How I Navigated Losing My Voice As A Trans Opera Singer

This first-person column is written by Asher Maclaren, a transgender singer living in Vancouver. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

I was thrilled to take my first dose of testosterone in September 2019. A very kind nurse gave me the injection, detailing how I would do the same for myself at home each week.

I was told to expect body hair, sweating, acne, broken voice – all hallmarks of traditional male puberty, only I would experience it at the ripe old age of 28. But that didn’t matter because my chemical transition from female to male was finally beginning!

I was excited for it, especially to hear my voice – which I could only describe as that of a particularly sweet Disney princess – falling into the male register.

Listen | Asher Maclaren sings a Disney princess song before her transition:

Ideas0:29Asher Maclaren sings Part of Your World

This excitement, however, was tempered by fear. My breaking and dropping voice would impair my ability to sing and could permanently reduce my vocal range.

You see, I’m a classically trained coloratura soprano, which meant I could hit some of the highest musical notes with accuracy and precision. I was essentially risking my passion for my identity.

Prior to his transition, Asher Maclaren starred in a Vancouver Academy of Music production of Offenbach’s Cat Turned into a Woman in 2017. (Alan Corbishley)

Prior to my current tech career, I attended the Vancouver Academy of Music, where I trained as an opera singer. I had improved and shaped my voice there, eventually singing the lead in their spring opera (a shrill, feminine woman pretending to be a cat magically transformed into a human – drawing some strange parallels given my trans identity) before an injury does not force me to give up.

Listen | Asher Maclaren performs in an opera as a coloratura soprano before his transition:

Ideas1:09Asher Maclaren performing in Pussy Turned Into A Woman

While my high-pitched voice mismatched my identity, I was proud of it and took every opportunity to sing. Before COVID hit, that meant throwing karaoke nights all over town, delivering a smashing version of The Beatles Oh! Dear and absorb admiration with a confident vanity any cat would be proud of.

So it was with an undercurrent of growing concern that I watched my voice change. In June 2020, I had been on testosterone for nine months. I was fascinated by the changes I saw in my body, and most strangers now assumed I was male. The first time an Uber driver called me “sir” I was so excited I went to buy a bottle of celebratory prosecco.

The second puberty hit me hard: I was hungry; I was too hot; my boyfriend affectionately called my increasingly hairy legs “wool socks”. Despite the sweat and acne, my confidence was at an all time high.

Most notably, my voice had dropped almost an octave. This change, as I feared, was a double-edged sword. While my deep voice reinforced my male identity, I could barely sing. I was in painful musical limbo, with a tiny scale turning into embarrassing pubescent screams on any high note.

Watch | Asher Maclaren sings Der Leiermann during his transition:

Pre-testosterone, I had made jokes to my friends about how someone as vain as me would have a hard time coming to terms with not being “talented” anymore. As reality sank in, I found myself crying over the clean tones and high notes I could emit. My new voice would certainly receive no praise from drunken strangers at the karaoke bar.

But puberty doesn’t last forever, and it was the same with my second puberty. In early 2021, I started to regain some amplitude and started working with a vocal coach again. It was difficult and often unrewarding – an octave lower my voice needed a whole new training regimen and I got tired easily.

Asher Maclaren on his birthday in 2021 holding a card drawn by his mother of Dan Levy’s pansexual character on the TV show Schitt’s Creek. (Pamela Post)

But slowly I started to see progress. With practice and time, I was able to produce those same satisfying clean sounds, but this time as a tenor. The relief and happiness I felt as I regained my voice was overwhelming.

Listen | Asher Maclaren sings with his new tenor voice after the transition

Ideas2:52Asher Maclaren sings God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

I have not yet regained my strength as an opera conductor. Life and the pandemic got in the way of my training, and I sang a lot more on Spotify playlists than I spent practicing vocal rudiments. So far, I’ve taken part in an international masterclass for trans singers, released a Christmas album, and plan to bombard choirs around town with my resume before long.

I used to think of my voice as a prize to show off for accolades before it was put back in its case for safekeeping. Now I see it as a tool, to be perfected and experimented with and I can’t wait to see what else I can do with it.

Asher Maclaren’s transition is the subject of a Radio-Canada documentary, Passage.

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