From The San Francisco Chronicle: https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/music/does-voice-have-a-gender-for-trans-singers-old-categories-are-breaking-down
February 22, 2019
Growing up in England, Elspeth Franks felt sure that singing would be her career of choice. She had a large and versatile vocal range, and the stylistic flexibility to sing opera, concert works and choral music.
After moving to the Bay Area in 1990, Franks, now 55, established herself as a go-to mezzo-soprano. She performed with regional opera companies, sang with the chorus of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and worked as a church cantor.
The other thing Franks knew — even without the terminology to describe that confident inner knowledge — was that she was transgender.
Five years ago, Franks transitioned to male, taking the name Elliot. Suddenly, the voice that had seen him through all those years of performance had grown deeper and largely unfamiliar.
“I’d gone from a range of 3½ octaves to one, although a very pretty one,” he said. “All the things I knew how to do with my voice, all the tricks, the way I formed vowels for resonance — none of that works the same way it used to.”
It’s not all about the octaves, either. Franks is just one of an increasingly visible number of trans singers in the classical world who are challenging long-accepted notions about the intersection of gender and music. Operatic and choral singers, long segregated into rigid categories by vocal range, tonal qualities, body type and even simply gender, have begun to push back.
For San Francisco’s Breanna Sinclairé, 29, the gender transition came earlier, and has been a central part of her development as a professional opera singer. In the process of going from male to female, she felt her naturally expansive voice grow steadily stronger in the upper register. Sinclairé began singing as a tenor, but soon shifted up to countertenor, a male singer who specializes in falsetto singing. After her transition, she established herself during studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a mezzo-soprano, and is now developing her top notes on the way up to life as a soprano.
On New Year’s Eve, Sinclairé, became the first trans singer to appear with the San Francisco Symphony when she sang an aria by Saint-Saëns on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall.
“It was an honor to debut with such a celebrated orchestra,” said Sinclairé. “I’m proud to be one of the trans opera singers who are breaking these barriers. In the end, we put in the work and want to be treated as musicians just like everybody else.”
The audience responded warmly to her performance, said conductor Edwin Outwater, who led the concert. “It was a historic moment — and she hit a full, beautiful high B-flat, which she didn’t have to do!”