by CN Lester
as part of the Living Opera Series
12 June 2019

When I began the serious work of focusing on classical singing during my Masters, I knew of no other trans opera singers. Not on my course, not in wider students circles, not in the industry as a whole. I had been out and active as an LGBTI activist since my mid teens, and working hard on pursuing a career in music since I had first learnt that that was a possibility – but the idea that these two crucial parts of me could be combined seemed near impossible. This was in 2008 – six years before Time Magazine’s 2014 “Trans tipping point” – and the idea that, ten years in the future, I might not only know of but have worked with several other trans opera singers would have seemed like a dream.

This absence isn’t because opera as an art form is inherently unsuited to gender exploration and subversion – quite the contrary.  One of the reasons I fell in love with opera is because of its rich tradition of gender play and confusion. My undergraduate dissertation was an examination of transgender potentialities in opera history: a glorious excuse to indulge in Handel, read the works of the new musicologists, and to build a hope that someone like me could find their niche as a performer. The possibilities that opera opens to us, as a space both rooted in and outside of real life – a place to dream, a commentary box, an arena in which to voice the unvoicable - are tremendous gifts. Beyond the music, I believe that this is one of the main reasons why opera has exerted such a tremendous pull over many queer people.

However, if the art form itself has exerted a pull, then the industry and educational organisations around it have pushed back. Not just against me, but against every single trans singer I know, have worked with, and have spoken to. Some of these musicians are still working and studying, but many more have stopped performing at a professional level, moving instead into teaching, research, or a different field altogether. Speaking about this is difficult, particularly when you feel alone. There is a widespread belief that this industry functions as a meritocracy; for a young musician who has experienced discrimination - sometimes outright abuse - it can be hard to believe that we will be believed, and not just treated as though we’re trying to find excuses for failing. We fear, often with good reason, that we will become un-hireable. We worry that, already being treated as outsiders, we will be further alienated.

But if the industry as a whole wants to make good on the idea that music is for everyone – that it is the music, the talent, the art that matters most – then it needs to support a drive to inclusivity and acceptance that goes beyond empty diversity statements. And before we can make good on our problems, we have to name them and understand them. For my money, these problems present in two main ways - ways that feed on each other in a depressingly symbiotic loop: interpersonal discrimination, and structural exclusion.

The interpersonal discrimination is easier to spot, if not always easy to combat. Over the past few years, I have spoken to more trans musicians (trans singers in particular) than I had ever hoped I would know. All have emphasised the supportive people in their lives, the teachers, colleagues, directors and coaches who have believed in us and helped up to succeed. But every one of them has also spoken of the other people who, through ignorance, lack of care or outright malice, have made our lives worse. Interactions with these people are more common, and can be more damaging, than most cis (not trans) people imagine.

At one extreme are cases of insulting and exclusionary behaviour, sometimes turning into outright harassment. It’s being told that there’s no place for ‘people like you’ in the music industry or educational institutions, being humiliated in masterclasses, and being cross-examined and insulted in auditions. There are educators at universities and colleges who tell aspiring singers that we should give up, that no one will hire us, that our ambitions are laughable and our talent doesn’t matter. It is being treated as though we are something shameful and disgusting.

But it’s also the discrimination that comes under the guise of curiosity, and the ways in which unexamined behaviour from those around us can diminish and exclude us. I have become used to new colleagues asking about my genitals: what they are, am I going to get them altered, “what are you really?”. I get asked how I have sex, told that I’ll have to “make up my mind”, am misgendered, and turned into an awkward joke. Not everyone does this – but not everyone has to. It happens enough, and with sufficient regularity, to poison a great many working environments, and make it hard to connect with my colleagues, to give the best of myself, and to feel safe and supported at work.

These instances of personal ignorance and cruelty speak to a broader fact: that society in general, and the music industry in particular, is still profoundly hostile to trans and/or gender non-conforming people. It’s the structure that supports the acceptability of the personal abuse we suffer, which is strengthened in turn by that personal abuse. Two examples in particular demonstrate this effect, the way in which the drip drip drip of continual discrimination joins together into a steady stream of damage.

The first example is that of barriers to entry. Most audition requirements for early career singers specify the need to be in training, or have recently trained, at a music college. On the surface, this makes sense as a form of quality control. But when we start looking at what this means for trans applicants, we can see how ongoing discrimination can stop a career before it’s even properly begun.

Life for trans people, worldwide and in the UK, is rarely easy, and young people represent a particularly vulnerable subgroup. This is doubly true for young trans people facing multiple and intersecting points of prejudice: trans people of colour, disabled trans people, working class trans people (to give some examples). When we look at reports into young people’s experiences from Stonewall¹ and the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights², we can see just how hard it is for a young trans person to get to a point where they could even apply to a conservatoire. Two thirds of trans teenagers are bullied at school – often by teachers as well as pupils – and many are further abused at home, leading to shockingly high rates of homelessness. Mental illness and suicidal behaviour are common. Suffering in one area increases the likelihood of suffering in another. How many young trans people, through no fault of their own, will be disqualified for a chance of a higher education because no one has ever given them a chance?

