Welcome to Beyond Travesti, a podcast where I talk to transgender and gender-expansive opera and music theater professionals about the old constructs, our present concerns, and future visions of our individual and collective work. I'm Bryce McClendon. I'm a writer, countertenor, and creative consultant based in Manhattan.
On this episode, I'm excited to share my conversation with classical singer and performing slash creative artist Katherine Goforth. We'll talk about the current industry landscape and the challenges of building a career...
It's very difficult in this industry to work out: is this happening for transphobic reasons, or is this happening for me as an individual reasons? Or is this happening for some completely other reason that I'm not aware of at all?
We'll talk about how Katherine does not want to sing male roles anymore, which is frustratingly still often the expectation for transfeminine people in the opera space.
...and then it's like I did these female roles and it's like, this is so easy!
...and Katherine will share a little bit about what revolution she thinks we need now in opera.
I think we all continue to need to liberate ourselves from acting in the role of dominator.
But first, some housekeeping items:
Since this is the first episode of Beyond Travesti, I figured I would lay out a few basic details. First things first, I started this for a couple of reasons. A) because I wanted personally to be in dialogue with more transgender and gender expansive people in the industry. And B) because I wanted to provide arts professionals a platform to speak about their work and their goals.
As of right now, I'm doing everything I'm doing entirely by myself. I apologize already for some sort of questionable audio going on throughout the episode, but we're working on it. I'm a one person show. Because of that, and the fact that I have other projects in the pipeline, I will be releasing episodes monthly, and the programming is going to be relatively consistent at this point.
But I'm really honored to have a great first season of guests lined up, so there's a lot to look forward to. Listen through to the end of the episode, or check out the show notes for some ways you can support the project. And now here's my conversation with Katherine.
Today my guest is classical singer and performing / creative artist Katherine Goforth. Katherine is the recipient of Washington National Opera's inaugural "True Voice Award" for transgender and non-binary singers and the Career Advancement Award from the 4th Dallas Symphony Orchestra Women in Classical Music Symposium.
Recently, she won critical acclaim in the premiere of Philip Venables and Ted Huffman's The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. Based in Portland, Oregon, she has appeared extensively as a soloist with Pacific Northwest based arts organizations, including Portland Opera, Artists Repertory Theater, and Pink Martini.
Katherine was most recently part of the team that developed and produced Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea's Story, a collaboration with Rose Ann Abrahamson, Sacajawea's familial descendant; Hovia Edwards, Native American flutist; and Justin Ralls, composer and artistic director of Opera Theater Oregon. She has written for Opera Canada and spoken at Boston Conservatory, Whitman College, and Renegade Opera.
She also recently performed in Expansive: A Showcase for Transgender and Non-binary Classical Artists, presented by Opera Parallèle and the Transgender District of San Francisco.
So Katherine Goforth. I'm so happy that you're talking to me for this first episode. I've been really excited about this conversation. Welcome.
Thank you so much.
I'm going to start every one of these conversations by just asking: tell us about what brought you to opera. And then: what keeps you involved with it?
What brought me to opera specifically: when I was a teenager, I was attending Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, which was a public school, but it was an arts magnet program. And we had six different art forms. Vocal music was part of music. And each art form had like four different levels. It was like: level one, level two, level three, and focus. Anyways. So, I was already singing since I was a young kid, and when I was 14 (so when I was in 8th grade) I got invited to move up to Focus, which never happened for middle schoolers.
Yeah, exactly; I was extremely excited. And what my teacher, Margaret Green, stipulated was, if I was going to join, then I needed to take voice lessons. So, um, I started taking voice lessons, and the teacher that she recommended, Linda Appert, was a classical teacher, so we just started working on Classical Rep right away.
And within a few months, like, I had started doing adjudications for, you know, like professors would come in with the local [National Association of Teachers of Singing] or whatever. And so I would sing for them and get really positive feedback, and I got a really great score at the middle school solo and ensemble competition.
So, I was not super used to getting that kind of positive attention and that was a really big thing for me at that moment in my life. So, I basically stuck with music and it's basically like getting into classical music made a huge difference in my social life, which is a little bit insane to say. Yeah, it made me feel like I fit in and it helped me become part of that community. And so it's quite a double-edged sword. One reason that I've stayed is being in music was a really strong coping mechanism for all these other things in my life that I couldn't solve So it's been really hard to walk away from music because it's like, well if I don't have that how am I going to fit in and how am I going to navigate the wold?
So it sounds like it sort of is a sustaining craft for you?
Well, it can be, or it can be like a really destructive thing in my life. Like, it's also classical music that kept me from exploring my gender identity and kept me in the closet for so many years. Or it's one part of it. And then there's also another way of saying that where I did that to myself, you know? And I think that's also an empowering way to look at it, actually: I was in control of it all the time. But I felt like I have to stay in the closet because I'll have no chance in this field otherwise.
