Bryce: Welcome to Beyond Travesti, a podcast where I talk to trans and gender expansive opera and music theater artists about old constructs, present concerns and visions for the future of our individual and collective work. I'm Bryce McClendon. I'm a countertenor, writer, teacher and creative consultant based in Manhattan. On this episode, I'll be talking with soprano, librettist, composer and author Jay St. Flono. We'll talk about their sense of self as a multidisciplinary artist.
Jay: It was only when I accepted the fact that I need to be able to use all of my creative gifts in this arena and not just market myself only as a singer, that's when I actually started to make money and actually have opportunities and to be taken seriously.
Bryce: We'll talk about Jay's journey to become a soprano after years of study as a tenor.
Jay: There needs to be space made in vocal programs for altos and sopranos who are not cis women
Bryce: And Jay will tell us how magic and folklore are crucial to their storytelling.
Jay: I'm concerned that we have gotten into a space now where the black experience will only be understood through trauma.
Bryce: Today my guest is multidisciplinary artist Jay St Flono. Born and raised in New York, Jay is a soprano, librettist, composer, actor and author. In 2019 and 2020, Jay was a Librettist Fellow in American Opera projects, Composers & the Voice training program. Jay has performed extensively as a soloist and ensemble-member in the world of Oratorio and African-American sacred music, including the Wendell Whalem Recital at the Hampton University Minister's Conference and Choir Director / Organist Skilled Workshop in Hampton, Virginia, the Brooklyn Ecumenical Choir and the Brooklyn Contemporary Chorus. During the 2019-2020 season, Jay also joined the ensemble cast for the premiere of Stonewall at New York City Opera, a work commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that helped further advance the LGBT rights movement in the United States. In the summer of 2024, jay will partner with Sugar Hill Salon chamber music in Harlem to present their solo vocal cantata. Praise Song for the Flying Africans. Their book, Black American Magic: A Feast of Food and Folklore, was released this fall and is available for purchase from Barnes and Noble Press.
Bryce: Hi, Jay. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
Jay: Thank you for having me.
Bryce: To start us off, I'd like to just ask you what brought you to classical singing to begin with and what keeps you involved with it?
Jay: Very good question. I had an early exposure to all kinds of music. I grew up in a very musical household. My mother was classically trained and my grandmother and my aunts all loved classical music, as well as my father, as well as gospel, jazz, pretty much everything. And I grew up in the 90s, so they definitely were not fans of hip hop. Classical music was a mainstay in my household, and I grew up listening to it on WQXR with my great aunt, who loved the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, and it was always in my general soundtrack of my upbringing. And to add to that, I also played clarinet and piano, and I was in choir at church and school. Yeah, I was—
Bryce: Lots of music.
Jay: Lots of music. And what keeps me involved in it is pretty much the same things that led me to it. It's the expression, the beauty of storytelling in this particular bravura type of way has always been very attractive to me. Yeah. And so that's what keeps me coming back and keeps me in love with it. Yeah.
Bryce: I know about you, too, that as a kid, you didn't really contain your interests to one thing. You were doing a lot of different things, not even just in music. And I know that's something you've retained as an adult artist as well, to a certain extent. So I'm curious about, as another multidisciplinary artist, how do you view yourself both across your life and now? Do you think of it as like a strength of yours that you're drawn to so many different things? And have you felt any dissonance during your academic and performing career between what you wanted to do and the expectation to prioritize and market yourself along specific disciplinary lines?
