Exclusive Guest Blog post for The Opera Stage by tenor Holden Madagame.
I’m an FTM (female to male) transgender classical singer. You have probably not met one of me before. I’ve been on testosterone about two years, use he/him/his pronouns, have had top-surgery (a double mastectomy), and have still continued to sing.
This might not mean anything to you, but think about how a teenage boy hits puberty and his voice changes. This is me, except as a 26 year old, trained classical singer. Everything I learned technique-wise about my voice as a mezzo-soprano is not useless, per se, but I’ve basically had to start from scratch with my vocal development, and relearn how to sing as a tenor.
In college I got a Bachelor of Music Vocal Performance as a mezzo-soprano. I lived and breathed being a mezzo-soprano, and felt incredibly safe in my voice. The repertoire suited me to a T, especially the Mozart and Rossini stuff people would throw at me. I could straight tone easily, my coloratura was easy, I could hit high Cs pretty easily, and could sing the low G in “Der Tod und das Mädchen” by Schubert with some planning.
Unfortunately I don’t have many good recordings from before testosterone, but I had the good sense to record a few before my voice changed. Here’s the progression of me singing ‘An Die Musik’ by Schubert around when I started testosterone:
And here’s what it sounds like now:
About 3 months on testosterone, I basically couldn’t sing. My range had been reduced to about an octave, and the quality was tinny, crackly, and sort of rusty sounding. There was a grinding that had been created by my cords thickening from the testosterone, like when a body builder takes steroids to thicken their muscles. It created an inflexibility, and my articulation in my coloratura was gone as well.
I became pretty deeply depressed for awhile, because I actually thought I wouldn’t be able to sing again. I was getting little to no guidance, because there weren’t really other singers doing this. Many people had told me not to start testosterone, and at this point I was wondering if maybe they had been right. Maybe I shouldn’t have risked my singing career. In my heart though, I knew that that just wasn’t an option. Not to be melodramatic, but for me it was life or death, so I had to push through and make the best of it.
Between 3-6 months on testosterone was when I started to get some semblance of a singing voice back. I was able to sing some songs, but there was a persistent airiness to the voice that hadn’t been there before, and a sporadicness to the articulation that I was absolutely unfamiliar with. And my core sound was no longer my female head voice but something more like an extended female chest voice. On top of that, every time I took a testosterone shot (once every 3 weeks), my voice would change dramatically. It was exciting in some ways, but also terrifying, as I still had no reliable information as to where my voice was heading.
Probably the most interesting thing for me at the time was that my head voice had almost completely disappeared, and was replaced by something of a falsetto. I had only experienced female head voice up to this point, and could only understand falsetto as I heard cisgender male singers singing it. Anyone who has heard male falsetto knows that although the range is the same as a female voice, the quality is utterly different. There is a beautiful hollowness to the sound, but without the string of chest that female voices can give to it.
This was this sound, coming from my own body, my own voice. It wasn’t my voice anymore. I didn’t know whose it was, but it wasn’t what I knew and loved, wasn’t what I had spent a hard-earned 4 years in university training every day in a small practice room.
It was distinctly in between male falsetto and female head voice, and my speaking voice as well had dropped to a basically genderless tessitura. Anyone speaking with me on the phone would have been quite agitated to guess my gender, but I was getting gendered correctly (being called the correct pronouns) more often.
After 6 months on testosterone my singing voice got progressively better and more stable, but very slowly. In retrospect I can probably say that it was acting like a young, untrained tenor voice. This is also what teachers told me, so it made it simple for them to work with it. Having already had quite a lot of experience training my mezzo-soprano voice in university though, you can probably imagine that this was a bit strange. My musicianship was still in tact, but it was out of sync with how my voice sounded. My diction was still good, my sense of rhythm still solid, I could still take direction like someone who had gotten their bachelor’s at a good university, but the voice just wasn’t up to snuff.
To say the least, this was depressing for me. I would wake up often and think, “I can’t do it, no one will want me, maybe it will always sound like this.” Some days it sounded better, some days it sounded worse. Retrospectively, I think that this is how every singer feels, but I simply didn’t know whether it was just “an off day” or whether my voice was staying like that. It was a constant anxiety that I needed to simply ignore and push through to be able to get on with practicing.
A hard lesson that I learned very early was that I could not do the same things as a tenor as I could as a mezzo-soprano. I cannot roll out of bed and sing ‘Dies Bildnis’, even though I’ve gotten up without warming up and popped out ‘Una voce poco fa’. I can’t have a glass of wine before singing (I know one shouldn’t, but sometimes it happens, no?). I can’t do a heavy weights workout the day of singing, etc. etc. The list of limitations is much higher as a tenor, and so is the tessitura.
I’m very comfy in my middle voice. Punkt. Regardless of whether I’m a mezzo-soprano or a tenor, my middle voice has always been easy. So much so that while I was settling into my tenor voice I had many people telling me I might be a baritone. This was never going to happen because I don’t have the resonance in my lower register, but it wasn’t a surprising response because most tenors do not necessarily lean into their middle voice the way that I’m used to, and the way that comes naturally. I’m hoping this becomes an asset at some point, but right now I have a very nice middle voice that is useless in 95% of the tenor repertoire.
Learning to sing in my new passagio has been the most difficult of all things though. It’s like knowing how to play cello and learning how to play alto saxophone. Maybe they have a similar range, but they are a completely different instrument with few similarities. As a mezzo, popping notes up to Bs and Cs were relatively simple, and I could do it consistently without much stress. Staccato coloratura was not easy either, but there was muscle memory and a process to it that I could rely on. As a tenor, each note near my passaggio is totally different, and requires very specific manipulation to reach. The resonance also sits in a different place for me. It’s deeper in my body, more in my chest and less in my mask. There is no fudging the sound that won’t result in a dampening of quality or pitch. I honestly still don’t have my technique fully in order, but it’s on the way.
Something particular that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the voice, but with identity, is my shift from mezzo-soprano repertoire to tenor repertoire. Before transitioning, I can’t honestly say I’d ever paid attention to a tenor character in an opera in my life except for Lensky in Eugene Onegin. He’s literally the only one. I of course had tenor colleagues, but clearly never paid attention to anything they sang, or any of the struggles they had in university. I knew tenor voices were rare, and that they were desired, and that I didn’t care about them at all. Mezzo-sopranos (and weirdly coloratura sopranos) though were something I was totally begeistert with. I completely connected with Cherubino, Nerone, Rosina, Dorabella, etc. etc. Even the roles that I would never sing in the mezzo-soprano world (Dalila, Carmen, Olga, etc.) were something I loved and treasured.
This obviously has bitten me in the ass.
I am now a tenor who knows nothing about being a tenor, and who previously didn’t give a rat’s ass about tenors. I have a weird and in-depth knowledge of mezzo-soprano roles and singers, which I often have to explain because it is truly nothing a tenor would normally care about.
That all said though, I also have no ego about the kinds of roles that I can do (since I have no idea what any of them are), and thus am ecstatic to sing anything at all, even the tiniest of character tenor parts. I have no false dreams of singing Lensky (as I wouldn’t have been able to as a mezzo), and am happy to dance around the stage as Basilio, Parpignol, or the Hoffmann bit parts. And if someone hands me something bigger, I’m just as ecstatic.
My hope is that by being very public about being a trans* classical singer, I can encourage more trans* people to feel they can come out. I want them to know that the world won’t end, and that they’ll still be able to sing. It’s been the best decision I made, and I didn’t have to sacrifice my identity as an opera singer nor my identity as a trans* person to do it.
Holden Madagame is an american tenor living in Berlin. You can read more about him on the following links: