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Washington National Opera Launches Award for Nonbinary and Transgender Singers

By Sara Schabas on May 6, 2024

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington DC. (Courtesy photo)

On May 1st, the Washington National Opera (WNO) recognized the tenor Katherine Goforth as the recipient of their inaugural award for transgender and nonbinary singers. Goforth will receive career training and mentorship as a part-time member of the Cafritz Young Artists program. She also took part in a performance at the Kennedy Center.

The backstory: The WNO’s new award was created in 2022 by the creative team behind As One, an opera about a transgender person’s search for self-identity. The team approached the WNO’s head, Francesca Zambello, with the idea for the award, who gave it the green light.

Why it matters: Being a transgender singer in the opera world is riddled with complexity. From the outset of their training, singers are categorized by their vocal physiology into the Fach—a German word meaning “compartment”—system. Within this system, singers are placed in stereotyped, gendered categories of roles, which they will be cast as throughout their careers. For lower voiced singers, this often means jealous, misogynist murderers while treble voices perform as angelic ingenues, witches, or fragile, victimized characters. This system is so full of baggage that some transgender singers like Goforth don’t even identify with the term opera singer.

While the WNO’s award is an important step forward, Goforth encouraged companies to keep seeking nuanced depictions of trans identities. She cautioned against companies using marginalized singers in surface-level, sensationalist casting choices that may compromise their humanity. Well said, and brava, Ms. Goforth.

Sara Schabas
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