Jay: I definitely think that it is a strength, but I think that society does not understand how to deal with it. So it makes it difficult only because of other people's perceptions. There was no other way that I could possibly be as a person in this world without being multidisciplinary in my approach to the arts, because my parents are both multidisciplinary people. My mother was an actress, my mother was a singer. My mother could dance. My mother could write poetry. My father is a fabulous storyteller. He's an orator. All of the things that I'm able to do, I'm really a combination of both of my parents best qualities, and they helped to foster any interest I had in those fields from the time I was very young. And so there was a lot of positivity poured into me that just has been able to carry through with me into my adult life, even when things do get difficult. So any dissonance that I have come against in my academic and performing career, a lot of that dissonance was caused by things not related to my skills or capabilities, but time management, neurodivergence, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. In 2004, I was 14. And that's when I got started singing in the boys choir of Harlem with the Choir Academy of Harlem under Walter Turnbull. And those were my first professional musical engagements. My music theory and piano teacher was Warren Wilson, who was Shirley Verrett's accompanist for a number of years. I will say that as I moved into the solo classical artist expression in 2011, I had a very clear understanding of what I wanted my career to look like, and I wanted it to look very traditional, based on the models of the careers of the singers that I had been studying for a number of years. Prior to that, I was a neophyte. I wasn't completely aware of the dangerous financial position that the classical world was in even in 2011, and how that would dramatically change as we entered into the late 2010s, going into COVID season and now coming out of lockdown and dealing with a slew of issues that definitely predate all of us. I would say because my thinking was so traditional, I was limiting myself. I thought I had to make a choice, so to speak, to be very definitive about I'm just a singer and I'm just going to do this. And that caused a lot of emotional strain for me. And it was only when I accepted the fact that I need to be able to use all of my creative gifts in this arena and not just market myself only as a singer, that's when I actually started to make money and actually have opportunities and to be taken seriously because I was not denying my own nature.
Bryce: Yeah, for sure. So initially I had some questions prepared for our conversation about your shift from tenor to soprano, and specifically how that change might have had gendered implications either in how you were perceived by others or in how you felt while you were performing. But when we spoke in advance, you were honest with me that you didn't really want to talk about gender. So I kind of want to turn the lens on my own impulses a bit, if you'll indulge me. At the risk of making you talk about the thing you don't want to talk about, I'm just curious if you'd be willing to share some about the fatigue you feel when asked to speak about your understanding of gender. In which context does the expectations that you will speak about it come up for you and how do you react when it does?
Jay: I think the fatigue is caused by a general disillusionment with how we discuss gender in the west and many times as much as race can as well, and other things. I find that when it comes to being a musician, that conversation always gets in the way of the work. It's never talked about in a way that would uplift the work. It just gets in the way, and it's yet another thing, another obstacle, or another just thing. Amorphous thing that I feel that I have to deal with, because then I feel like I have to answer a bunch of questions or that even if I don't answer them, the questions are going to be burning in people's minds, and it's going to be kind of like a refrigerator running in the background.
Bryce: Sure. Like white noise.
Jay: That constant white noise. And so because of that, I made that decision to not talk about gender with most people. The shift from tenor to sopran. I was already making that shift before I had any personal revelations about gender. Which is why I maintain that my vocal shift is really separate from how I felt about gender. I mean, when I publicly declared being gender variant in some form, not necessarily saying that I was a trans woman although people definitely ran with that idea because of my presentation and because of the pronouns I was using, it was easy for people to make assumptions and I'm not castigating them for that. But sure, one of the things I did say initially when I became more forthcoming about it was that I do not really identify as a man nor woman. I just identify as a being of feminine energy. Take of that what you will. Those were my exact words on my Facebook post and I feel like nobody really paid attention to that. They just kind of saw me getting laser and they saw the flag and they saw all these other things and they were like oh, Jay's a woman. Now, along the way, when it came to singing, definitely being a soprano and moving in the classical space, I've had an interesting time because it is easy to gender me as a woman because of the way my voice sounds when I'm singing especially. So I wasn't exactly upset about it. I just kind of was like okay, this is fine if this means I get to wear a nice wig to church and no one cares. Perfect. But along the way outside of music I noticed that I started to, in essence take on specific experiences with Dysphoria from other people that weren't my own. And I realized that I was doing this in an effort to build community. And then eventually I had to really sit down and stop myself and really investigate why I felt these things and also investigate the emotional shifts that I was experiencing, where they were coming from, if any of the voices in my head were mine alone or if they were society telling me things. There were so many things going on that weren't even about me singing. So that when I did sing I had all of this weight, this emotional weight behind my stuff that really inhibited me from truly being expressive. Which is kind of paradoxical because singing should be the freest thing ever. However, singing is a reflection of all emotions, even the negative ones. While I was performing, being able to sing with women singers, being able to blend in with women singers, it felt very good because for the longest time training as a tenor initially felt like a really beautiful coat that just didn't fit quite right.
