María’s Voice | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today’s story takes place in the temple of Argentinean opera. An architectural jewel from the early years of the 20th century located in the center of the city of Buenos Aires: the Colón Theater.
Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, María Callas, Luciano Pavarotti— all the great opera singers have stepped onto this stage. Experts say the Colón has unique acoustics. One of the best in the world, at the level of theaters such as La Scala in Milan, the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan in New York.
[María Castillo]: When I sat in that room, I had the feeling that the sounds could touch my body.
[Daniel]: María Castillo de Lima is a singer in the theater choir and recalls the first time she performed there:
[María]: The moment the curtain opens and you find yourself in that immensity. It’s like being, I don’t know, in space, you get that feeling of being outside the Earth and seeing the vastness of the universe.
[Daniel]: The Colón, a universe that can accommodate almost 3 thousand people, a generally select, elegant, and elitist public capable of booing a performance that they do not consider “up to the standard” of the theater. Capable even of getting annoyed if someone in the audience, less accustomed to etiquette, applauds when they shouldn’t.
It is a place outside of time, where the classical dominates: well-known works, established artists, traditional performances. A theater that tries to open up to other audiences, but is not entirely successful.
María came to that world from a completely different one. She was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1985, and grew up with the hits of Roberto Carlos that her mother, Eunice, listened to…
[María]: And I remember my mother sang, and when I was two years old, two and a half years old, I also liked to sing.
[Daniel]: She tried to imitate her mother, and everyone in the family thought it was very cute. And then there was the musical influence of her Argentinean father, Eusebio. María was very young when the family moved from Brazil to a neighborhood on the outskirts of La Plata, in the province of Buenos Aires, but she remembers the get-togethers at her grandmother’s house, where her uncles played guitars and the accordion.
And of course, there was the radio. She listened to it at home.
One day she turned the dial countless times. Until she found a station that fascinated her:
[Radio Clásica]: La 96.7. Sintonía clásica in FM.
[Daniel]: Classical Radio.
[María]: And I loved the symphonic parts or the instrumental concertos.
[Daniel]: There was never enough money at home. Her father was a bricklayer and her mother did the housework and raised the three children. But with a lot of effort, they had managed to buy a small child’s keyboard, and María made it hers. She spent hours at home trying to make it sound like the pianos she heard on Radio Clásica.
Listening to that radio station, she also learned a lot about opera. Soon she began to excel in music at the public school she attended, and her teacher told her about a free conservatory where she could enroll. Her parents thought it was a good idea, so she signed up for piano.
She was just starting and already her teachers were impressed. María was so enthusiastic that by the age of 15 she was beginning to compose her first opera and was looking for singers among the most advanced students.
[María]: And well, that was when they nicknamed me the little Mozart of the conservatory.
[Daniel]: “Little Mozart.” But for María this was not enough. She wanted not only to compose, not only to play the piano. She also wanted to sing. So, some time later, she stopped specializing in piano and switched to singing.
As a singer María also stood out. By age 20, she was auditioning to join the choir of the Teatro Argentino de La Plata, another of the most prestigious opera houses in the country.
[María]: I remember I was wearing a black suit, a black shirt, my hair slicked back with gel.
[Daniel]: She sang “Federico’s Lament,” an aria—that is, a solo fragment— from the opera “Arlesiana,” by Italian composer Francesco Cilea. This is María singing part of that aria.
[María]: And I remember the surprised looks on the faces of the judges, exchanging looks.
[Daniel]: When she finished singing, she knew she had done it right. She had to wait for the verdict of the judges, but some colleagues were already giving her thumbs up. As she left the room, surrounded by murmuring, she overheard a renowned conductor asking her colleagues:
[María]: Where did this boy come from, are his parents musicians?
[Daniel]: The boy was María. A privileged voice that drew attention for its definition and maturity. Her register then was tenor. Her identity, male. But back then it wasn’t yet something she thought much about.
[María]: I mean, I saw myself as a person. I didn’t identify with anything. My gender identity was music; it was the only thing that interested me.
[Daniel]: And she was so good that she easily got the position of tenor at the Teatro Argentino de La Plata, where she sang for two years.
Music came first, but the personal questions kept coming up. Gradually, she realized that her identity was female.
And this was a turning point, because when María figured out that she was María, she also knew—immediately—that she was not willing to live her identity if that meant ceasing to be a singer. To be María, she had to have María’s voice.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Journalist Marina Abiuso, together with our producer Aneris Casassus, reported this story. Here’s Marina.