Many trans people have to take a roundabout route to reach their goals – I know that I certainly have. For trans musicians, that can mean taking a longer time or starting later – maybe as a result of trauma, maybe because of the additional time needed to find supportive teachers, maybe because of a lack of family support. Some of us will have trained privately, rather than through an institution. Some of us will have taken a sideways step into music after years in another career.

If we want to include these musicians in young artists’ schemes, it’s worth thinking of what we actually mean when we specify certain entry requirements. Is it really necessary to have attended a music college? Or is that requirement a shorthand for saying that an applicant must show a certain level of training, or talent, and of work ethic? If we don’t want to exclude talented applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, then we have to work out a better way of testing for that talent – the musical equivalent of the tech industry’s ‘technical test’. Audio samples in the first instance, demonstrating a range of styles and technical challenges, would be a place to start.

My second example of the real world impact of discrimination is the audition itself. Let’s say that we’ve changed our entry requirements, and more trans singers than ever are getting through to the first rounds of auditions for training schemes, productions and competitions. But what happens when they step in front of the audition panel?

Inevitably, there is a clash between the singer as they are – how they sound, how they act, and how they look – and the biases, overt and implicit, of the panel. Overt transphobia will certainly be present on occasion, and it is worth pointing out that those who are bigoted will not always make that clear to their colleagues. But even with the best of intentions, we are all liable to reflecting the negative beliefs about other people that we absorb through a prejudiced culture (please see Project Implicit for more information: Groundbreaking 2014 research from the University of Saskatchewan looked into attitudes held towards trans people by cis people – educated, nominally open-minded cis people, living in a progressive country. The attitudes expressed were overwhelmingly negative: popular words used to describe trans people were “odd”, “weird” and “gross”. These findings certainly correspond with what I’ve experienced through my work as an LGBTI educator. Many people believe that they are open-minded about trans people; many of those same people then demonstrate that they consider us through the lens of confusion or pity, but don’t hold us up as true equals. While we may want a character on stage to provoke pity, disgust, or confusion in an audience, those are rarely the characteristics looked for in an audition. When singers are expected to be charismatic and appealing, and trans people are often seen as sad and off-putting, you can see where the problems lies.

We could make two changes to the audition process to help mitigate this problem. The first is through regular, up-to-date training and goal setting for arts and educational organisations, with a focus on breaking down implicit bias, and understanding and working with the different challenges and advantages that different groups will bring to the table. The second is to outsmart our biases: through blind auditions, and through diversifying the audition panel itself. While blind auditions³ are obviously not as straightforward for opera as they are for instrumental selection, they would be invaluable at the first round, and give more unusual candidates a real chance of being assessed on their talent. As for the panel itself? It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that, with the best will in the world, all of us have a tendency to favour others like us, a tendency that negatively impacts on our hiring choices⁴. While we are not yet at a point where we can expect to regularly see trans musicians on audition or judging panels, even making sure that panels are not all male, all white, and all of the same age would be a big step towards genuine inclusivity. 

So much for the changes that cis people can make – but what can trans singers themselves do? The most important thing I can say is: find your people. By that I don’t just mean fellow trans musicians, although we’re definitely part of it – but all of the musicians who will support you as you are, believe you as you are, and help you to succeed. Social media can be a great place to start: find the trans singers who are already out and working, see whom we’re working with, and make contact. Reach out to people a step ahead of you – we have been where you are now, and we want to help. Ask for recommendations, put on your own shows, link up to trans and trans-friendly artists in different fields – visual arts, theatre – and collaborate.

There are a great many changes the world of opera needs to make to be truly equal and inclusive. But what brings me hope – the message I wish I could send back to time to myself, when I thought I was the only one – is that those changes are being made by people all across the world. We don’t have to do this alone. And the more of us who do the work, the faster the change comes.

CN Lester is a mezzo-soprano, composer, activist, doctoral student of music, and author. Their book, Trans Like Me, has been listed by the New York Times as one of the three most important books about trans rights and gender identity. Engagements include Barbican, Snape Maltings, South Bank Centre, Tete a Tete Festival, Hampstead Garden Opera, Handel House, and Glass Ceiling Orchestra. They curate the cross-genre arts event Transpose for Barbican, and will next be appearing as Donna Elvira in a radical reimagining of Don Giovanni for Grimeborn Opera Festival. 

For more information about CN Lester’s work, please visit





Cover Image: CN Lester as Nerone for Hampstead Garden Opera's L'incoronazione di Poppea, photograph by Laurent Compagnon
Inset Image: CN Lester by Raphael Neal