Bryce: Didn't fit.
Jay: Yeah, it was like, yes, this was definitely it says my size in the tag on the back, but the cut is still not for me. And I had spent a long time trying very hard to fit into constrictive hypermasculine ideals about what I was supposed to sound like. And then when I finally let that go, it was so freeing, because as soon as I made the switch to soprano, that's when I actually started getting work. There was something about me singing in this register that was more interesting. There was something about me singing in this register that was more connective, that was more beautiful, and that was more interesting to most people's ears. Yeah. And this is not to say that the original voice I trained with was ugly or less than, but there was still this emotional and, as a result, physiological barrier that I found so hard to deal with. And I will say that in my own vocal development. So the voice I sing with now is my original voice. It's just more mature. I just felt very underserved performing in a black tennis space, largely because the legacy of black tennis has always been very spaced out in this business because of the types of roles that tennis typically would sing. They were not keen on allowing black men to enter that space and be divos as tenors, black men as bass, baritones and basses, that's fine, because you can play the villain, you can play the old man, you can play something lascivious, you can play the rapist. But a black man performing the role of a hero was much too much for people to take. So I felt like I was being sort of prepped for battle by entering spaces as a black tenor. And deep inside, I was like, my voice can do so much more than this. And I feel like I'm getting cut off from access to that the longer I stay in this space. And also, I'm so tired of having to walk into the room and be called the black pavarotti. These are things people would say to me, as though it was something I should have been happy or grateful for. It actually made me feel completely devalued. So moving voice parts, it was rather easy for me to do because my actual vocal development was not like other singers in my cohorts. So when I was in the Boys Choir of Harlem as a child, I was a soprano/alto. They switched me in between. And this was at the age of 14. I was still singing very, very high vocal parts with no discomfort, no disease, no pain. My other classmates found it extremely difficult to navigate that they were already tenors and lower. I was not. I left choir academy in 2005. I stopped singing for a little while, except in church, occasionally. My vocal cords lengthened clearly to give me the adult sound, but they did not thicken as much. And it's that lack of thickening that enabled me to continue to sing in the high register without discomfort, disease or pain. I'm still able to sail up there without a problem. But I think that the vocal development for voices that have been exposed to testosterone, natally the tradition of vocal development does a disservice because it makes assumptions that all of these singers will become baritones with a few becoming tenors. And that's not the case. There needs to be space made in vocal programs for altos and sopranos who are not cis women. Yes, and who can train into those voice types post puberty and who are taught the same technique that cis women are taught. If I have been given that opportunity, I would be in a very different place career wise, and I would have been much further along, and I wouldn't have had this crisis in my late 20s about what my voice is doing, because at a certain point the tenor things just became uncomfortable. And now, mind you, I told that entire story without mentioning pronouns or gender or anything. So that when the gendered things came through, eventually I went through certain emotional stages that led me right back to where I had begun. It's been very cyclical for me. It's always about coming back to where I had started before, because my gender experience expression was really kerneled before the age of openly discussing pronouns. So this is like late two thousands. And also the feeling of that was based on me accepting my gender queerness. Because once I did that in the full glory of whatever it is, the fluidity of whatever that might be, once I did that, it made singing so much easier. And I told a friend of mine, I said, when I was doing this, I said, I'm not trying to transition from one gender prison to another, please. I had to make that abundantly clear to people. And I think that the tradition of a two spirit gay person, because as my personal identification, I identify as Afro indigenous, and my role as a two spirit person does not necessarily have to resemble what other gender fans of or gender variant people are experiencing. Shall we shall rise from loung performing. And I was able to style myself as femininely as I wanted and have it be celebrated and not treated as an imposition. That was the most freeing thing for me. However people felt about what I was doing or who I was. Not my problem, not my business. This was for me. And the more I did that and the more I cleaned space in that way, I was really healing parts of myself that had been neglected for so long, the very feminine parts of myself that had been abandoned for me. There also was a connection to my mother because she was a classical singer. She passed away in 2017. She really was my first voice teacher in many ways and taught me a lot of what I know about singing. Being able to sing in this register and then sound like her, it was jarring. At first there was a psychological block, but eventually what I was perceiving as a block became a strength for me. There were just so many poignant moments I had singing in this new way professionally, and not just in the shower. Singing in this new way professionally, getting money for it, it's a different arena of thought. I was healing maternal loss, grief. I was healing my inner feminine child self. I was healing negative thoughts I had about myself in general, and I was healing trauma from conservatory.
