Liana Runcie interviews soprano Alexandra Bork about her starring role in Metta's new opera I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown, at the TÊTE Á TÊTE Opera Festival 2018

Liana: You play a two year old in this opera.

Alexandra: Yes.

L: So what were your first thoughts when you were approached with this project? What has this all been like for you?

A: Well originally when Poppy showed me the libretto- well let's see-I guess I had completely forgotten the syntax of child (laughs) it was probably because I was the youngest in my family so I never really had the experience of having to babysit or really watch children that were really much younger than me umm so it was- I mean it’s obvious that a child’s vocabulary and grammar and observational pool are really a lot different but it was really eye opening seeing some things that that I didn't expect. So that unique challenge of trying to see what translates to an audience and what wouldn't would probably be the biggest challenge of working with this kind of text. I would say the most freeing thing about this was that the less I thought about it the better it translated, because a child wouldn’t necessarily, especially at two, wouldn’t have the ability to overthink what their self awareness is. 

L: When going through the script I was really caught by how the child never identifies as a specific gender. They speak of gender. They speak of girls, they mention boys. But when talking about themselves they more so use terms such as “I’m a pirate.” But they never really hark down on their own gender identity.

A: Of course as adults in a western context we very much when someone says pirate your first thought is a boy or something like that. It's interesting in that how the child is constantly going back and forth and in between things that we would associate with one half of the spectrum or another but in reality they [the things] technically don’t contain any gender. Even though the claiming of tutus being for boys or the girls making fun of the child for wearing a tutu in a way does polarize the gender in a way that none of the previous movements or none of the ones that come after do. That [movement] is the one that really sits on gender.

L: In the sphere of moving from historical opera and modern day opera I’m wondering about-I found that a lot opera historically has played with gender and has played with dame and with women playing men and gender has been transcended over and over again in opera historically. So I’m wondering how that translates now to the modern LGBTQA+ movement.

A: So one thing that anytime I say these things to either musicians who are not singers, or to people who are aware of opera but not the music sphere and they’re really shocked to hear that when we talk-and they’re like yes ‘Opera sounds like the ultimate gender-queer fantasy because historically it was based off of the Shakespeare times when women couldn’t be on stage because of the papacy and then women were played by men and then that slowly fell out of fashion in post-baroque era….and the castrati were replaced by women playing male roles which had been happening since the beginning of time as well BUT they became the primary replacement so all roles that were these kinda roles were written for women playing men you really wouldn’t get any men playing women in opera unless it was a male character dressing for comedic effect as a woman as a plot device. But until modern times-he would never really have an example of a cis bodied male historically be expected to perform on stage, as a character who no one else knows is female. And because of these roots it’s one of the most heteronormative and sexist and transphobic and homophobic art forms there is! And most people are very surprised to hear that. Again, because they think well shouldn’t this be really empowering because you have so much fluidity and like ‘there surely there can’t be gender issues in this.’ Well, actually, the big problem lies in these origins. So, people say well why is there not a problem with women playing male roles? Well that has to do with misogyny, because a woman can assume a man’s role because a women was considered lesser than a man so she can and her characters tended to be these lesser men. These young men, or confused men or ‘weak’ men by the audience’s standards who are in compromised positions or they were young lovers or they were fools or things like that. And again, in the trope-ness of that they can’t really assume full power.

However, people are so precious about singing and other things and refuse to reinvent it, which is the opposite of musical theatre and if you think of other theatre mediums. I think the reason why that is, may be because every single musical medium that came after classical music at least in America (which if we think of jazz, blues, musical theatre and a lot of pop styles of singing did come from America) were all in a lot of ways counter culture or rejecting a kind of musical art/performing standard of the time. They were evolving with the times and they had the ability to evolve with the times a lot easier, because the people that pioneered the art forms and the people that carry the art form today tended to not be majority until now; when the majority has co-opted a lot of those art forms and then you kinda see the issue of well, the art forms kind of lost some of its meaning but then the only upside is that because they're so popular right now things like musical theatre and pop music are able to reinvent themselves to an audience that isn’t just a bunch of old cis white men with money. Whereas opera is one of the art forms which would have never existed without patronage without government funding so ultimately who makes these decisions is the funders which are the old cis white men. And so those people tend to be the most resistant to seeing any sort of diversification whether it be gender or race in the art form.

