Queering Opera

As a queer woman-of-color I personify a lot of non-realities in the opera world. Opera tends to be heteronormative in its convention, not showing much grey area when interpreting gender and sexuality and with these realities dictating much of how operatic works are formulated, it makes it hard for someone who doesn’t fit into these molds of heteronormativity to find an authentic operatic voice when portraying a role, reenacting a scene, or just trying to relate to the lyrics in a particular song.

Ever since I was a child, I knew that I had an attraction to women. I remember the first image of a naked body that really stayed fragmented in my mind was not of my own body, it was an image of a naked, white woman from a pornographic adverstisement pop-up on my family computer. We had a computer virus that flooded our homepage with pornography and I remember seeing this image and then my mother walking in on me seeing the image and subsequently freaking out because I had seen something that would potentially “corrupt” me. I wasn’t allowed to use the computer until the virus had been fixed and even years after that incident, when I was old enough to have my own computer in my room, I still wasn’t allowed to have Internet connectivity in fear that I would see more sexualized images…but I digress.
After seeing that female figure with fully-developed breasts, hips, a dramatic waist-to-hip ratio, and a vagina… I was intrigued by its form. I both admired the features of the woman and was aroused by it before I even knew what my own arousal was.
Around this timeframe, the years of experimental childhood play occurred and I had all of my playground girlfriends “play doctor” with me: these sessions included seeing each other naked, comparing body parts, pretending to be each other’s “boyfriends” with small kisses and touches here-and-there. I was fascinated more by female friends’ body parts than my male friends, and a lot of my female friends developed earlier than me, and I would be in awe of their curvaceous figures, noticing how they resembled the body of the porn star I saw at age 6.
Paired with these external manifestations of my budding lesbianism came the voyeuristic ventures of late-night erotica on T.V. Although my parents thought they were protecting my innocence by not allowing my Internet access, they put a cable T.V. in my room, forgetting about the massive amount of sex all over the place in the media. Perhaps they thought I would fall asleep before the phone sex advertisements, sex toy infomercials, and softcore erotic movies/shows would come on, but I was a youthful insomniac, unable to fall asleep until 3 or 4AM at times.
I began watching an erotic television show on “Oxygen”, the women’s network, called “Bliss”. It portrayed examples of female sexuality with soft-lens visions of women’s breasts and buttocks and all different forms of sex that always contained a female protagonist: heterosexual, homosexual, non-binary and gender-swapping sex. Seeing those visuals of women in ecstasy fascinated me, and I remembered always wanting to watch more of the lesbian storylines than the straight storylines.
But, still, I was also attracted to men. I still had posters of the hottest male actors, male pop stars and boy bands, and I still liked boys in my classes at school. All of this intrigue of women was something that I kept secret because I felt this unspoken sentiment of being gay-in any form-was bad. My parents were also religious and they believed that being gay was a sin, so I never spoke about my affinity for both men and women until I got older and wasn’t ashamed of who I was. I also found out that I had two gay male relatives, and I began to discuss the hypocrisy behind accepting them and not their own daughter to my parents.

There is this idea of women being able to have ‘acceptable queerness’ in the heteronormative space; women experimenting with other women or being not fully heterosexual as a performance to heterosexual men increased with the rise of modern pornographic culture, but even during the turn of the century women having sexual fluidity was still considered a crime and mental illness, but it was still subordinate to homosexual men due to patriarchal dynamics about gender (women are weaker than men, so their sexual preferences aren’t as detrimental as men’s…men must be straight because they are stronger). However, a lot of traditional conventions behind heteronormativity come from homoeroticism in male-to-male interactions, and this can be seen in opera.
Women were not allowed to perform in many on-stage productions, and when the first opera houses began, men were playing female roles. The men who played these roles went through a process of testicular castration  in order to keep their voices high-pitched and these performers were called, “castrati”. (Britannica)