And I need to make it in this field because I don't know how to make it through life without it. You know, so it... yeah, it's tough. I would, I think what I wanted to say is like: there have been so many times that I have wanted to walk away or that I've considered walking away. And singing is... To me, singing is something different than anything else in the world, in life, in the arts. Singing is really hard to stop doing seriously. It's a very essential thing to who I am, I guess.
Yeah, yeah, I totally understand that. So, To start us off, this year you were the inaugural recipient of the Washington National Opera "True Voice Award" in recognition of International Transgender Day of Visibility. The award was created specifically for transgender and non-binary opera artists, and it's going to be given out every three years.
And in a published statement about the award, you said, "I hope this award will mean that I am at the beginning of a career in which I can work, connect, create, and live fully as myself, and that we will model what our opera industry could be: a place where artists get to fully self-actualize and every person has a right to self-determination." So I was wondering if you could just speak a bit about where you are now in your career and what some of your present challenges are to working the way that you hope this award will lay the groundwork for. And then sort of zooming out from your experience, where do you feel we are as an industry now in terms of artists having this freedom and flexibility to self-actualize and self-determine?
One of the first things that came to my mind... this isn't like how I was expecting to answer this question, but I was thinking about like how we define the word "industry." Especially because like, as we're recording this, like yesterday, the Met Opera Guild is folding and, you know, today everyone's sharing that meme of all the companies that collapsed this year.
I think like how we define that word is really important. What companies are we talking about and what spaces are we talking about? And does opera have to be confined to traditional classical music spaces? And I don't mean like warehouses instead of performance halls, I mean like classical music organizations instead of, I don't know, other kinds of arts organizations.
I think it's definitely like, the more established a company is, the steeper the path to working with them seems to be. But I think there's a lot of different issues behind that. For example, I'm someone who has a lot of critiques of those traditional practices, so it also from that standpoint makes sense that those aren't necessarily spaces that are the first to welcome me. And I think it's very confusing, and it's very difficult in this industry to work out, is this happening for transphobic reasons, or is this happening for me as an individual reasons, or is this happening for some completely other reason that I'm not aware of at all?
I think my personal challenges: on the one hand I want to say it's really hard to find an agent who shares my vision, who will represent me the way that I want to be represented. But that's another thing that's not different than other singers. You know? Everyone searches until they find the person who's really the right fit.
It's also been interesting because I think some of my beliefs got challenged recently. Earlier this year, I would have said, well, everyone's just telling me it's not possible to be like out and trans and have a career. And what I mean by that is like... what I've been telling people is I don't want to sing male roles anymore.
And that comes out of: I got this opportunity randomly in 2022 to do a staged reading where I played a trans woman with Artist Repertory Theatre here in Portland. And that was this really incredible experience. I didn't know it was going to be such a good experience. And then later that year, I played Emily Webb in Our Town with Fuse Theatre Ensemble, which is a queer theatre company in Portland. And that was an amazing experience, and I was kind of like, Oh...
I was just talking to my partner the other night, like... I didn't realize that everyone has been personally connecting with all these tenor characters, all this time, do you know what I mean? And people identified with them. I thought everyone was just performing it the way that I was, and then I did these female roles and it's like, this is so easy! And I relate to the character! And I'm excited about playing the character, and I never even considered this as being an option.
So earlier this year, I would have said like everyone is expecting me to go back into the closet in order to keep working in opera. But I feel like I had some really interesting conversations in the past few weeks that made me feel more like this is more happening because trans people just aren't even on anyone's radar and no one has thought about this before. And no one has thought about the issues that I feel in front of me, (like, I want to play women). And I think there's actually going to be a lot of creative thinking around this and there are going to be companies that are really interested in making this happen.
And my hope is that it's, like... For me, I might need to be singing that in a tenor octave, but that for people who are singing in other octaves - whether that's a treble octave or a bass clef octave - that that can happen for them also. That it's not ever going to be just one individual, but that we're all going to be able to play the roles that really feel right for us.
There are things that are transphobic, but then there are also ways that I'm really privileged. For example, think about all the trans people who are not working in industries that are filled with people who are already allies, in one way or another. And, yeah, some of those people are allies in words only, but others really want to make changes and to change their practices and to work with me to find ways that I can show up authentically.
And so, I don't know, it definitely feels like it goes in waves for me. And I'll have a period of months where it's like everything I'm getting is negative. And then I'll kind of figure out the cheat code, and there will be a lot of positive experiences.