Back when I was less aware of how I viewed myself in gender before I moved to the UK-I had so many issues as a soprano with people telling me you can't sing this repertoire or you can't sing that- and it having nothing to do with my voice but having to do with what people perceived about my assigned gender.

'the only way I would get asked to do any of these roles written for a-woman-to-act-as-a-man is I’d have to present as a cis woman in the auditions to be considered to sing a 'male' role.'

In the opera world there's a lot of 'male' characters I would not be allowed to play, with the argument that they were written for women. So roles written for women to play as men on stage. They’d say ‘Oh you can't sing those because they were written for a women.’ So yeah I’m basically not allowed to sing anything.

So even when I wouldn’t even pick opera but I’d pick songs written by Schubert or Strauss with no gender in them at all. They’d be like ‘Oh you can’t sing those’ I’d say ‘Why’ and they’d say ‘Cause that’s written for a women’s voice’ or vice versa they’d say ‘That’s written for a man’s voice and you’re singing with a women’s voice.’ Basically the gatekeepers just changed what the door is, conveniently.

'At the end of the day we’re all still singers and some people have changed how they sung because of their queerness and other people have not.'

So, I met some other non-binary singers and some trans singers and people that were both trans and non-binary and I’ve met trans non-binary and every shade of that gray area who were all in the opera world. And we’ve all shared our war stories about how much shit goes down and ironically they all find it so amusing but believable that the only way I would get asked to do any of these roles written for a-woman-to-act-as-a-man is I’d have to present as a cis woman in the auditions to be considered to sing a 'male' role. And nine out ten times I just get asked to sing the cis female roles, which I’m perfectly fine with cause they match my voice and they match my acting temperament, just fine. But so long with that talking with these other singers, it is interesting how different people have operated. At the end of the day we’re all still singers and some people have changed how they sung because of their queerness and other people have not.

I’ve had people tell me “Oh, if you were to ‘fully transition…’” which again, the word ‘fully’ is a hilarious term, “...then the head of the department wouldn’t give you such a problem cause then she couldn’t argue you with you about what you’re doing.”

Alexandra Bork

Alexandra Bork

I’m not as open about being non-binary as a lot of other singers are because I’m in one of those weird positions in that I don’t like walking into an audition and having people think a million and one things about me before I’ve sung.  

So in my case like people always ask ‘why do you use female pronouns in your bios? Why do you present as cis female in auditions?’ and it’s cause 1 -there’s only so many hours in a day 2-It gets me hired. 3- I can’t change anything about the damn world unless I’m actively a part of it so I don’t buy the argument that I can simply stand by and criticize my industry without being a part of it because nothing's gonna change that by just criticizing it.

If you don’t fit what they physically feel about you which is probably a super dysphoric thing-which is why if your queer in any way if you’ve anything queer about your gender-not necessarily speaking sexuality but just your gender-then opera is probably the industry that is going to be a very very rocky path. And I mean that’s cause it’s naturally going to bring up everything dysphoric about you. Because it addresses things that people constantly say about your voice, about your body. And things that don’t necessarily fall into other workplace things.

L: Where do these problems max out?

A: Oh it’s the biggest problem in the biggest theatres. The ones that have AGMA, the ones that have any sort of money because they’re most concerned about tickets sales. Whereas the small theatres or regional companies, yeah they’re more worried about foreclosure and stuff but at the same time it’s easier for them to take a risk because they’re probably not raking that much in in the first place. And the probably have a smaller board of trustees to get through when it comes to anything diverse.

L: So what do you want people to take away from I’m Not A Bit Like A Clown?

A: Feast your eyes upon the freedom of a child before you put all this gender shit on them and watch how you parent your kids-AKA stop gendering them so much. The way we took the piece was more about a literal child’s lack of baggage with that (gender politics) than trying to fight with it. That an audience member rather than just thinking ‘Oh that’s a cute way of thinking of a child,’ or ‘Oh, I recognize that in my child,’ is to realize that, you know, stop placing children in boxes. Yeah, that’s what I would say-Stop placing your children in boxes. Let them be kids and also these things aren’t just for kids. Like, gender may be an adult construct but that doesn’t mean adults have to push it on children and themselves.   

I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown plays as part of the Tete a Tete Opera Festival at 9.15pm on Thursday August 16th 2018. BOOK TICKETS HERE