Soprano Elijah McCormack is only a few years into his career, but he’s already noticing that opera directors tend to cast him as a child, “for reasons that I’m sure escape everyone,” he said, and grinned, during a Zoom interview. Taking into account his youthful face, pristine vocal timbre (honed via years of singing in Anglican church choirs), and the fact that there’s no risk his voice will drop in the middle of rehearsals, it’s easy to see why he gets chosen to portray kids.
“I was thinking, gosh, I love playing these roles, but it would be great to be cast as an adult sometime,” said the 27-year-old singer. “And now I’m singing a genderfluid dominatrix.”
This weekend, McCormack appears as the character Bell* Cohen as Lowell House Opera presents the world premiere of “NIGHTTOWN.” The new opera by Benjamin Wenzelberg, who recently graduated from Harvard University, is based on James Joyce’s landmark novel “Ulysses.”
Because of its length (nearly 500,000 words covering the events of a full day), stylistic idiosyncrasies, and grand scope, “Ulysses” — which is now in the public domain — doesn’t easily lend itself to a straightforward adaptation. But “NIGHTTOWN” is less an adaptation than a reimagining, said Wenzelberg, 22, who is also the production’s musical director.
The opera mostly draws on two of the book’s 18 episodes: the debauched “Circe,” which is written as a play script, and “Penelope,” the final stream-of-consciousness soliloquy by the character Molly Bloom, an opera singer herself. Several roles are expanded upon from their novel counterparts, including that of Bell* Cohen.
Gender has long been malleable on the Western operatic stage. A long tradition exists of “trouser roles,” in which sopranos and mezzo-sopranos (usually women) portray young men such as the amorous teenager Cherubino in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and the page Octavian in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” But for Bell* Cohen, who is based on the novel’s brothel boss Bella Cohen, gender flexibility is inherent. In any given production of “NIGHTTOWN,” the character’s name (it can be Bella, Bello, Bellix, etc.) and gender presentation are up to the singer and creative team, and the role can be sung in any of several octaves.
When auditioning singers for “NIGHTTOWN,” Wenzelberg made it very clear that roles would be cast according to voice type, not the gender of the performer. “I always say that contemporary opera needs to cater to contemporary times. As a composer and singer and conductor ... I care so much about it,” said Wenzelberg, who met McCormack when the two sang together in a California early music program. “And I really want to continue to push the capacities of opera into a direction [where] everyone feels like they can be represented.”
While the Cohen character’s amorphous gender in the book may be a product of an unreliable narrator’s imagination, it is canonical in “NIGHTTOWN,” and for McCormack, a transgender man, that feels important to the character. “I’m not genderfluid myself,” he said, but “I do relate to the experience that I feel is present in this character, of having people project whatever gender onto you ... .”
After coming out as trans in his late teens, McCormack didn’t think singing was an option as a career, so he elected not to major in music as an undergraduate. But with the support of a few teachers, McCormack explored repertoire written for castrati — male singers who were castrated before puberty to preserve their treble voices — who often portrayed male heroes in Italian opera of the 17th and early 18th centuries.
As trans people become more visible at large, so have several trans opera singers, and they run the gamut of vocal ranges and preferred roles. Because testosterone hormone therapy causes a thickening of the vocal cords, which usually deepens the pitch of the voice, trans singers who choose to take testosterone often must retrain their voices in a new range. Leo Balkovetz, who sings the role of the irreverent student Buck Mulligan in “NIGHTTOWN,“ retrained as a tenor after he started taking testosterone in 2019.
Other trans men singers, like McCormack and male mezzo-soprano Adrian Angelico, choose to not take testosterone hormone therapy so their voices will stay unaltered. Estrogen hormone therapy does not affect the larynx, so any retraining a trans singer who takes estrogen may do is up to the individual singer and their voice: Two of the most visible trans women in opera are lyric soprano Breanna Sinclairé and baritone Lucia Lucas.
In short: “All trans singers are different, and we all have different needs,” said Balkovetz, 28.
Balkovetz’s past experience working with a middle school choir came in handy during his own vocal transition. “I was like, OK, so now the person whose voice I’m training is me,” said Balkovetz, who has a master’s degree in historical voice performance from Longy School of Music in Cambridge. “I’ve joked that it was like giving lessons to a slightly more well-behaved 12-year-old.”
He also took several lessons from teacher Teri Kowiak, who provided him with a useful framework for practicing while his voice was shifting downward: “She was like, ‘Imagine that your voice is a room. It’s the same room, and the same furniture, but every day the furniture is going to look a little different.’“
The inclusion of a gender-flexible character in the opera was one factor that attracted Balkovetz to audition for “NIGHTTOWN,“ as was the fact that Wenzelberg cast according to voice type alone. “I think we need to be willing to look beyond the heavy gendering of voice types: I’ve met a lot of people who were genuinely shocked that HRT [hormone replacement therapy] would change my voice. And I was like, no, I am legitimately a tenor now,” Balkovetz said.
For McCormack as well, it’s “kind of a roll of the dice” whether the environment at a gig will be affirming or awkward, he said. “Maybe I’ll have someone come up to me like ‘Why is your voice like that?’ And in that moment I have to make a choice: How much am I going to disclose? How much of this conversation do I want to have right now?,” he said. “To show up for a cause or a group, you have to know that it’s there ... and I think a lot of classical spaces are not even at that point yet.”
But at “NIGHTTOWN,” the environment was such that McCormack was certain he wouldn’t be misgendered even when he donned a dress and heels to do his callback audition for Bell* Cohen. “I didn’t feel like a button-down collared shirt was the vibe,” he said.
Wenzelberg never intended to stand on a soapbox for trans inclusion in opera with “NIGHTTOWN.“ The most important thing, he said, was to give everyone a comfortable environment to exist as themselves, whoever they might be. “I just believe so fervently that bringing your voice to an opera production means bringing your whole self. I mean that term widely — your singing voice, your artistic voice, your expressive voice,” he said. “And I’ve said to this cast ... ‘I want you to feel like you’re bringing who you are to these roles.’”
Presented by Lowell House Opera. Sanders Theater at Memorial Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge. March 10-12. www.lowellhouseopera.com