by Holden Madagame
"My opinion is that you'll ruin your career," said my voice professor from university when I came out as transgender to him. "I would reconsider."
"There's no research yet—we don't know that," I said to him. Also, to be clear: I wasn't asking him for his opinion. I was telling him my plan, which was to start taking testosterone.
Before I decided to take testosterone, I had a hell of a time finding any information whatsoever on the effects of testosterone on the female, classically-trained singing voice (for lack of a better term). I encountered only one study that was conducted on FTM (female-to-male) singers, but it didn’t seem to examine the effects of transitioning at a professional level, and mostly concerned choral and amateur singers. Not to diminish the study, of course, as it was literally the only scrap of validation I’d found to support my decision. My teacher told me not to transition, my friends told me not to, my family questioned my reasoning.
"But what about your career?" they would all say. "What about your beautiful mezzo-soprano voice? You'll lose that, won't you?" I even looked up videos of a genderqueer, transmasculine singer in the UK, personally messaged them, and they even dissuaded me from starting testosterone if I wanted to keep my career.
Nobody really knew anything for certain at the time, or at least I hadn't found the information. Most people I talked to were making guesses, explaining to me what they thought was most sensible—opinions, in other words.
The thing is, sensible or not, not transitioning wasn't an option for me. For a while I thought it could be. For a while I thought I could try and be happy continuing with my career and dealing with my dysphoria in other ways.
This didn't last though, and my mental health deteriorated within the first six months of moving to Berlin for my career. I had started strong, taking some lessons, networking with singers, singing as much as I could, but in the depths of winter, I got to a point where I simply couldn't sing anymore without crying. I would try and practice, and would end up on the floor, or crawling under the covers.
Let me be clear about something here: this wasn't because of voice dysphoria.
It would be easy to guess this, because most trans guys have voice dysphoria, and obsess over lowering their voice and making it sound more masculine so they can "pass" (I hate this term, by the way). The truth was that I didn't have any particular voice dysphoria. Yes, it was annoying to be identified as female due to my voice, but I tried consciously not to lower my voice too much (as this, from the vocal standpoint of a singer, is very unhealthy).
None of this was the case, though. In retrospect (and even at the time, to a small degree), I think I knew that I would decide to take testosterone, and was mourning my mezzo-soprano voice preemptively.
For the record, I absolutely loved my mezzo-soprano voice. I loved mezzo-soprano repertoire, the characters, the timbre of my voice, the ease of coloratura, the ease of technique. My singing was by no means perfect, but it was easy, and I felt confident about it. It was another crucial part of my identity, just as being trans was. I had no desire to leave my voice behind, and to this day, I still joke that I am "a mezzo stuck in a tenor's body." When I wanted to take testosterone, this was a downside that occurred to me from the get-go . This is why it was especially hard to stomach everyone around me confirming what my own brain was screaming to me day and night.
"You're making a bad decision."
"You're ruining your chances in opera."
"Why would you fuck up your future just to take hormones?"
But the downsides I was expecting just weren’t relevant enough, since they certainly weren’t going to outweigh the benefits. If I couldn't sing from depression anyway, and if I ended up killing myself from self-hatred and dysphoria, then what kind of future did I have anyway?
It sounds dramatic to say it like that, and friends often say, "Oh don't say that, you wouldn't have killed yourself." But I don't know that that’s true, and they certainly don't either.
Amongst all of these thoughts, I had the wisdom to write to a former teacher at my university who I had always liked, and always trusted. She worked quite closely with the vocal health department in our medical school and hospital, and among the people I knew, had the best chance of having some actual advice on the voice after testosterone. While she didn't end up having any specific advice, her words were encouraging: "Honestly, just try it,” she suggested. “If you want testosterone, take it, and maybe you'll be a tenor. It'll be an adventure."
So, I started taking testosterone. And I actually had a fundraising concert to help fund my eventual top-surgery.
Within the first three months, my voice started to change. The quality sounded right in between male and female, and my singing voice was starting to drop just slightly. My chest voice became more prominent, and my high notes started to dissipate. It was depressing, to say the least, as I had prided myself on my voice for so long. It was exactly what I feared. Within 6 months I had no high notes, and my low notes were shitty. I couldn't sing anymore.
Some of my acquaintances were unsupportive about it, and inundated me in the ever-hurtful phrase, "I told you so.” But for the most part, my experiences talking to singers were incredibly positive. These singers ranged from apathetic (which is by no means a bad response in a professional setting, if you ask me), to wildly enthusiastic and reassuring. It was incredibly affirming on both ends.
On the apathetic end of the spectrum, colleagues simply treated me as another colleague, and we got on with our shows, concerts or whatever. Occasional problems would come up with repertoire that I wasn't familiar with, or tenor technique I hadn't yet acquired, but when that happened my colleagues would simply help me, especially if I explained that I had only been a tenor for, oh, about a year. And on the encouraging end, I had the benefit of feeling buoyed up and supported by members of my community.
Something worth noting is the fact that, through transitioning, I have actually put myself into a rarer, and ultimately more desirable Fach (voice category) than I was in before. A lyric mezzo-soprano is not necessarily rare, and no opera houses are itching to find one. They have a surplus. Tenors though, almost everyone has a lack of, and are willing to pay for. This was pure luck that I am a tenor (a very untrained tenor, but hey, a tenor), and have gotten both praise and flack for it.
For example, tenors are the butt of all jokes in the singing world. It is a widely known (and semi-correct) stereotype that tenors are annoying, narcissistic, self-centered, bitchy, and ultimately big ole divas. Because I am now a tenor, I'm now the butt of a lot of tenor jokes, and honestly, it kind of hurts my feelings. I still don't feel like a tenor, and I don't act like a tenor. I honestly act like a mezzo still, and have a lot of the musicality from being a mezzo as well. I know I'm a sensitive boy with lots of feelings but it has been something that has come up since transitioning.
That said, I'm singing regularly, which is all I could have asked for.
Holden Madagame is a trans American opera singer, activist, and writer based in Berlin, Germany. He finds it vital to share his experiences as an openly out trans, queer opera singer, and to educate people on the wonders of feminism. When he isn't singing in an opera or chatting about feminism, he enjoys writing short fiction, and making a damn good cup of coffee.