[Marina Abiuso]: First of all, let’s have a brief lesson on singing. The first thing to know is that voice types are broken down by gender. There are some exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases a person’s sex is decisive when classifying a voice. It is a biological matter, a matter of vocal cords. There are three levels considered male and three female. They may sound similar to many, but the trained ear hears vast differences. María and the singers from the Royal Opera House in London explain to us:
[María]: For men, the bass register is the lowest range:
[María]: The baritone register is the middle range:
[Marina]: And the tenor register is the highest range:
[Marina]: In women the lowest range is contralto:
[Marina]: Then comes mezzo-soprano:
[Marina]: And the highest voice, which is the soprano:
[Marina]: As a teenager at the conservatory, María already knew where her range was.
[María]: My register was the tenor range, because I was more comfortable with high notes than with low notes.
[Marina]: Her voice was easy to identify. At that time she saw herself as a gay male and had an androgynous appearance that did not bother her.
[María]: When I was a man, many of my features and my appearance were, let’s say, feminine. In fact, many people when… when I was, I don’t know, 14, 15 or 16 years old, would sometimes look at me and not know whether I was a girl or a boy.
[Marina]: As a tenor, she went to that audition at the Teatro Argentino de La Plata and was in the choir for two years. Later, she was part of opera companies that took her to theaters in the interior of the country. She also taught classes while continuing her own vocal training. Until 2010 when she got a big opportunity: an audition was opened to fill vacancies at the Teatro Colón, the most important theater in Argentina.
She signed up right away. Winning that spot would mean a leap forward in her career and also an economic leap: Singing at the Colón can be a lifetime job. María prepared her clothes, combed her hair back tight, and once again chose to sing “Federico’s Lament.” She was 25 years old.
[María]: I introduce myself, sing, and there is always widespread surprise. Why? Because a tenor voice is a voice that takes time to mature. A tenor sings well from the age of 35 or 40. Before that, it is difficult for a tenor register to reach maturity.
[Marina]: She finished first on the list and joined the choir. It was a great triumph, but not a definitive one. In addition to being an iconic theater, the Colón is also a state body with rules and bureaucracies. María had gotten a temporary contract, but she would have to wait for a vacancy and another contest to become part of the permanent group and secure her job with the theater.
But that wasn’t a big concern back then. She was young and that salary allowed her to move from La Plata to Buenos Aires to be closer to the theater. After a while, she got an old apartment right across the street, across Avenida Nueve de Julio, the widest avenue in the city.
It was more than a place to live. María thought of it as a meeting point and a creative space. She soon transformed her home into a cultural center for performers to meet… and not just opera performers. It would also be a rehearsal room for tango, folklore… María wanted to welcome everybody.
Her days were entirely devoted to music. In mid-2010, five months after joining the choir, María made her début at the Colón. It was in the opera “Manon,” a production of the Chicago Opera, which brought it to Buenos Aires with scenery and costumes. María had to dress in village clothes, like the other tenors.
[Marina]: At the very moment the curtain opened, María, as we heard at the beginning, felt that she was floating in space.
[María]: Like being outside the Earth and seeing the vastness of the universe.
[Marina]: When she joined the Colón, María had been experimenting with her feminine side for a few months. Her first time she had an excuse was a Halloween costume party. She dressed in a black skirt from a friend’s mother, a blouse from another, and a black and gold hat.
[María]: I had put on some basic makeup as best I could, but I felt splendid and my impact on other people, both women and men, that night was strong.
[Marina]: But the person who was the most impressed was María herself.
[María]: I’ll never forget the image I caught of myself in a mirror in a store on the street. I was meeting the person I had been before. Because I saw myself as a woman. And I said, “Who is this person? Do I know her? Is it me? Maybe this person is me?”
[Marina]: For the first time, she thought that maybe this wasn’t a costume. From then on, María began to look for articles of women’s clothing, with which she was feeling more and more comfortable. Even though she didn’t wear them all the time.
[María]: My house looked like the home of an older man because I dressed very formally, with a sweater, and the home of a call girl because later I had some clothes that were quite racy, and it was all lying around, and it seemed to be the home of two people, of a couple. And that couple was actually myself doing my rehearsals.
[Marina]: María went back and forth between these two genders. One summer she settled in Mar del Plata, a seaside resort on the Argentinean coast, and was motivated to try one more test. She had several free weeks away from her tenor routine, so she decided to spend her entire vacation as a woman. What she noticed was that it made her feel whole.