Bryce: Let's talk a little about your work. You just published a new book, Black American Magic: A Feast of Food and Folklore. But you also have a performance coming up next summer of your solo cantata, Praise Song for the Flying Africans, which is a sacred cantata based on the myth of the Flying Africans of Igbo Landing. I'd love to hear some about the genesis of that project and how it's changed since the premiere. And then I wonder if you could also speak to how mythology and folklore feature in your creative consciousness and how you choose source material for your storytelling.
Jay: Praise Song for the Flying Africans began December of 2022. I had been listening to a number of Bach cantadas. I was really interested in the idea of a sacred cantata that would incorporate the underserved, the overlooked parts of black folkloric history from the south. It really began me sitting in my room, hearing music and fitting some text to it. And the text comes from multiple sources. Some of it comes from the Bible, some of it comes from portions of the Bible that were translated into Kikongo, which is one of the ancestral African American languages. And then some of it also came from the poems of Phyllis Wheatley, who is the first black woman to have anything published in the United States in the 17 hundreds and is one of the most beautiful, prolific poets of her time and really does not get the shine that she deserves.
Bryce: Yeah, for sure.
Jay: None of her poems, to my knowledge, have been set to music by black composers. I haven't seen anything, and they're so so there were multiple points of entry for this cantara. But I was really interested in a sacred work that was not necessarily about Jesus, because I feel that the African American sacred music canon, clearly it comes out of the Church and has all the associations with it. And most definitely the black church does practice Christianity different from other parts of the world. But I was still interested in what indigenous folklore of our people could look like in a cantata format. So my idea behind it was to create something that could be performed by black singers and instrumentalists at different points of the year, not just during Black History Month, sure, but something that would be just as lauded and just as sought after as sacred music of Europe. Most of my work writing work deals with folklore. But the myth of the Flying Africans, for people who are listening and not aware of the story in 1803, there was a mass suicide committed in Georgia by a group of captives igbo from West Africa, whose homeland is now in present day Nigeria. The Igbo, they resisted captivity, and as they were led off of the ship in Georgia, on the sea island of St. Simon's island in coastal Georgia, they walked into the waters of the creek because that creek is very deep and it leads into the Atlantic. And they chanted, "the water brought us; the water will take us away." And this was an act of resistance against enslavement which they knew was coming, that act of sacrifice, because it was at least 75 people. So this act had ripples throughout the country because in 1803, the vast majority of black people living in America were native born. The slave trade from across the sea had not yet been outlawed, so any of the new arrivals were quickly acculturated into a long standing, I guess you could say, African American identity that had been in development since the 16 hundreds. So you have at least seven to ten generations of black people already here in 18 three. But the Igbo were these these Igbo, they were not willing to become part of this at all. So when they walked into the waters of the sound, they drowned. And eyewitnesses of the event say that upon their death, they saw spirits of birds lift from the water and fly back eastward towards the continent. And that story has really been running within multiple lineages of black storytellers in the south since 18 three. And it grew over time into this corpus of tales about enslaved people who had abilities of transfection and resisted capture or had moved from the plantation through the use of flight. Yes. So the flying African importance, it appears in all black poetry at some point, black American artwork, it's everywhere. Those images and motifs are everywhere. They're extremely important. And I have family that lives on St. Simon's island in Georgia where this event took place. And of course, there's much more to the flying