In my personal experience with my own sexuality, I feel as if I have to perform as a straight woman in order to properly portray females in a heteronormative way. This tendency to perform as heterosexual has clouded my own viewpoint of my sexuality and has increasingly made me question where I stood in relation to be attracted to women. During the beginning stages of my transition to larger opera works and meeting my vocal coach and professor, I was experiencing a sexual dysphoria that I felt I had to suppress in order to successfully relay my arias to my audience; I grappled with believing I was a lesbian at the time, and was unable to find opera text that shared any similar sentiments. This is not surprising considering the fact that most operatic composers were heterosexual identifying males.
The opera that is primarily studied throughout my schooling years was always works that were written by men, celebrated by other male theorists, and those works were considered the foundation of studying classical operatic texts. This celebration of their works heightened my sense of dysphoria and I believe that it also led to me not fully grasping who I truly was for awhile.

Gay men have a larger space in larger musical works than gay women. These can be seen in the crossover works of the musical theater/Broadway space, where gay males stereotypically ‘run’ the discipline. I believe this can also be said when detailing the idea of castrati and the homo-eroticism of being able to perform as gender-fluid icons on stage: even though it is unspoken, gay men are widely more accepted and prevalent in the opera world than gay women.
I felt more accepted in the discipline when I was told of modern operas now allowing women to play ‘contralto’ and ‘countertenor’ parts. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a contralto is “…a singing voice that has the range between tenor and mezzo-soprano [typically females]…” (Merriam-Webster) A countertenor is “…a tenor with an unusually high range [typically males]…” (Merriam-Webster). (A tenor is typically described as a high-voice male vocal part, and a mezzo-soprano is a middle-high voice for a female.)  This allowed for women to play the parts of male characters in lead roles. This is a phenomena not to be thought of in the older years of opera and it allowed me to feel more comfortable with my identity when I found this out. Another interesting factoid, though, is that I’m a soprano which usually fares to more traditional female roles. For my voice part, there aren’t many roles that allow me to explore gender-bending or any form of masculinity.

My opera studies have always been strictly heteronormative – I have not performed any operatic works that are for male leads; I’ve never portrayed a different gender or etc. The closest form of gender-fluidity that I’ve portrayed is the aria, “Ballata” by Ottorino Respighi. When I studied this song, it fit the correct voice part and intonation needed for my voice (soprano), but when I looked up a performance of the piece I also found that it could be performed by a male tenor. There are many pieces that have gender-neutral lyrics which could be for any gender to sing, and maybe these lyrics also allow a space for queer people to sing about/to whomever partner they prefer.
In my experience, however, my voice teachers have assumed that I would be singing to a male protagonist/antagonist and maybe that is because they never knew about my queerness. (Perhaps, it was also because of how we assume most people to be heterosexual before anything else which is less of an operatic issue and more of a cultural/social issue.)

Black queerness is something that is completely absent from opera. Since blackness is a minority in the opera world, in general, the minority of blackness interwoven with queerness is even smaller. These two intersections personify another part of my public vs. private space persona – the reality that my private space (my queerness and my blackness) does not have a home within the public space (opera). Since opera is a performance of art for an audience, how you present yourself is automatically put in the public eye – my blackness can be both private and public but I categorize my blackness as more private space because it’s an identity that goes beyond skin color and this can also be said for my queerness-it goes beyond liking women, there is a culture behind both identities that does not exist in the public lens of the opera space. This conflict of the public space mingling with the private space allows me to have to perform while already performing. I feel as if parts of my blackness and queerness must be hidden from the main-stage due to my voice part, depending on what songs I am singing, and how I present myself to the audience. I feel that they must already adjust to seeing a dark-skinned black woman on the stage, so they should not be presented with all facets of my identity all at once. This assumption is assuming that my audience is primarily white heterosexuals and of a different class background than me, and this particular audience’s private space (whiteness, heterosexuality, etc.) is allowed to take up public space.

So, how does this all affect my queerness overall? In the space of opera, I find myself performing as straight, and this performance affects my activist space when fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights in the social justice world. Because I feel the need to pass and mask my queerness when performing opera, I grapple with feeling like I belong in the activist world because I am not always authentic to who I am unlike other queer activists. This change from passing to non-passing hinders my ability to be comfortable in my own skin, at times, especially when I know that because I am bi-sexual, it is easier for me to access privilege in the queer world. This ability to pass and not have to morph into who I really am when performing gives me rights and abilities that other queer identities/minorities do not have.


