"I feel like I’m about to throw up, or cry... or both,” I told my friends as we waited to enter the music hall for pre-recital warm ups. I folded my arms tightly over my chest, trying to make myself as invisible as possible. “Just pretend you’re going undercover or something, wearing a disguise,” one said. “Think of it like drag, but fancier,” another suggested, managing to make me laugh a little. This was their best solution to helping me, a 16-year-old boy, cope with wearing a black, floor-length dress (read: potato sack with a neckline) three times a year. That was the price I paid for being a female-to-male transgender choir nerd in high school.
The challenge of choral performance is embodying the narrative expressed in the song and using the music to bring life to the characters. It’s akin to drama in that, although to a lesser extent, you have to become someone else to really do it justice. As with all storytelling, the narratives in choral songs are intertwined with the culture of their writers, which includes gender roles. Until recently, I’ve sung the lowest female voice part in choir, so I’ve been tasked with embodying female roles. I’ve always found this tiring, because it’s an even deeper level of performing femininity than I often had to do before I came out as a trans man in spaces where I was regarded as a woman. I not only had to go along with a female role, but needed to engage with it to make it realistic, and do it on stage.
One song I performed during my first college semester still stands out to me for this reason: the opening chorus to a Czech opera called The Bartered Bride. Villagers at a festival are celebrating the fact that they are young and in good health and don’t yet have to deal with the more miserable aspects of life. What miserable aspects, you ask? Marriage. The characters lament, “Those who are married say goodbye to joy! Women of home face housework; a man hides himself behind a pitcher. Oh dear! The end of pleasure!” I essentially had to embody the joy of being an unmarried woman and thus not having to be stuck in the kitchen dealing with an alcoholic husband.
I found it particularly exhausting because I was so keenly aware of the gender roles both in the narrative and the performance I was giving. It constantly called to mind the suffering of having to wear a dress on stage in high school, even though I was able to wear a tuxedo. In spite of the mix of emotions I felt, the performance went well and I was proud of what my fellow choir members and I were able to create. This combination of intense anxiety, pride, discomfort, and creativity has become what I think of when I think about choral performance and the femininity I spent years performing for the sake of choir.
I started taking testosterone nine and a half months ago, and my voice has dropped considerably. I’m currently a high bass. I can’t help but wonder how my relationship with choir might be different the next time I have the opportunity to join, when I will fit neatly into male roles. At that point I’ll have been on both sides of the fence. I don’t know if I’ll ever totally stop associating choral performance with performative femininity. However, I know that I’ll probably never stop associating it with the pride and awe of seeing what humans can create when we come together, and that my dual experience has made that feeling all the more rich.