María had never discussed this with her family. Music had made her very independent. She had earned her own money from a very young age. Now she was an adult and did not depend on her family, nor did she need their approval, but she wanted her parents to know who she was. They had returned to Brazil, so she called them on the phone and told them what she was experiencing.
[María]: My mom said, “I always knew you were a daughter.” That was the message from my mom, and my dad said the same thing.
[Marina]: But to be a woman in all areas of her life, María needed to know whether she could also maintain her identity within the opera, making her voice a female voice. Biologically it was supposed to be quite difficult, but María had already seen some signs that her vocal ability defied pre-established limits. She recalls the details of a day during her first years at the conservatory in La Plata, when she was still studying piano, and one of the sopranos could not reach the note required by a piece they were rehearsing.
[María]: And she couldn’t do it, she couldn’t do it. And I said to her, “Why can’t you do it?” “Well, because I’m sick.” “Well then, let’s do this. You sing the part that you can, and when that difficult note comes up, I’ll sing it,” and she asked me, “You? But you aren’t a singer.” “Well, I have tried those notes; I’m sure I can do it.”
[Marina]: The soprano began to sing…
[María]: And when the note came, I sang it. And the soprano says to me, Falsettone.
[Marina]: Falsettone, that is, an Italian expression for when a man imitates a woman’s voice, a falsetto. It’s called this because it’s sung with a part of the vocal cord that generates a vibration which can be called “false.” It is a high-pitched sound but without vibrations. It came naturally to María. But singing a couple of notes was not the same as sustaining that high register during, for example, the three hours that an opera lasts.
María did not want to undergo hormone treatments, much less surgery on her vocal cords. She would never have risked something that could alter her singing ability. Besides, she was convinced that, with care and technical training, she could manage to sing as a high-level soprano.
It was a matter of practice. Partly to try it out (and partly for fun), María created a character for herself, a supposed Russian princess. She named her María Vkallasova, a mix of names of her favorite sopranos: María Callas, María Guleghina and Ghena Dimitrova.
[María]: A Russian who spoke with a voice like that, was very funny. I took that opportunity to place my voice in a higher soprano position and maintain that speaking voice, by way of training that I was doing continuously, as if I were singing 24 hours a day.
[Marina]: While María sang tenor in the Colón choir, Vkallasova made a place for herself in the Buenos Aires underground. She began to appear in small theaters and restaurants, where she sang between shots of vodka that she distributed to the public. And she even got to participate in a television program:
[Carlos]: Let’s see, sing any aria…
[María Vkallasova]: Let’s see. It could be…
[Woman]: Cheers to the princess.
[María Vkallasova]: This vodka makes me sing better than others…
[Marina]: María took every opportunity to use her soprano voice, even with her colleagues at the Teatro Colón. Although of course, offstage.
Between one performance and another, the artists met in the dressing rooms and continued to sing other repertoires. Carmen Nieddu, a soprano in the choir since 1993, remembers her surprise when the voice of that colleague—then a man—began to sound so similar to hers. Here’s Carmen.
[Carmen Nieddu]: And I looked at him like this, and I said, “Oh, that’s great,” I said. And he started singing, “ooo ooo,” like a soprano, right? No, that is not a flexibility you usually find in men. And he sang everything as a soprano. All soprano. All soprano.
[Marina]: As Vkallasova, María also began to encourage herself to venture out of those alternative scenarios. They were little excursions that she did. Going, for example, to a commercial play, but also turning herself into a character, into her Russian princess.
[María]: Many people believed it and I was not going to deny it. “What a dark-haired Russian,” they said.
[Marina]: In her role of Vkallasova, she found herself in a theater one day with Adelaida Negri, an internationally famous Argentinean soprano.
[María]: And I will never forget that she tapped me on the back. I turn around, I see her, and just picture it: seeing someone you admire so much.
[Marina]: María’s surprise was going to be even greater. Adelaida was playing along…
[María]: And she tells me, “Mrs. Vkallasova, I listen to all your records.”
[Marina]: Vkallasova, of course, did not have any records. Maybe videos that someone had shown Adelaida. She had been impressed by that tenor from the Teatro Colón who jokingly sang like a Russian soprano. At the end of the show, she came over to say a few words.
[María]: She tells me, “What you do is very serious. I don’t know whether you realize it, but I’m telling you.” And I said, “Oh, do you think so, maestra?” “Yes, yes. I want you to come to my studio because I want to help you. I want to work with your voice.”
[Marina]: She worked with María for months, without charging her a penny, to reinforce her talent. Adelaida, who had sung at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, said that she recognized in María a color similar to her own voice.