Ballata lyrics:

Non so qual io mi voglia
O viver o morir, per minor doglia
Morrir vorrei, che’l viver m’e gravoso
Veggendomi da voi esser lasciato
E morir nonvorrei, che trapassato
Piu non vedrei il bel viso amoroso
Per cui io piango invidioso
Di chi l’ha fatto suo e me ne spoglia!

I don’t know which I want,
To live or to die, to diminish [the] suffering
I would die, life weighs on me
Seeing myself abandoned by you;
But I would not die, [because if I] passed away
I would not see [your] beautiful, loving face
[So] I weep with envy for [he] who
Had it and strips me of it!

Castrato. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. May 09, 2013. July 27th, 2017. Online.

“Contralto.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 30 July 2017.

“Countertenor.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 30 July 2017.

Ballata. Respighi, Ottorino. 1906.

Daring, C. B. Queering Anarchism: Essays on Gender, Power and Desire. Edinburgh: AK, 2013. Print.

Black Women, Opera, Space and Place in Academia

I would like to discuss public space identity in terms of academia, and how that contributed to my experiences as a black woman studying opera and vocal performance in music academia. This blog post will begin as a short narrative of my experiences in the academic landscape of public school, and how that intersects with my experiences in higher education.
My experience as a young, bi-racial, black woman growing up in the suburbs (with a high concentration of white, higher-income, politically conservative demographics) has had its ups-and-downs. While going through the different stages of adolescence I was thrown into a world that included my body, but did not include my own perceptions of me in many ways.
In school, those divisions were clearer to see between my peers-the divide between what “fit in” and what was “weird”. In the early stages of  elementary school there was not much segregation by skin color amongst my peers, at first: the only segregation I had experienced was enforced by my Kindergarten teacher who began to target me as the “class bad kid”. Ms. Able, a young, white woman began her teaching job being the nicest, kindest, and sweetest teacher that any kindergartner could ask for… that is, until the first Parent-Teacher Conference.
Ms. Able began targeting me after that night.
She had never seen both of my parents in the same room before, and to some people, without any warning, it shocks them: my white father, my black mother, and me, this little dark-skinned girl. How did this come about? It perplexes a lot of people.
That school year, I had to come home sick everyday because I had fevers; it turns out I had an undiagnosed tonsil infection, and by the end of the school year, when the problem was finally solved, I got them removed. However, my pediatrician, my parents, and everyone could not figure out why I was sick all the time, and Ms. Able began to think I was faking. She attempted to get social services called on my parents to remove me from a “hostile environment”, but I had missed a lot of school prior to the Parent-Teacher Conference, without any problem.
Any time I would raise my hand, ask a question, or turned in something she “didn’t like”, I was put in recess detention; I didn’t get to play with any kids. My mom would pick me up from school and get harassed by other teachers that were friends with Ms. Able due to an extensive discrimination complaint that my parents tried to file against the school, and lengthy discussions/meetings with the principal.

Eventually, Ms. Able and my parents came to an agreement of sorts: all social services charges were dropped because, eventually, my pediatrician figured out what was going on with my tonsils, which gave them permission to pick me up from school early for the remainder of the school year. Ms. Able was still not kind to me in the classroom even after this, though, and there was really little she could do. (She still threatened to fail me, but I had all of my assignments turned in). But I noticed that the other black children in my class were not treated with this hostility, and I remember seeing their parents at the Parent-Teacher Conference-I was the only biracial child with interracial parents.
The other kids in my class didn’t speak to me because of my “bad child” image, and I was unhappily reclusive for the rest of my kindergarten days.
My parents transferred me to a different school, and later on, they told me about the racial antagonism that they faced. I was too young to comprehend what was going on, but that was the first time I was ever aware of race, how it was perceived, and that it could be perceived as something “not wanted”.

