Breanna Sinclairé doesn’t look like your stereotypical opera singer. First of all, she dons neither metal brassiere nor matching horned helmet and she’s not in the least bit the Wagnerian “fat lady” of yore. With her long, straight hair and eclectic wardrobe (usually completed with faux fur booties), she’s the kind of girl you see on Valencia at all hours. If not for her occasional soprano trills to illustrate a point, you might not ever know she was a classical voice major at San Francisco’s Conservatory of Music and, if you didn’t stop and listen to her story, you definitely wouldn’t know about the new ground Breanna is breaking in the opera world. The 24-year-old is, by her own estimates, one of the few (if not the only) transgender singers currently studying classical voice at a major music conservatory in the United States and has already received attention from The Wall Street Journal and Out Magazine among others for her unique story. Yet again, San Francisco breaks new ground: this time in the very traditionally minded world of classical voice.
Sinclairé, after a busy school year pursuing her Masters in Music, is currently prepping for the first of several recital-fundraisers designed to help pay for the m/f (male to female) singer’s transition. The first recital, Saturday, June 22nd at the antique store Stuff on Valencia where Sinclairé works, is punningly titled “Opera’s Greatest Tits” since, as she laughingly put it: “That’s what this recital is paying for! I’ll sing Bach to get myself a pair of boobies!” Sinclairé has already performed in works as varied as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges, Rameau’s Platee, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Bernstein’s West Side Story and is looking forward to getting to use her gifts as a singer to pay for her transition. The recent Endeavor Scholarship for the Arts recipient is amazingly candid about her life, her journey as a transwoman, and her love of her art form. “I’ve been to some dark places,” she says reflectively, brushing a strand of highlighted hair off her face. “What kept me going inside was knowing I had this gift. When nothing else made sense, I knew I had this voice and that eventually, it would take me places. I hoped it would take me somewhere I could belong.”
The Baltimore native knew she could sing at an early age. “In the church I grew up in, and you know how black people are with their church music, I was singing from a very young age,” she says, recounting her first experiences as a performer. “I was a really androgynous, feminine child and a lot of times people didn’t know if I was a boy or a girl with my big hair and pretty face. I remember standing up there with the choir and just letting go. When they told me I could sing, really sing, it was finally something I knew that was mine.”
Sinclairé describes her family, with whom she’s had limited contact since her transition began, as “traditional” and “churchy,” which was not atypical of the African American community she grew up in. “I was constantly told to act more masculine, to be a man, that I had to act like a boy. I used to cry with both of my parents ‘I’m not a boy I’m a girl,’ but that just made it worse.” A life preserver of sorts presented itself to Sinclairé, then known as “Bradley,” when she was accepted into the Baltimore High School for the Arts’ voice program. But instead of the Glee-type happy ending you see in recent media depictions of gay teenagers, Sinclairé’s journey was just beginning; there would be hard times ahead.
It wasn’t until well into her education at a Canadian bible college (where she was majoring in music) that Sinclairé came to terms with her identity as a transgender woman. After donning a dress and putting on makeup for a performance as Tina Turner (whom she resembles) for a school talent show, something clicked. Not surprisingly, her religious school did not take it well. “The night of the show everyone wanted to know who that girl was. When the faculty was told it was Bradley, there was such a ruckus. For three weeks, the school talked about it.” Sinclairé’s coming out to her family as transgender and her decision to leave college was also traumatic: she says her family is not currently in her life, which she points out is common in the African American and transgender communities; “and I got it coming at me twice.” After a period spent living homeless in Manhattan, Sinclairé was able to audition for the voice program at Cal Arts in Valencia and once she was accepted into the prestigious program, Bradley slowly fell away and Breanna was able to emerge as the woman she had always been.
As she transitioned, Sinclairé’s voice teachers at Cal Arts and the San Francisco Conservatory encouraged her resonant, clear upper register after she initially sang repertoire in the lower mezzo soprano range (including Bizet’s famed gypsy-tale Carmen). “I’d always had a very high voice, I sang tenor in choir, but I was singing much higher than that really. The soprano never left me as a boy in high school: that was Breanna in there.” Sinclairé is currently studying dramatic soprano roles. When pressed, she admits that eventually her ambition is to play the tragic title heroine in Verdi’s Tosca. “I’ll do stunts! I can take it,” she jokes of the role’s legendary final leap to her death. Sinclairé says her pioneering experience as a trans woman at the Conservatory has been very positive, both with staff and students. Since hormones are known to profoundly affect the female voice (diva Renata Tebaldi was alleged to have remarked that “a woman sings with her ovaries — you’re only as good as your hormones”), I asked if different treatments and fluctuating levels of estrogen had any impact on her training. “When I was going from pills to injections (estrogen treatments), there were times when my teacher made me power through and sing when I was a little shaky from the boost, but it was good for me to regain that stability in the sound. My register itself hasn’t changed, but I do feel fuller on some of those notes at the very top.”
“Opera’s Greatest Tits” will include the advertised classical repertoire such as “En vain pour eviter,” the famous “death card” scene from Carmen, and “Mon couer souvre ta voix” from Samson et Delilah, as well as contemporary standards like Audra McDonald’s Ragtime showstopper “Your Daddy’s Son.” The recital is becoming a bit of a Pride Month scene: it was even mentioned by Leah Garchik in a recent column in The San Francisco Chronicle.
When she thinks back on her journey from Bradley to Breanna, from homeless to finding her community in San Francisco and from bible college student to the first openly transgender classic voice major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Sinclairé is grateful to be where she is, but doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the past. “I feel like I have such a future available now I wouldn’t have dreamed of years ago. After the Conservatory, I’d like to study in Europe and start my career there. I want to sing in all the big houses: La Scala, Covent Garden, Paris and I want to come back here. My music and my voice are what got me through everything else and they are what’s allowing me to put on a recital to take the next steps to become who I am.”
Opera’s Greatest Tits
Saturday, June 22, 7pm-11:30pm
Stuff (150 Valencia Street)