It was 2011. At the Colón, María continued on a temporary contract. She still presented herself as a man, wearing a suit and singing tenor. It didn’t cross her mind to show up with her female identity. She imagined what they might say to her.
[María]: “We hired a man, how come you are now a woman?” They would fire me. Plain and simple, and even more so in an institution so reticent to change and as classist and outdated as the Teatro Colón can be in many ways, even today.
[Marina]: María didn’t want to put her job at risk in any way. Singing was the most important thing in her life, and doing it at the Colón was her highest aspiration. She was not willing to abandon it.
But a year later, things changed.
In 2012, Argentina passed a pioneering gender identity law that allows anyone to rectify their gender by simply expressing the desire to do so. Without psychological assessment or medical requirements. María had been following the issue very closely because a friend of hers was an activist working to get the law passed. As soon as it was approved, the friend called her to celebrate the news:
[María]: And he says, “Wouldn’t it be a perfect time for you to make the change? Because I really see you absolutely, immensely, fulfilled when you’re a woman”
[Marina]: But María still wasn’t sure…
[María]: And at that moment, I told him, “I think I should still meditate on it a little more, because, since this is a personal matter, I’m the only one who can say when and how and in what way.”
[Marina]: As we said, her position in the Colón choir was temporary. Without a permanent position, her job was not secure and María was afraid of jeopardizing it. She barely dared make slight touches in her appearance that signaled what she was going through. Carmen, and all her colleagues, noticed the changes.
[Carmen]: She no longer wore her white men’s shirts, but instead wore a yellow sports shirt or a fuchsia shawl that she tied around herself. He has gorgeous hair, or rather, she has gorgeous hair, all wavy. And she tied up her hair. She did a bun on top and was beginning, more and more, to wear women’s clothing. I mean, with another touch, another touch, another touch, right?
[Marina]: A year later, in 2013, a contest was finally held for her position. Still a tenor, still in a suit, María sang and go the job. It was more than job stability. She remembers the exact words a classmate said to her at the end of the audition.
[María]: “Done. Now you can be Abigaille.”
[Marina]: Abigaille, a female character from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. María had been playing that role, but outside of the Colón. In alternative scenarios, where she was already presenting herself as a woman and with a soprano register.
Now that she had secured her tenor position permanently, she felt much more confident about starting to share her identity.
[María]: Once I got the position, then I could breathe more easily. I was full-time and I said, “I’m going all the way. Now I can really go for it. I will continue singing tenor here, I will sing soprano elsewhere, but the person I want to be will come here, and that person is María.”
[Marina]: She was ready now to get her female ID. But it wasn’t as easy as she expected. María did the paperwork. When she got her ID, it had her photo—María’s photo—but her old name was still written on it. She had to do it all over again. Then, when she was supposed to get it, there was an altercation with the postman, homophobic slurs, and more delay.
[María]: The change in gender identity was one of the most violent experiences I ever had with the system in my life.
[Marina]: Until finally, her ID arrived. The first name she chose was the name of her Russian princess. She was now legally María.
[María]: And my name was Felipe Francisco Castillo. And now María Francisca Flor Castillo, and De Lima is my mother’s last name.
[Marina]: But not even the new ID was enough for her to dare be María at the Colón. There she continued to wear the tenor costumes and, of course, she sang with the tenors. But when the performance was over, she turned into María. Carmen remembers the first time she saw her go out dressed as a woman:
[Carmen]: With makeup, in a dress and high heels. In fact, the security personnel looked at her as if to say, “How did I not see her come in?” Because on top of it all, she is very tall, big, and striking.
[Marina]: From then on, María asked her colleagues to start calling her by her new name, using the female pronoun. But for Carmen and the rest of her colleagues, it was not so easy.
[Carmen]: The transition was hard for us. She would correct us: “It’s María, girls. It’s María, girls,” because we said it wrong from time to time. I told her, “Look, María, be patient with us,” I tell her, “We are from another era.”
[Marina]: A change protected by law was a novelty. At the Colón and everywhere. The gender identity law was new and the authorities complied with it however they could, sometimes willingly and sometimes clumsily. The first step the Colón took was to remove María from the men’s dressing room. Legally, she could no longer stay there. But some of the female singers were reluctant to have her in the women’s dressing room.
[Carmen]: One colleague went all the way to the other… to the opposite end of the dressing room, which is very large. I would call it ignorance, right?