The rest of my elementary school days were molded by that event, and I wanted to no longer be black anymore: I associated being black and white as an inappropriate mix, and embraced my whiteness more, even though I didn’t pass. Every field trip where my dad chaperoned was a spectacle for all the students, and I liked the minute attention it gave me.
“Whoa, do you see her dad? He’s, like, white,” a nondescript student would say. And I saw that my peers kind of reveled me in a way; the other black students didn’t really speak to me, so I began to see myself as more white, just accidentally black. During the latter end of elementary school, the racial divides got bigger, and this time, it was enforced by the students. Fifth grade was an explosion of hip-hop being more mainstream, and more accessibility to the Internet for my age group. All of the black students wanted to be ‘pimps’, a term popularized by rappers 50 Cent and The Game, and all of the white students that followed this trend were labeled as ‘wiggers’. This was also the year where I learned more about class dynamics and how those hierarchies played out during the school day.
All of the girls the boys had crushes on were not black, and the ‘good girls’ were the girls with two-parent homes, money to shop at the tween stores like Limited Too and Justice, and they were overwhelmingly white, and they made straight A’s. I wanted to fit-in, but my parents had recently moved to Virginia, and just transitioned from living in an apartment to living in a home – getting the coolest clothes for me was not their priority, but I still got the latest toys, which kept me somewhat popular. The teachers liked me, too, because I strived to make good grades.
The popular kids who were rebellious were minorities, had a non-two-parent home, got suspended a lot, didn’t care about their grades, and did crazy antics like bring pop-guns to school, or wore profanity on their shirts-the girls were also more developed and couldn’t wear the clothes from the tween stores because they had more shapely bodies. Teachers did not like these students, and I was too weird to fit-in with that group, too.

Middle school was an ever-evolving landscape that invited more race and class dynamics, and the teachers enforced these dynamics, as well. Those days were the days that I began hearing about who was ‘ghetto’ vs. who was a ‘redneck’, and white people began to separate themselves from black people. My teachers began to discipline black students harder than other students, and I felt like I had to prove myself through my grades. These were also the years where I craved being popular-I had a MySpace page, tried to surround myself with all the cool people, and I dressed like them, got my first cell-phone, and tried to immerse myself in popular culture. I realized that I wasn’t being myself, and that I was also “too weird” for those kids, and I became a lone wolf who began reading books and exploring my sexuality through romance novels (Twilight was popular at the time), and began listening to indie/emo music. I noticed that all of the girls who read books and who liked the music I liked were also overwhelmingly white, and while becoming friends with them, I didn’t have many other black friends. I began to be tokened by white friends saying that “at least I wasn’t ghetto”, or that I was “acceptable” because of the “white” things I liked. Once again, teachers reinforced this idea of me being “good”, because of my grades, and that I didn’t act like some of the other black people in my classes (they didn’t outright say ‘the other black people’ but they drew comparisons to other black students).

High school was even more dividing. People would categorize you by race; people would sit with their own race; people would make class, gender, and political distinctions on your race about whether or not you had access to money, prestige, power, etc. My high school was considered the wealthiest high school in the area, so competition was inevitable. My friends and I bought into these ideas about race and my identity, and would make comments about how I was “the whitest black girl ever”, forgetting that my familial tie to my dad in fact made me white-and with comments like these, I was still reminded of the fact that my inability “to pass” as a biracial child meant a loss of status, and/or credibility amongst my peers.
My head was vortex of trying to erase the skin I was born in through “acceptability politics” which meant constantly policing my movements to overcompensate for my lack of visible whiteness by striving to be as “good” as I could be as a black person.

When I went to college I went to a local university in the same area as my elementary, middle, and high school, which meant that the demography of the area was virtually the same. My first major was in music: I was a scholarship recipient and I specialized in vocal performance, my main focus being operatic works. I became even more aware of more white bodies inhabiting spaces of power in the department’s faculty, and how singing opera as one of the only black women in the department displaced me in many different ways. This displacement of my self-actualized identity vs. my academic identity was something I was accustomed to, but in regards to musicality and musical expression, it felt a bit odd.
My scholarship audition was not handled in the most professional manner: the school had an accompanist for me that did not show up to the audition, so I had to sing a capella; some faculty and staff were missing from judging panel; and there were no people-of-color on the judging panel.