And one thing that I've really been focusing on this year is: who do I already know is on my side? Whether it's because that person is trans themselves, or because we've had conversations and they said something. For example, I just want to shout out Alexis Hamilton who I'm working with at Portland Opera on this amazing Romeo and Juliet project. She asked me to play Romeo. I was like, "I would love to do this, like it's a great role, but I don't want to wear a male costume."
And she was like, "Oh, yeah, that's totally fine. Like, what kind of thing were you thinking?" And we shared some ideas back and forth and I figured out like, okay, I have this particular pair of pants that I really love wearing, and we can build the costume around that. And so it's those conversations that let you know someone is safe to have the next conversation with.
So I've just been trying to reach out with people who, one way or another, have shown we're already on the same side. I don't feel like I need to convince anyone who seems like they're actively against me.
I know you recently came back from a tour with Philip Venables and Ted Huffman's, Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. Faggots and Their Friends, for listeners who don't know, is an operatic adaptation of Larry Mitchell's 1978 fantasy novel which imagines the rise and eventual decline of a fictional imperialist, capitalist regime called Ramrod. The New York Times article about the development of the piece has a quote that I liked a lot from your cast member Kit Green who said, "We're on this massive time continuum, and when things feel hopeless, this sense that time rolls on, that we are a part of something bigger, feels different and exciting. We need that revolutionary zeal, but what does it mean now? We should all be asking that question." I'm curious to know how these words hit you and how would you dream about or describe what revolution you think we need now, both in opera and around it?
I think that's a really good question.
First of all, shout out to Kit Green. Kit is amazing. She was a huge support and, and I don't know how to express how grateful I am that she was part of the show and that I was able to connect with her. Lots and lots of love to Kit Green.
I think that we all continue to need liberation from imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. I think we all continue to need to liberate ourselves from acting in the role of dominator, of enacting that patriarchal domination. This is something that I've been thinking a lot about when I think about this show, and when I think about art that's supposedly about liberation.
But like this term "revolution." Like what do we mean by "revolution?" Revolution is such a central concept in the American consciousness because this is a country founded on revolution. But the meaning of the word revolution... like we don't mean a Soviet revolution, right? We don't mean a communist revolution like they had in China. Right? We believe in some revolutions, but not others, right? We like to use the word revolution, but how do we go about defining that, you know? And so we have this imagery of revolution, this imagery of liberation, this imagery of freedom. All of those images are products of capitalism.
One of the things I've been thinking about a lot, with the process of how we made FATF and how we make opera in general is the idea of precision. Where does precision come from in opera? It usually comes from the director telling everyone that they're wrong over and over again, right? Faster, slower, move like this, not like that. You know, everyone has to move in sync. In other words, don't move based on when your body is telling you to move. Don't move based on what's right for you. Move based on what someone external tells you to do. Do you know what I mean? It's like, that idea of beauty represented through precision, that's an image that is a product of the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal system.
The word revolution, we understand within that context; the word liberation. So, for example, FATF, we have all these sort of... when they were advertising it, they had all these sort of chaotic party images. You know, it's like a banquet and it's kind of a mess, but it's kind of aesthetic at the same time. Like that's what liberation is supposed to look like, but that's what capitalism wants you to believe liberation looks like. Do you know what I mean? Like, what does liberation actually look like? What does liberation actually feel like? I think we have to have that strong internal experience of change. Revolution, this idea of turning - turning away from one thing towards another thing. Right? Turning away from your desire to act as a dominator over somebody else.
Yeah. I know from some of our conversations that you're interested in particular in singing female roles. You talked about that earlier in this conversation, including, or maybe even especially, female roles that aren't explicitly trans. Can you talk a little bit more about your vision just for yourself, and what you hope to do with your singing moving forward?
There are just some characters that map onto trans narratives really well. You know, where it's like you don't even have to change anything, you just have to let me tell the story in a way that's authentic for me.
You know, I keep telling people about the moment where Susanna says to Figaro, you recognize me by my voice? He's like, yeah, the voice I adore. Like... that's a conversation that I have with my boyfriend all the time. Like, how can you like my voice?
I keep talking to people about, um, Violetta. Violetta I feel like is, is so easy to map onto these trans narratives that we have in our society. It's just such an easy way to explore that, but also - like you said - I think it's so interesting to not use the word trans, because for me in my real life that's what I really want to approach. Just being honest, I care a lot about passing. That's another thing that makes showing up in the opera world and playing male roles hard. As soon as you start singing them, people are like, Oh, I see how you're like really a man underneath it all.
I can show up at a rehearsal and, before I sing, no one has problems with my pronouns. And then after I sing is when the problems start happening. That's another part of me that's like, that's why I need to show up in female roles. I need to have my real life identity match the work that I'm doing because I want to pass in both of them, you know? And so, it's like when I'm in Nordstrom returning clothes and I just want the cashier to treat me normal. It's like, in my real life, the more I just think about the word woman the closer I get to what is affirming to me personally.