[Marina]: To avoid conflict, the solution was to assign María a dressing room just for her—a luxury normally reserved for leading figures and soloists. But beyond the dressing room, on stage, the modifications were not so simple. The Colón complied with the law and accepted María. But there, she was a tenor. As a performer, she could handle it.
[María]: Because in the performance world, we can be men, we can be women, we can be animals, trees, queens, emperors, any character we have to play.
[Marina]: Once the opera was over, she took off her costumes and went back to being María. That’s how it was at first, for months, but there came a time when she started to feel uncomfortable. She decided to talk to the director.
[María]: There was discomfort. That’s when I said, “I won’t wear it anymore.” And I said:
“Although this is performance and I can play any role here, I’m asking you to please respect my gender identity; give me the wardrobe that corresponds to my self-perceived gender.”
[Marina]: The answer caught María by surprise: There was no problem. She would have clothing for female characters, and the clothes of the female singers.
The clothes yes, but not the voice.
[María]: If it’s a pianist, male, trans woman, non-binary, gender fluid, whatever, it’s a piano. It will always sound like a piano, but here it was the voice.
[Marina]: María knew that could sing soprano. She had been doing it outside of the Colón for a long time. And this, from the beginning, was the condition she had imposed on herself in order to accept her identity.
[María]: I think if I hadn’t had the chance to sing soprano, I wouldn’t have changed my gender.
[Marina]: But at the Theater she had auditioned for a tenor position according to the internal rules. Changing register at the Colón, a bureaucratic and classical institution in every possible way, was simply unthinkable.
A few months later, an opportunity came up to prove herself: Two sopranos were retiring and that opened up those vacancies in the permanent choir. María, with the confidence of her vocal training outside the theater, entered the contest. It was a way of getting them to recognize her change of register that had already occurred everywhere, except in the Colón.
The jury was composed of several musicians: two representatives of the sopranos, including Carmen Nieddu, whom we have already heard. The choir director, the pianist, a supervisor delegate, four guest teachers and one more, an international guest.
The ratings varied widely: some had given her a very high score, like Carmen.
[Carmen]: For me, her audition was very good and she was totally qualified to hold a position as a second soprano.
[Marina]: But others had given her the lowest possible rating. No half measures. María would later find out what had happened at her audition.
[María]: “What is this?” someone asked. “Can someone explain to me what this is?”
[Marina]: “This” —María. They just weren’t willing to evaluate her in a female register. They even questioned her reasons for wanting that change.
[María]: And then someone else said, “So why is she doing this if she already holds a tenor position? Why does she want to take a spot from a soprano?”
[Marina]: They failed her as a soprano, although they allowed her to continue as a tenor. The evaluation had to be technical, but María has no doubt that the criteria were not artistic. She learned that being a trans person weighed on the decision of some jury members. The guest director, for example…
[María]: He also made another comment along the lines of “What is this? How can they allow this?” And then they explained it to him, “Well, there is a gender law, she changed her gender.” “But it’s ridiculous.” That’s what they said.
[Marina]: María accepted the result. No complaints. She did not ask for a new examination, she did not complain to the management of the theater, nor to legal authorities on grounds of discrimination.
[María]: I wanted to make it as a performer, because if I lodged a complaint and succeeded, they were going to say it was purely and exclusively, not due to artistic merit, but because the law protected me.
[Marina]: But in private, her feelings were different.
[María]: I am not one to get depressed. I am the kind who explodes. I explode like a volcano and I get totally blinded.
[Marina]: She was angry. But she didn’t want anyone to know. She suffered, yes. But in silence.
They placed María in the choir in such a way that she was on the edge—still in the tenors’ row but very close to the sopranos. It was a way of respecting the makeup of the choir and also her identity. On the Colón playbill she appeared with her name: María Castillo de Lima. But in the tenor category.
An attentive public might think it was a misprint. With all the voices in the choir ringing together, not even the most highly-trained ear could have detected that this woman was singing as a tenor.
Some people in the Colón did approve of her change and were willing to help. One night, after a performance, María was having a drink in the bar of the theater. The stage manager came over to greet her.
[María]: He had seen me before as a man. He sees me and says, “How beautiful you are! I truly congratulate you. And I have something else to tell you: I want you to be Butterfly’s mother.” And I say, “But Hugo, do you think so?” “Yes, absolutely.”
[Marina]: “Madame Butterfly,” the opera by Giacomo Puccini. The stage director had decided on his own to give María a small solo role—as a soprano.
[María]: And in this production I came in wearing a black kimono with a dragon, my entire geisha face painted white, a Japanese wig and…
[Marina]: Wearing platform shoes and measuring 6 feet tall, María was imposing. She sang well and enjoyed the performance…
[María]: A feeling of immense adrenaline.
