I always knew there was something different about my voice.
When I hummed, it was in a “feminine” falsetto that didn’t go away when I started to grow pubes. Relentlessly bullied as I was in middle school for my voice — and for taking my shirt off in the locker room “like a stripper” — my parents were surprisingly on my side. They drove me into the city once a week to sing with the Singing Boys of Sioux Falls as an alto. I suppose that, when it came down to it, singing like a girl was less concerning for them than the gay porn I was printing out from KaZaA and squirreling away in my nightstand. (“It’s a muscle study for a figure drawing, Mom!”)
My family moved to the evangelical suburbs of Houston right before I started high school, a milieu less forgiving of my gender-confused voice. My countertenor became a party trick that took a back seat to my (pretty mediocre) baritone, which didn’t do so hot at auditions. I really wanted to be straight, I really wanted to be a boy, and I really wanted to be liked, so I worked hard to be heard the way people wanted to hear me.
It wasn’t until college, in Oklahoma, that a punk-rock barista at a coffee shop near campus overheard me humming and told me to check out Klaus Nomi. That changed everything.
Nomi, known for his performances with David Bowie, was a German, classically-trained countertenor who popped into the New Wave scene in 1978 singing Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart opens itself to your voice,” from Samson and Delilah) at Irving Plaza. His repertoire wasn’t only classical, though; his “Simple Man” is very New Wave. Klaus died from complications related to AIDS only five years after his debut.
His stage persona was intense, mechanical, and alien, but also deeply affecting. He wore a plastic tuxedo similar to the one in Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” performance on SNL, which, taken with his trademark kabuki makeup and severe widow’s peak, created an unforgettable, iconic look that underscored the “outsider” persona he worked to cultivate.
I went on to emulate his performance of Henry Purcell’s Cold Genius aria from King Arthur (a.k.a., “The Cold Song,” or “What power art thou who from below”), in my college’s Concerto-Aria Competition as a countertenor. The song, in which Purcell’s Cold Genius is awakened from frozen slumber by Cupid, is bone-chilling performed by Klaus — it was his final performance, mere months before his death, and the word, “Let me freeze again to death,” seem eerily autobiographical coming out of his sick body. As for me, I won the competition.
By that point, though I’d come out of the closet to my friends, I was contending with the ontology of my queerness, both as a matter of personal uncertainty and as a professional necessity. I went on to serve as a music director for a conservative Presbyterian church in Oklahoma, where I was asked to frame my homosexuality as a spiritual struggle to be overcome and sign an employment contract to that effect.
I didn’t come back to my countertenor until after grad school, when I checked “bass” and “alto” on an audition form to double my chances of getting a spot in a choir. I got in, and after singing with them for a few seasons, I was told to audition for the Grammy Award-winning men’s choir, Chanticleer. I went on to be a finalist for Chanticleer in 2017.
Countertenor culture is weird. For one, there’s the cultural conflation of countertenors and castrati, men who were castrated before puberty to maintain their high vocal range. For another, the range is mostly limited to classical music, and classical music culture is aggressively gendered (just take a look at Chanticleer’s costumes).
David M. Halperin’s “Homosexuality’s Closet,” a chapter in his 2012 How to Be Gay, refers to a profile on countertenor David Daniels by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times to dissect the two men’s collaboration to divorce Daniels’s countertenor from queer or feminine stereotypes: “There is something representative about the way the Times article insistently constructs a connection between Daniels’s gender-blurring, on the one hand, and his homosexuality, on the other, while following Daniels’s lead in refusing to acknowledge any substantive relation between the two,” he writes. Countertenors, even the gay ones, are reluctant to explore why they want to sing “like women” in any depth. I wasn’t any different.
I was worried that, if I began to investigate the parts of my subjectivity that were “feminine,” I’d find out I was trans. Then, I’d have to become active in a community I only sort of understood, I’d have to relearn the lexicon of my body, and I’d have to teach myself a new way to be in the world. I’d need to speak intelligibly about my gender with my cis friends, and I’d need to hold my passing privilege in hand when commiserating with my trans friends.
This was nothing new. I’d had moments of considering my gender identity throughout my childhood and early adulthood — I told my best friend in elementary school I wanted to turn into a girl so we could get married, and I asked all my friends in college if they’d support me if I medically transitioned. The oldest of my songs I still perform is about feeling like an understudy to both men and women.
And, anyway, look at Klaus Nomi — my career idol had built a persona and a career that made sense of his body and sexuality, and it seemed as if society had punished him for it (when he died, it was still being called GRID, “gay-related immunodeficiency”).
Fortunately for me, Nomi is survived by his heir apparent, Joey Arias, whose off-the-wall, gender-bent, Billie-Holiday-plus-dolphin-squeaks act has advanced Nomi’s alien outsider aesthetic into the 21st century through celebrated gay-culture properties like Wigstock: The Movie and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (Arias also performed side-by-side with Nomi for Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” on SNL).
I had the opportunity to see Arias perform at Joe’s Pub last month. Though I haven’t (yet) performed in drag, and jazz standards aren’t in my vocal repertoire, I felt like I was coming home, like I was at the feet of a master. I feel sad for the generation of artists, like Nomi, who are lost forever; but I’m more grateful that those who survived the genocide, like Arias, continue to do exactly what they’ve always done.
With regard to my own subjectivity, sexuality, and gender, I have more questions now than ever. I certainly don’t relate to cis gay men who enjoy being seen and referred to as “men” or use the word “masculine” to describe themselves on dating apps. I struggle with gender dysphoria when I shop for “men’s” clothes, but I’m still scared to experiment with “women’s” clothes. I “pass” as male and am aware that I enjoy a huge level of access and privilege, relatively speaking, because of it.
How does all this change the way I take up space? How I show up in conversations? What does it mean for someone like me to navigate the classical music world authentically and responsibly?
For all my questions, I’m inspired by the long view I get from looking to someone like Joey Arias, whose commitment to his aesthetic and performance style is fierce and unquestionable. If, when I’m pushing 70, I’m anywhere near as vibrant, self-possessed, and zany as he is now, I’ll have been forever indebted to him and Klaus Nomi for opening my heart to my own voice.
Header image via Getty