African mythos than just that one of an 18, but it's too much to go into. But those things are extremely important to me. And Toni Morrison says that if there's a book you want to read and hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. And that's how I approach everything that I create. I'm really interested in the classical canon being diversified through the hands of black artists, especially black artists who are gender variant, because we are truly unseen by white people who are cis or non cis, and by black people who are cis or non-queer. So I really wanted to get something started about creating things that would speak to the nourishment of black culture and history and how it can be expanded and shown in different lights than what we're used to, because so much of the literature now about the black experience on the operatic stage is rather limited to civil rights. And there's nothing wrong with those things. But I'm concerned that we have gotten into a space now where the black experience will only be understood through trauma and trauma by the state. There's almost no room for magic. I really wanted to challenge those ideas about what black stories could look like in different classical mediums and bring our folklore to life in a different way. I've not really seen it happen as much. So that really was the kernel of inspiration behind that.
Bryce: I mean, tell us a little bit about the upcoming plans for it. What's happened already? How is the work developing and what do you want for it beyond this next iteration?
Jay: So I received the commission to complete it from Sugar Hill Salon, which is a black and brown owned chamber of music organization here in the city, founded and operated by my friend Alex Davis, a fabulous bassoonist. We premiered a movement of the Cantana in April at a concert in Harlem at a place called Lucille's. The instrumentation is for soprano, five string banjo, flute, violin, two cellos, contrabase and piano. We did not have access to all the so what I did was I wrote a truncated version of it that was just for violin, flute and bassoon and voice. We did that at Lucille's in Harlem in April and it was received very, very well, which I'm not shy of saying. People loved it and they wanted to hear more. It was an extended ovation for it. And that's scary because, one, it's scary to sing.
Bryce: Yeah, period.
Jay: Two, it's scary to sing your own music and it's also scary to do it in the classical arena because singers are not meant to be composers in this arena as the business currently understands itself. So I knew that I was breaking a lot of barriers and doing a lot of things that were considered to be improper by most people in, quote unquote, in power in this business. But I don't care about that.
Bryce: Well, it's also so funny because historically, singers were like learning composition. This is just an expected thing.
Jay: Yes, singers were learning composition. Singers were writing their own things. Singers premiered their own works. Singers had works written for them that they had a hand in writing. So the idea that singers only are meant to interpret is a lie. And we really got to get out of that because there are singers with other gifts that are being stifled in this business. Anyway, it was received very well, and so we are moving forward. We're working on getting funding for the full production of it, which is written in five movements. I'm learning a lot about orchestration and even the nuances of vocal writing. Yeah, it's really been such a pleasure to make music and to challenge myself. We're seeking funding and we're going to do the full premiere in June of 2024.
Jay: There - I talked about gender. Are you happy now?
Bryce: That's all for my conversation with Jay to learn more about them. You can follow them on Instagram at @jaysaintflono. That's J-A-Y-S-A-I-N-T-F-L-O-N-O. Check out the show notes as well for a link to where you can purchase their book, which I have read. And yes, it is fantastic. You can follow the podcast on Instagram @beyondtravesti, and you can follow me at @the.bryce.is_wrong or on Substack at brycemcclendon.substack.com. The best way to support this podcast is to become a paid subscriber on Substack. All of the proceeds go toward the artists who I invite to speak with me. Also, I'd love to hear from you. Any feedback or thoughts from this month's conversation, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's all for now.