also reach into our souls and connect to us on a somatic level, on an emotional level, that we can't necessarily intellectualise. Live performance, music, that combination, being able to see something, hear something and literally feel the vibrations through your chest is quite a rare opportunity. Because once that performance is gone, it's done right? That feeling will never exist that exact same way ever again. And I think that’s what is really powerful.
The more that we put energy into challenging the old part of this art form, and creating something new, creating more new works, highlighting more diverse artists, on all levels of this industry…I think we can and will really see it evolve and adapt and respond. That’s what’s exciting, and I want to be a part of an industry and artform that does that.
Learn more about Kasahara and their show The Queen In Me in a CBC short documentary called Opera Trans*formed, produced by authors Leah Borts-Kuperman and Maria Sarrouh, edited by Peter Totten. The project was filmed by Eamon Hillis and the sound recorded by Keth Sivakumar.