[Marina]: Although it had been a small role, María had been able to sing as a soprano at the Colón for the first time. It was a huge win. She was happy, but at the same time she was hurt by the contradiction. She knew this was something exceptional, a whim that the director of this performance had indulged, and that would not repeat itself because she was still tied to the role of tenor.
[María]: It annoyed me a bit that they didn’t let me fully carry out my gender change, when professionally I had also worked on it so I would be able to take it to the theater.
[Marina]: Sometimes, after an opera, she would invite the artists to her house and they would insist that she sing in that register. María agreed and received applause. But she felt that that voice would never be heard again across the avenue, at the Colón Theater, the theater of the great performers.
[María]: I had settled into something called conformity. I had said, “OK, so I will be at the Colón as long as I am in the choir. I will continue this way, and at some point I will figure it out.” But I had kind of given up somehow.
[Marina]: María resigned herself. She had gotten used to the idea that she couldn’t push the limits of the Colón any further. It was the most prestigious theater and she was part of it, but her soprano voice had to be left out.
[Daniel]: But nine years after joining the Colón, and without really giving it much thought, María would end up performing in an international lyric singing contest, and those three minutes in front of the jury would change everything.
We’ll be back after a break…
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we met María Castillo de Lima, a trans opera singer. She had joined the Teatro Colón as a man and a tenor. Now with a female identity, she sought to be recognized as a soprano.
She had been trying for years without success. By then she was resigned to continue being a tenor… until a contest outside the Theater provided a new opportunity. Marina Abiuso continues the story.
[Marina]: It was 2019. A colleague of María’s told her about an international opera contest that would be held in Mendoza, an Argentinean province about a thousand kilometers from the capital. The jury members were prestigious, and participants would come from all over the world. She was going to participate and suggested that María do the same. In her category: as a soprano.
[María]: I tell her, “Well, I will go to accompany you.” “No, you should sing,” she says. And I say, “No, what for? So they can discriminate against me once more?” I told her, “No.”
[Marina]: Her friend insisted, and María finally gave in. She signed up and prepared several songs, and they took a plane together. When they arrived, she found a surprise: The president of the jury was María Victoria Alcaraz. Her boss. She had taken over as director of the Teatro Colón in December 2015, the first woman in 110 years of history. María Victoria prided herself in being a director close to the personnel, but the Colón is immense: five floors and three basements. A thousand employees, counting performers, stage managers, stagehands and all the other necessary duties. She knew María from having seen her in the corridors of the theater, and they had once exchanged greetings. But that was all. She knew nothing about María.
The day of her audition, it was as if María Victoria saw her for the first time. María wore a long black dress. When it was her turn, she stood in front of the jury and sang.
[Marina]: This is how María Victoria remembers it:
[María Victoria Alcaraz]: I discovered the existence of María’s voice, not of María. Of María’s voice.
[María Victoria]: I was surprised and fascinated, I was moved, I was moved.
[Marina]: Because that voice was not the same voice that was heard inside the Colón.
[María]: And she begins to listen to me and says, “What a way of singing this woman has,” and then she starts to realize. “How is it, I hear this lady, a woman—what do you mean, she sings tenor?” “Yes, because she came in as a tenor and then she changed.” That’s when she started to find out. I think she just found out about the whole situation while in Mendoza.
[Marina]: María Victoria had been in her position for four years and no one had told her what was happening with María.
[María Victoria]: It made me angry, I felt sorry, it annoyed me that years had passed and I didn’t know that María existed.
[Marina]: In that contest in Mendoza, María got second place. It meant a financial prize, a training scholarship, and an invitation to participate in the Tenerife Opera season. It meant, above all, that a prestigious jury praised María’s voice. Her soprano voice.
And the repercussions were going to be felt in the Colón as well. Before leaving Mendoza, María Victoria approached María.
[María]: When I won, she tells me, “We are going to start talking at the theater because we have to change this.”
[Marina]: Back in Buenos Aires, they met in the director’s office of the Teatro Colón. It was a long talk. María Victoria couldn’t believe what María was telling her.
[María Victoria]: And then she told me that she had documents, that she had made her entire transition, but that it had not been accepted at the Colón. And that she had been living that way for ten years.
[Marina]: She also told her about that audition for soprano where she had participated five years before, under a different general director and where the members of the jury had had such different opinions. After hearing her sing soprano, what had happened was very clear to María Victoria what had happened.
