Registering change: A trans opera singer’s risky decision to follow his dreams

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on March 14, 2018 4:08 pm

Classically trained in vocal performance at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Holden Madagame was a mezzo soprano. 

But today, he sings professionally as a tenor.

In addition to the major challenges transgender people face in the process of transitioning, Madagame, whose music career depends entirely on his voice, faced a unique type of risk. He didn’t know how testosterone treatment might affect his classical voice.

Today, Madagame studies as a tenor at Glyndebourne Academy, an international opera house committed to developing unique and nontraditional talent.  

He sat down with Stateside to discuss the decision he made to transition, and how it affected his opera dreams.

You can listen to the interview with Holden above, or read highlights from the conversation below.

Why opera?

“I think what it was about opera is I think it was the stories and the characters, which you can get from theater, you can get from musical theater, but it’s the kind of sweeping emotion that underlies everything that these characters have to say. It’s so much more than what they’re saying most of the time. Half of what they’re saying is in the orchestra, and that’s what I found really exciting.”

On the risk of deciding to transition

“It was a huge decision to make because at the time when I was deciding to come out as trans, deciding whether I wanted to take testosterone, which was the first huge decision I wanted to make. There wasn’t really any research as to the effects of testosterone on the classical singing voice. There had been a few articles on the internet, and I kind of talked to a few people, but the conclusion basically was that I wouldn’t be able to sing anymore professionally. But I basically didn’t accept no for an answer. I talked to some other teachers, and there was one teacher at the University of Michigan that I sent an email, and I was just in a bit of a state, and she replied very calmly and she said, ‘Holden, I think you should just go ahead and do it and maybe you’ll be a tenor, and how exciting is that?’”

“It was exactly what I needed to hear. I needed someone’s permission, really, because I was scared.”

On the choice, or lack thereof

“There wasn’t a choice for me because the quality of my life and the quality of my mental health was so poor that I wasn’t singing anyway. I was so depressed and dysphoric and unhappy with my gender that there was no other option. I wouldn’t have been singing at all if I’d continued that way.”

On becoming a tenor

“[My voice] is a completely different instrument, to be honest. I still have a lot of the same abilities, and I was a good student, and so I know how to practice and I know how to look at technique, but it’s kind of starting from the ground up.”

“I think being a mezzo soprano has brought me quite a lot that I never would have been able to see if I’d been, for lack of a better word, born as a tenor. Because, as a mezzo soprano, I’m mostly focused on the tone of my lower middle range. I focused a lot on diction, I focused a lot on stage craft and artistry. I of course focused on the voice, but it was really different. But now as a tenor, coming from that background of being a mezzo soprano, I have all of this wealth of knowledge of stage craft and artistry and diction and languages and the attention to detail that I took as a mezzo soprano has only helped me as a tenor. I don’t just think about what my high notes sound like, which of course is important too because those need to sound pretty, but there’s so much more to it and I’m so thankful that I have the experience of not having to worry about high notes as a mezzo soprano.”

On forging a new path

“It’s a bit scary and I didn’t want to admit it for a while. I was like, ‘Oh there must be other people out there, which I think there are, but I just, I couldn’t find them. They weren’t visible to me. Nobody had come out as a trans singer in my field at the time, so I really think I’m the first one to do it so publicly, at the very least."

*Stateside originally aired this story on Jan. 8, 2018.

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