DISPATCHES FROM THE OPERA WORLD
Guest Writer: Breanna Sinclairé
Breanna Sinclairé is making waves and breaking down barriers as one of the world’s few lyric sopranos who is openly transgender. She was set to make her solo recital and Canadian debut in our Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, presented by TD Bank, on March 31. This concert was in partnership with Against the Grain Theatre, where she was set to sing the role of Kelly in the world premiere of Bound this spring. Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 situation prevented us from experiencing this historic live performance together. So today, on International Transgender Day of Visibility, we’re sharing Breanna’s inspiring journey with you.
When I was five, growing up outside of Baltimore in Owings Mills, Maryland, my grandmother took me to see Madama Butterfly
at the Baltimore Lyric Opera House. I was absolutely enthralled – by the costumes, the tender music, the voices – and I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of that magical essence on stage.
I begged my grandmother to play me records of iconic operas and spirituals at home, including the great African-American singers: Leontyne Price, George Shirley, Grace Bumbry. I also sang a lot in church, often as a soloist. I then begged my mother to let me audition for Baltimore School for the Arts, which was my first foray into formal classical music training. I finally got to spread my wings. It was difficult – my parents were divorced, I had an abusive father – but this allowed me to escape to a safe haven, where I could explore my identity as an adolescent artist. I cried when I got in, and the rest is her
Breanna performing with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles
at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2017.
Throughout my journey, I've experienced moments both happy and sad. At Tanglewood as a full scholarship high school student, I met the late Jessye Norman. She looked me in the eye and said, "There's something special about you." That moment has always stayed with me and inspired me to keep enduring any hardships I faced. During the early parts of my transition, I was abandoned by my family, and spent a summer in New York City homeless. I was about to give up music altogether, but a kind angel helped me get a flight back to California where I continued my final year at CalArts. I then knew I was meant to persevere.
One of my greatest supporters through the years has been Ruby Pleasure, my former voice teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The faculty were hesitant to accept a student with a unique voice and situation like myself, but Ms. Pleasure convinced the department to give me a chance. She went above and beyond the call of duty, with extra voice lessons, coach referrals, patience and support. It was a risk to the Conservatory’s reputation, but she pushed me harder during my early years in the city. She taught me the gift of patience with disciplined training and reminders that a career in opera takes time, endurance and commitment. I will never forget her teachings and wisdom.
Shortly after I earned my graduate degree, I held a fundraiser concert for breast augmentation, called Opera’s Greatest Tits
. A gentleman read an article about this concert, and fascinated by my story, invited me to perform the National Anthem for the Oakland A’s – the first trans woman to do so at a national sporting event. It was a dream come true. I was grateful for this monumental moment, to sing for my Bay Area community, especially in an industry event that is typically very hetero- and cis-centric. I could not believe the overwhelming positive response to my performance. It truly made me feel that we are the verge of a new era of acceptance for trans people. I think even one generation ago that would have been a dangerous pursuit, but I sense the world having a change of heart and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.
Breanna sings the national anthem before an Oakland A's
baseball game on June 18, 2015.
I’ve had to fight against transphobia and racism my whole life, even in the classical music and academic worlds. Many opera roles have been traditionally performed by white women, leaving few choices for women of colour, let alone trans women. But overall, I’ve found the support I’ve received over the years far outweighs the difficulties. I face any challenge by keeping my eye on my goals: I have my eye set on singing Tosca
– I absolutely love the diva story, the score, the costumes – and see myself singing in major opera houses around the world. Ultimately, I hope audiences will see past my “transness” and see me as human, singing from the depths of my being.
Growing up, I never saw a role model on stage or screen. For that reason, I hid myself for the longest time. Visibility is something that must never wane. There are so many great trans leaders, activists and musicians that we must celebrate. I would not be here today if it were not for [trans activist and community leader]
Miss Major and other trans leaders that paved the way for me and the trans community. Our lives do matter
and we are capable of doing great things. If I can help a young girl – especially trans girls of colour – to dream big, I’ve done my job.
The Canadian Opera Company and other arts organizations in Toronto are facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the effects of COVID-19. If it is within your present means to do so, please consider making a donation to help the COC weather this challenging moment and return to the stage.
Photo credits (top to bottom): Breanna Sinclairé, photo: JP Lor; Walt Disney Concert Hall and Oakland A's performances, photos: courtesy of the artist.