So I think that's ultimately the same thing, but I also think in opera we have no choice except to be visibly trans for those of us whose voices have changed. So I think there's a lot of really interesting work to do around trans identity. I do think that that's valuable and that's powerful for me, but I don't want it to be the only thing that I do.
One of my colleagues said this summer, Oh, but you're really more interested in doing, like, trans work. And... I was like, yeah, but I also don't want people to think like that's the only thing. What I'm really interested in is doing women's work.
Talk a little bit more about how you approach some of the roles outside of your singing. We've talked a little bit in other conversations about how you consider the role of a director, for instance, as a pedagogical role. And you've spoken to me a little bit about your belief in the rehearsal and the process as more valuable, in some sense, to us as artists than performances themselves. So I wonder: speak a little bit more about your investment in process and other creative, collaborative roles that you've worked in and want to explore more.
For me, I came to this belief that our real work as performing artists is the rehearsal partly just because that's where we spend the majority of our time. And I think that the artistic product that we end up with isn't just a result of the rehearsals that we have, but it's how those rehearsals were conducted, right? And so I think the rehearsal, not the performance, but the rehearsal is what parallels what other people are doing in their careers.
Like, if you go to work in an office, the parallel to the office is not the performance. The parallel to the office is the rehearsal. So I think it was partly out of a desire to parallel to other jobs, but also out of a desire to talk about the kind of oppressive practices that happen in so many of our rehearsal rooms.
And how eye-opening it was to start working in theater and have people treat me just with so much more respect or respect my artistry or allow me to have some role in determining what's going to happen on the stage. I think like being a director can be so easy because it's just like, what problems are my actors having and how can I help them solve those problems? What does doing their best work look like for my actors? And how can I support them in doing their best work? Like, what if the director was someone who was actively trying to support people instead of trying to change them and force them into a predetermined mold?
Think about how many years of education singers have before they even get to go into a rehearsal. What does it look like to say, You are educated. You are experienced. What's your idea? And to trust a singer enough, to trust an actor enough, to trust a performer enough. I think it can happen in a lot of different disciplines, but what does it look like to just trust people enough to say, You're the one who has to embody this. You're the one who has to endure all the performances. You're the one who knows your voice best because you live with it and sing with it every single day. How can I support your process?
And it's not that directors shouldn't have ideas or directors shouldn't be important in the process. But it's the same as when I teach. I try to lead from questions. And this is why I think director and teacher parallels. And they can both dominate in similar ways because they both hold power in similar ways. It's not just that the director is a leader in the artistic process, but the director - in the format in which we work right now - has power over other people in the space the same way a teacher has power over their student. And so, I don't want my teaching to be about dominating my student. I don't want my directing to be about dominating my actors. I want it to be, how can I support you? What does your journey look like? How can we get to know each other? How can we build some trust here?
And there's this assumption that trust is just going to exist before we walk into the room. We're walking into the room with strangers so many times. And we're expected to have this performance of friendship between us no matter what happens. I just think we do better work when we show up authentically. And when we can say to someone, I don't agree with you, and that doesn't cause a rupture.
I had this teacher who... I would go into my lessons and say, my voice hurts. And that person would say, "It sounds fine. Don't worry about it." And sort of, that's like the core of all of my teaching is how ignored I felt in those moments, and how unimportant I felt in those moments, how misunderstood I felt in those moments.
It's been so important to me that I never made my students feel that way. And that's taught me so much about how I want to relate to other people professionally. I don't want people to be in this situation where they feel like they're trying to express something that's so important to them and all I can do is ignore it because it doesn't fit my narrative.
What does it look like to start with, that other person is an expert on the experience that they're having?
So I wanna ask you about the Barbie movie. I saw you had some things to say before you saw it.
I have tried to watch it multiple times. I think it's excruciating. It starts out with this thing about like, since there have been little girls, there have been dolls, right? And all the girls are playing with the dolls. But it was a problem because they only had one normative picture of a doll and now we have so many different dolls, right? It naturalizes the idea of a girl that plays with dolls. So we can get into critiquing Barbie as a specific doll, but it naturalizes, actually, this larger discourse about what a little girl is.
That's all for my conversation with the brilliant Katherine Goforth. To learn more about her work, you can visit her website at katherinegoforth.com or follow her @g0further on Instagram. You can follow the podcast @beyondtravesti or me at @the.bryce.is_wrong, but the best way to support this project is by becoming a subscriber at brycemcclendon.substack.com where you can listen to an extended version of this and future conversations.
One last thing before we go. I really do want to hear any feedback or thoughts that you have from this month's episode. Please feel free to email me observations, questions, challenge me, whatever you want at firstname.lastname@example.org.