[María Victoria]: That extreme artistic rigor was actually covering up prejudice.
[Marina]: María Victoria decided to investigate. She searched for precedents in other theaters around the world, met with the artistic director, spoke with outside singers, and she studied the by-laws of the Colón. Rules going back more than a century.
A change like the one María was asking for was unforeseen. Never before had someone hired as a tenor asked to be a soprano. But there was something else that did not exist: there was no prohibition against it.
[María Victoria]: And what I searched for, and searched, and searched, and searched, was to see whether there was any law, any regulation, any resolution, something that prohibited the change of register. And since there wasn’t anything, there was no prohibition. Well, then, if it is not written that you cannot, then you can.
[Marina]: The Teatro Colón informed its employees of a new resolution signed by the director: any person from the choir who wanted to change their voice register could inform them and ask to go before a technical evaluation committee. Whatever their gender or their voice. As soon as the resolution was published, María and two other colleagues began the formal request.
For the other singers it was a simpler process: they wanted to go from soprano to mezzo-soprano—two female voices, one higher and the other lower. The passage of time had modified their voices and they felt more comfortable in a new register.
María, on the other hand, was facing the test of her life. María Victoria recalls the atmosphere that permeated the audition.
[María Victoria]: And it was a tense day. It was a tense moment because at stake was all or nothing.
[Marina]: All: being recognized as a soprano at the Teatro Colón. Nothing: that the jury would consider she was not up to it. It was her final appeal.
The jury was made up of María Victoria, the artistic director, an internationally recognized soprano, and the director of the children’s choir. There were notaries and even lawyers from the City Government, on which the Theater depends. The place chosen was a small dressing room on the first floor…
[María]: I say, “They are going to make me sing here? I’m going to blow everyone’s wig off.”
[Marina]: María’s voice was loud in the small dressing room. She sang the aria of Abigaille, that female character from Verdi’s opera.
[María Victoria]: She was nervous. But only until she started. She is an awesome performer. And she ate them all up. She ate them all up, yes, just like that.
[Marina]: María finished singing and went out to the hallway. She waited while her fate was decided. First the other singers got their results: their register changes were approved. Only María was left. She was the last to come up. She searched for the friendliest faces. They smiled. That calmed her down. She felt confident.
[María]: I never doubt myself. I always know how far I can go. I think it’s that ego I was talking about. My best partner.
[Marina]: The artistic director of the theater took the floor and said:
[María]: That they had noticed that she was in a suitable vocal technical moment right then to be able to make the change…
[Marina]: The change to a female register. María could barely contain her excitement. But the artistic director went on talking.
[María]: “We consider,” he said, “that you are going to change your register to mezzo-soprano.”
[Marina]: María had not asked to change to that register. Some jurors wanted her to be a mezzo-soprano, a deeper sound than sopranos. But María’s voice, high-pitched and torrential, was the voice of a soprano. All that discussion happened in front of María. Until María Victoria and the other jury member stood up.
[María]: And they looked at the other two and said, “No. Not mezzo-soprano, maestro; we already discussed it. Soprano. She is a soprano.”
[Marina]: María was still standing in front of them. Silent. Waiting while the judges went back to discuss the decision they had to make.
[María]: And I thought, “The peace of Christ, the peace of Christ.” Tranquility. I think I have a great gift of escape, that is, to get out of the situation. I take a walk through—I don’t know—through outer space and back again, so as not to perceive or hear things that would certainly drive others crazy.
[Marina]: Finally, the judges came to an agreement.
[María]: And suddenly another one of the maestros said, “So, that’s it, soprano, end of discussion.” And they signed the record, with a little hatred, and the issue was closed.
[Marina]: María was finally a soprano in the permanent choir of the Teatro Colón, where she had come many years before as a tenor.
[María]: More than happiness, it gave me the satisfaction of having won a conflict of many years. A fight against intolerance.
[Marina]: Carmen was glad to finally have María in her own register. She knew the suffering that María hid from everyone else.
[Carmen]: Personally I was very happy because I knew that she was uncomfortable singing tenor. She told me, “It hurts me psychologically, I feel uncomfortable,” and, well, she fought and achieved what she really needed and wanted.
[Marina]: It was July 22, 2019. The following day, María turned 34 and she had to show up at rehearsal as a soprano for the first time.
Despite everything, it was difficult for her to say goodbye to the tenors. They had been her companions and also her allies. She would not rehearse alone with them again.
