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The Making of a Diva

Opera has never seen the likes of Breanna Sinclairé.

The first transgender graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s vocal program, Breanna Sinclairé refuses to be constrained.

 

Standing 6 foot 2 in flats, her long blond locks flowing past her shoulders and her eyes accented by smoky shadow, Breanna Sinclairé is not the typical opera diva. “The opera world is just harder for people who look like us,” says Ruby Pleasure, Sinclairé’s former vocal instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and, like her pupil, an African-American woman. “When she auditions, she needs to be obviously so much better than anybody else, no question.”

That threshold is higher still because Sinclairé is not a natural-born mezzo-soprano—nor, for that matter, was she brought up as a female. In attempting to break into the hidebound world of opera, Sinclairé is up against a double-paned glass ceiling: She’s a transgender black woman who dreams of Tosca. 

It’s a lofty goal for any opera singer, let alone a woman of her striking countenance. But Sinclairé is both defiantly confident in her abilities and resilient in the face of adversity. After all, she’s emerged from being broke and homeless to become the first transgender person to graduate from the vocal performance program at California Institute of the Arts—known as the “Juilliard of the West”—and the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory. Despite that groundbreaking achievement, however, she prefers to discuss her art, not her gender. “I don’t spend hours studying German and French dialects every day to be viewed as just a trans person,” she says. “I am a musician and an artist. That is what I should be recognized for.” 

Breanna Sinclairé

Sinclairé grew up as Bradley Rogers, the oldest son of a devout Baptist family in Baltimore, where she attended twice-weekly Bible study and three church services each Sunday. “It was a very strict, very religious household,” she recalls, but it was filled with music. Both of Sinclairé’s parents played multiple instruments, and she found her calling belting out solos in the church choir. Her grandmother took her to her first opera, Madame Butterfly, and introduced her to the recordings of African-American opera stars Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price. But despite her enchantment with opera, when Sinclairé was 17, her mother convinced her to apply to Kingswood University, an evangelical Christian university in Canada, in hopes that her son would become a pastor.

The outspoken singer found herself leading praise songs among a community of conservative, homogeneous Canadians. “I was like, ‘My goodness—what have I gotten myself into?’” Sinclairé recalls. Over the course of two years, she discreetly began to build an escape fund, mowing the expansive lawns of east New Brunswick for cash and hiding her earnings in a jar in her closet. “I remember pushing that mower across those dramatically large lawns, thinking, ‘I will cut grass until kingdom come if it gets me the hell out of here,’” she says. 

When she wasn’t working, Sinclairé was diligently studying French and Italian and preparing her audition, which she recorded in a friend’s run-down basement studio. She applied to the California Institute of the Arts, in Southern California—the first result that popped up when she Googled “California” and “music school”—and was granted a full scholarship. Her so-called “grass money” wouldn’t cover a plane ticket, she says, so she spent two weeks stringing together a route of Greyhound buses from Sussex, Canada, to Valencia, California. “When I finally set foot in California, I knew my life was going to change,” she says. “I said, ‘Now I have no one to be but myself.’”

 

Sinclairé began her transition from male to female at 19, a gut-wrenching decision for the singer. “My vocal coaches said, ‘This is ludicrous, you’re a man—and a tenor!’” she says. But though she worried about the effect on her voice, she had been at odds with her gender since the age of three. It was time. “I remember celebrating in the pharmacy parking lot, shaking my hormone pills like maracas,” she says.

As Sinclairé’s body changed, the hormones triggered a barrage of side effects, from dry throat to exhaustion to mood swings. “It feels like your body’s slowly getting weaker,” she says. Though she has a four-octave vocal range, the treatment alters the mechanics of your vocal tract. “Men use their diaphragms to sing,” she says. “Women have to sing from deep within the womb”—a challenge for someone born without one. Without continued intensive training, she worried that her voice would never reclaim its original power.

After graduating from Cal Arts in 2011, Sinclairé applied to graduate school at the San Francisco Conservatory, auditioning with Delilah’s aria from Samson and Delilah. One of her evalulators was Pleasure, a 43-year veteran of the conservatory. “A lot of people who audition sound very much alike, but Breanna had an interesting quality,” she recalls. “You could hear that underneath some of the vocal instability was a really beautiful instrument.” Sinclairé was accepted to the conservatory three days later. “That’s when my real life started,” she says. Her move to San Francisco sparked a reinvention: Here, she would become a mezzo-soprano in earnest and rigorously pursue her physical transformation. 

Pleasure would go on to become Sinclairé’s champion. “I took her seriously as a person and a singer,” says Pleasure, “not as an oddity or an anomaly.” The two make an unlikely pair—not just because Sinclairé towers over her 5-foot teacher. Sinclairé is a sharer and a gabber—“an intimate person,” she says—while Pleasure is known for her rigor and professionalism; she’s not the coddling sort. “My students hire me for my ears,” she says drolly, “then they generally give me way more information than I ever wanted to hear.”

Sinclairé’s hormone treatments triggered changes similar to those of a developing adolescent. Pleasure, who views singing as a holistic pursuit, spent hours on breathing and simple two- and five-note exercises to improve Sinclairé’s pitch, driving her impatient student to tears. “I may have been a little pushy—I gave her hoops to jump through,” says Pleasure. “If I hadn’t thought she was worth it, I would not have bothered.”

The work paid off. Sinclairé earned lead roles in The Old Maid and the Thief and Carmen in the conservatory’s opera workshops. “The rest of the Voice Department sat up like, ‘Oh, OK—this bitch is not playing around,’” she says.

As the conservatory embraced Sinclairé as one of its own, so did the Bay Area LGBTQ community. In 2013, when Sinclairé was working part-time at the Mission antique store Stuff, owners Will Lenker and James Spinello rented a grand piano and threw an in-store concert to fund her continuing transition. The performance, cheekily billed as “Opera’s Greatest Tits,” raised $9,000, enough to pay for Sinclairé’s top surgery. Upon graduating from the conservatory last spring, Sinclairé was a featured guest at the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’s Elton John show. She also performed the national anthem at an Oakland A’s game, the first transgender woman to do so at a major-league sporting event.

In the year since, Sinclairé has been brushing up on her language skills with the intent to pursue her doctorate at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Though she has faced her share of rejection—she auditioned for the San Francisco Opera chorus earlier this year, but was turned down—she projects grace and youthful optimism. “As women, we’re just under much more scrutiny than men,” she says, “but I’m growing more confident.” This July, she’ll headline a concert in Toronto during Pride Week, an hour-long show for which she’s planning two costume changes. “I always treated her just like everybody else,” says Pleasure. “But the truth is, she’s not like everybody else. There’s always going to be something really special and unique about Breanna Sinclairé.”


Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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