Interestingly enough, after I received the scholarship, many people in the faculty forgot who I was over time, even though I was just awarded one of the biggest scholarships in the department. (This may/may not have been intentional; it was hard for me to be social in the department due to being a commuter student, and also because the full-time faculty taught instrumental music more than vocal music. Either way, I still was in the department every day, and I still took music classes, so I didn’t disappear from the department entirely.) The faculty began to remember who I was during my last two semesters in the department, when I began to work for the department’s office, and after hearing me sing for my upcoming senior recital. More opportunities to perform arose for me, but it was interesting to me that it took two-to-three years for these opportunities to come to the forefront.

Another sense of displacement came from singing the archaic text from many operatic works: many of the popular arias and art songs I sang from major works came from eras where my kin were enslaved, not recognized as fully-developed human beings, and from gendered text lines that placed women (white women, exclusively) as second-hand citizens. The opera that I studied was not about me, rather, I did not exist in the space of the text that I sung. My primary voice professor-(an older, white woman)-did not discuss many modern black operatic singers with me; we studied the works of primarily white women roles and not the roles of the major black women opera stars like Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. There was one mention of Porgy & Bess, one of the only popular black operas of the contemporary age, but our major focus was in the works of standout white, male, opera composers like Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, etc. (Another interesting thing about Porgy & Bess is that is a story of class distinctions based on frameworks of lower-income, poverty, and the “black struggle”. It does not hold the same class themes that are seen in many white operas).

In Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle by Katherine McKittrick, McKittrick contextualizes the history of black women’s geographies and the struggle to find an inclusive space due to the history of the black diaspora (i.e. the beginnings of enslavement) – the main context of this comes from the transatlantic slave trade which created a geography of “…black dispossession and white supremacy, which assumed racial inferiority and justified enslavement.” (McKittrick 44) This then created archetypes of black women’s bodies as conceptualized “racial-sexual” identities as “…spatialized, gendered, often public, violence; the black female body was viewed as a naturally submissive, sexually available, public, reproductive technology.” (McKittrick 44) McKittrick goes on to discuss how the precepts made black women’s bodies as “territorialized” space, meaning its ownership belongs to the outsider.
This territorialized concept also breeds a level of commodified ownership, meaning that the more able a black woman’s body was able to perform during times of enslavement, the more useful her body was to garner profit.

So how does that relate to my sense of place in academia? The long and short answer is that it relates to everything. The overarching theme of my sense of identity in the space of academia came from not having a place of fully established as my own-I began to learn through a white gaze, a gaze that encapsulated power, privilege, and prestige. My body, due to the color of my skin and my gender, was constantly compared to everything that it could not be-it was territorialized, although not in the same fashion that it was territorialized during slavery, but it was measuring up to ideals and standards that were generated by others with the same intersections as me. In terms of opera, and from being a part of the music department, it was territorialized and commodified (my vocal talents were seen as marketable, something to invest in, by receiving a scholarship).  
Even though in these terms my body was not sexualized in the same ways that slavery created, my body was racialized, and I was born with these racialized distinctions on me just because of the history of my ancestry.
What tends to be forgotten is that history overwhelmingly repeats itself in modernized forms-the concepts of what is considered “ghetto”, not appropriate, “bad”, all came from similar stigmatized biases that began during enslavement for black bodies: the underlying concept is the same-white leaders dictating what to label black bodies, without the voice of black bodies’ formulating their own labels. In terms of black women, this concept is stressed even more because of gender dynamics (women’s bodies were “naturally” submissive with a predilection to being dominated) which means that more labels were attached to black women’s bodies without any say against them, and this was lack of voice was dictated as “biological”.
In simpler terms, I carried with me stereotypes and distinctions that were never mine throughout different academic geographies. These non-negotiable distinctions were something that I became accustomed to when entering higher education, and entering the white landscape of opera. That musical discipline already had levels of displaced geographies that I was familiar with; I felt as if I was entering a space could not include me, because there were not many in the field of opera-in the context of the music department I belonged to-that I could relate to.