[María]: For them, the issue of my gender choice was not something to laugh at or question. It happened, period. It was Felipe, now it is María. To us she is the same person. I mean, I was accompanied, thank God, by my male colleagues and some female colleagues as well.
[Marina]: Because not all her female colleagues were happy with the news of having María among the sopranos. Here’s Carmen again.
[Carmen]: There were some complaints, disagreements. I always say that couples have their differences. Imagine a group of 106 people. And so, the people who did not accept it or were uncomfortable made it known… with a gesture, a snub, or perhaps with a complaint to the maestro.
[Marina]: They said that María’s situation had been resolved quickly compared to other, older claims that were still neglected. Claims of all kinds that came to light now, precisely when a trans person managed to join the choir as a soprano.
María listened to the complaints of those colleagues with surprising calm. But that calm had an explanation.
[María]: I was voiceless that day. It must have been due to holding back my nerves until the last moment, a stress so great that the next day my instrument gave the last it had in that audition. I could not speak.
[Marina]: And she wanted to hide it. She was afraid that if they heard her sounding so bad, they would question her performance of the previous day.
[María]: Because if I could have spoken, they would have heard me.
[Marina]: The rehearsals were over, and María gradually settled into her new role. Once again, it was her voice that smoothed out rough edges and cleared up doubts. María Victoria confirmed it.
[María Victoria]: And later, when I ran into someone from the jury who… who wasn’t very sure, they said, “María Victoria, I have to admit you were right. You had to do it, you had to give her that evaluation and allow her to change her register.”
[Marina]: María achieved what years before was unthinkable for the Theater and for all those who, like Carmen, had been working there for so many years.
[Carmen]: It’s quite a big change to accept the first trans soprano at the Teatro Colón.
[Marina]: In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the authorities of the City of Buenos Aires decided that the Colón Theater would be a part of Pride Week, which Argentina celebrates in November. They decorated the front of the historic building with rainbow flags and organized a concert to stream online. Inside the theater, empty because of the COVID restrictions, a piano and a single voice sounded: it was María’s.
[Marina]: There were criticisms. Not all people accept diversity. María knows it and lives with it. She says that she even manages to have fun reading hate comments, that she can ignore them, that it doesn’t affect her.
[María]: I always say that an insult speaks louder about the person who says it than about the person they want to insult.
[Marina]: On the street, well, that’s a different story.
[María]: Yes, I do answer. I’m Argentinean. I answer back and send them far away, you know where. And nobody dares, because of my size. And with the strength I have, they all run away…
[Marina]: María participates in activities with trans and transvestite friends. But she has her own way of living her story.
[María]: For some trans people, everything that has to do with their past weighs on them, hurts them, bothers them. I am so sure of who I am and who I was. I don’t care. I love Felipe. Felipe is part of me, Felipe is what I am. I hug him, I love him. I am myself.
[Marina]: María transforms that security into joy. Carmen can’t remember a day when she ever saw her looking sad.
[Carmen]: María is very strong. She is very strong. It’s hard to see her sad. She is always cheerful. She is always cheering you up. She always, as we say here in Argentina, she is very pum para arriba.
[Marina]: If at first some colleagues did not want to share a dressing room with her, now no one wants to be left out.
[Carmen]: María’s dressing room is a party. She smiles… Why? Because she is sure of what she does, of what she delivers, of what she sings, of her performance, of her interpretation, of her… of everything about her.
[Marina]: And despite the fact that María keeps both registers—soprano and tenor—her decision is made.
[María]: The tenor voice does not fulfill me as the soprano voice does. In other words, I feel that the soprano voice fills my being in what I do.
[Marina]: She has, yes, a small exception: in her teaching role. María gives singing lessons, and if a male student needs it, she can use her tenor voice to show an example.
María continues her own training. In December she will have the opportunity to sing as a soloist in a contemporary opera, “The Absent City,” by Ricardo Piglia. María is preparing.
[María]: If I had been Felipe, being good was good enough, if I was a good tenor. As María, the soprano trans, being good is not enough. I have to stand out.
[Marina]: She has to dazzle a demanding public, one with elusive applause. But she is confident that her voice, her soprano voice, will finally fill the Colón Theater, the theater with the perfect acoustics.
[Daniel]: Marina Abiuso is a journalist specialized in gender and human rights issues. She co-produced this story with Aneris Casassus. Aneris is a producer for Radio Ambulante. They both live in Buenos Aires.
This story was edited by Camila Segura and Luis Fernando Vargas. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri with music by Ana Tuirán.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Andrés Azpiri, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Rémy Lozano, Nancy Martinez-Calhoun, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.