Meet Opera Singer Teiya Kasahara 笠原 貞野: the artist-in-residence at U of T's new Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL) at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute holds an important place in Teiya Kasahara's life. It was the work that first inspired them to become an opera singer. But it was also the opera that crystallized their frustration with the industry's insistence on rigid stereotypes of gender, sexuality and body type.
“I had always been trained to know and uncover the characters so I could bring them to life,” says Kasahara (https://www.teiyakasahara.com), the artist-in-residence at U of T's new Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL), part of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. “But playing the role of Queen of the Night from Magic Flute, I became more and more frustrated with how the character was quickly dismissed as a negative portrayal of femininity, as emotional, as someone who uses their feminine wiles to get what they want.
“Going about this career, I became more and more frustrated with a lot of the restrictive practices with regard to my gender, with what I wore, with what I sang.”
As a queer, gender non-conforming, part-Japanese performer, Kasahara wondered if there was a place for them in the increasingly stifling, restrictive and white-dominated world of classical opera.
“I had to laugh off racist jokes for fear that I would offend somebody, even though I was the one being offended,” they say. “Opera is a very heteronormative patriarchy, it's an elitist, classist way of being. There are not many lesbian or trans or non-binary folks, masculine-presenting women, non-cis-presenting performers. Opera was made for the people, but it quickly became something to be controlled.”
In 2016, upon returning to Canada from Europe – where they had been performing as the Queen – Kasahara began to examine other creative options.
“I started to explore what opportunities there might be in theatre. I saw there were some really forward-thinking ideas. I was welcomed, which was very different from the experiences I've had in opera.
People wanted to get to know me, to hear what I had to say, each artist had value.”
Kasahara worked with Toronto's queer Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and wrote The Queen in Me, in which they use the Queen of the Night to dissect opera. The work contains 10 excerpts from various operas, “sometimes pulling them apart, sometimes performing them as written on the page,” as well as spoken word.
“I've been workshopping it for a few years,” says Kasahara. “I've given this character the platform to speak out about the tendencies of this opera industry, of which she's a part. She has a chance to advocate for those [non gender-conforming] bodies in the industry, to advocate for me. It was a healing, illuminating, and enlightening experience.”
Kasahara hopes to perform the show next year with Amplified Opera (https://www.amplifiedopera.com), the Toronto company they co-founded in 2019, and the Canadian Opera Company (COC).
It's part of a journey they've been on since the age of 15 in Vancouver, when they first saw Ingmar Bergman's film version of The Magic Flute and became hooked.
Kasahara trained in opera at the University of British Columbia, and joined the COC at 22. They were there from 2007-2010, and now work as a freelance singer, a common practice in North America.
As part of their work at the QTRL, Kasahara is working on Little Mis(s)gender, a project examining the restrictive norms the opera industry imposes on performers, in part through the emphasis on “Fach,” the rigid categorization of voice and body type.
“It was initially created to protect singers,” says Kasahara, “to ensure they wouldn't be singing something out of their range or weight. But composers began to write works associated with a certain kind of fach, and developed certain expectations. For sopranos, if you have a high range and can sing things that go fast, you're going to play certain roles that have a very slight, svelte physique, very feminine.
“Body characteristics, even personality, became associated with roles. This type is expected even off-stage. It's just ingrained in a very surreptitious way, very veiled, conveyed to young singers by their peers or teachers.”
Embodying that type became increasingly difficult as Kasahara came to terms with who they are.
“I think it was always there in the back of my mind, but I was wearing these rose-coloured glasses,” they say. “I was so excited to throw myself into the career, to be the successful soprano my industry wanted me to be, the femininity, body type, even being white. Discovering opera was when I started to contort who I was—to sculpt myself—pitching my voice higher, growing my hair longer, wearing makeup.
“I had a few crises, moments of thinking I hate opera, that opera has betrayed me.”
Kasahara says they considered returning to school to study gender identity. But through discussion with their partner – whose Ph. D. thesis was on lesbian loneliness – they realized that an academic degree was not required to include those elements in their work. But it’s one of the reasons why Kasahara says they're excited to be part of the QTRL with other academics and activists.
“The pressure of being an opera singer was so great that I closed many creative avenues,” they say. “The artist residency at the QTRL allows me to fuse two worlds together, be really supported, be in the mix with all these other thinkers. We're sharing back and forth, opening this flow of communication and expression, enriching my work and enriching their work.”
Kasahara emphasizes they are still an opera singer, but they feel more emboldened to occupy this role on their own terms. In addition to the residency, they are also working on The Butterfly Project, analyzing “the racist, cultural, and sexist structures” of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, a project inspired by singing the title role just before the pandemic.
“It was so exciting to embody that role in a queer and trans body. So let's do these roles, but not keep re-traumatizing audiences. I feel like there's such a rich representation of characters, and being able to take them and queer them for ourselves, and for audience members to queer them, is really exciting and empowering.
“Let's just make all the queer operas!”