“For a long time, I thought I really couldn’t seriously consider a career in vocal performance because of my voice type — because I don’t have a voice type that’s normative for my gender. That really informed my choice to get into early music.”
For fans of baroque music, it’s a relief that Conway resident Elijah McCormack did not let gendernormative stereotypes stop him from pursuing his art. Born into a musical family, McCormack began singing in choirs in second grade, joining the treble choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, Conn. “I spent about 10 years there, so that was really formative for my musicianship and for the way my voice sounds. The Anglican-style treble choir sound is really distinctive.”
From that musical nursery, he left for college in upstate New York to study Studio Art at Skidmore College. “Part of the reason I didn’t choose to major in music in college is that — you know — I’m a male soprano, so I didn’t really think it was in the cards for me to go into music performance. It felt like there was a choice between being taken seriously as a man and being taken seriously as a soprano.”
McCormack’s since received acclaim for his powerful tone and vocal agility; The Washington Post swooned for his December 2019 performance with the Washington Bach Consort, saying his was “a voice with the kind of luminosity one longs for in Bach, that of the marvelous young soprano Elijah McCormack.” The Boston Early Music Festival featured McCormack last summer in its biennial festival, and he secured a Judge’s Encouragement Award at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2018. McCormack, who performed with new group Arkansas Baroque Music in January, is a thrillingly compelling singer on the rise, able to make ancient music feel new and urgent. He also happens to be a transgender man.
In early music, which refers broadly to music created in Europe from the Middle Ages to the baroque era, the gender of the singers mattered less, historically, than the suitability of a particular voice type for a part. Forming its popularity in cathedral settings where women weren’t allowed to perform, the music pulled in voices that suited its sacred, lofty tones and angelic, soaring passages. Sometimes this could mean that the high soprano parts were sung by castrati, young men who had been castrated before puberty could alter their vocal chords. When the music began reaching a popular audience and broadened to include more secular themes, the genders of the singers grew to include women, sometimes singing male characters or perspectives.
Early music’s pliant casting practices aside, McCormack says he didn’t seriously consider a career in performance until a teacher, Dr. Sylvia Stoner-Hawkins, introduced him to a particular body of repertoire — baroque opera that featured a lot of roles for castrati. “Practically every Handel opera, every baroque opera after a certain point,” McCormack said, “features a male soprano or male alto role, at least once, because those singers were really popular at the time.”
A number of topics within the early music community prompt debate among its proponents and practitioners: how to responsibly interpret early works that provide little instruction on ornamentation, tuning and instrumentation decisions for pieces from particular eras and, in particular, the “wobble wars” — the heated dissension among the community over the use or non-use of vibrato (the slight, rapid changing in a pitch that a singer uses). For McCormack, honest self-expression is always the answer to the vibrato question. “I think voice in particular is really personal for people,” he said. “As singers, I think we take it really personally when people tell us one way or another that our vibrato or lack thereof is wrong. Kind of that we don’t have enough or that we have too much for what we’re doing. So, my personal feeling is that in vocal performance, as long as you’re expressive and I can hear what pitch you’re singing and understand what you’re saying, people should just sing how they sing.”
McCormack points to examples of figures who, when what we call “early music” was still current, were pushing the boundaries of how it should be made, who could control the narrative and who could participate. He pointed first to composer Claudio Monteverdi, who was active in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and was instrumental in widening early opera’s audience from mainly courtly nobles to the public at large. “And I’ve also recently learned music from a composer named Barbara Strozzi, who was a well-known female baroque composer a couple generations removed from Monteverdi. If there was one I’d really like to meet in real life, it would’ve been her. She seems like a really interesting person. A lot of her music is quite funny — I like a sense of humor in a composer. And also just being a woman composer in that time period — it must have been interesting. It came with a lot of implications, but we don’t know a ton about her life for sure. She might have been a courtesan. But making a name for yourself as a professional female musician at that time, it probably took a certain personality type.”
In a YouTube video on his own channel, McCormack demonstrates Strozzi’s comical (and exciting) approach in the performance with Arkansas Baroque Music. The piece, “L’Astratto,” finds a troubled soul, searching for comfort in song.
The opening lines read: ”I want, yes, I want to sing/Perhaps by singing I may ease my torment/harmony’s power should strangle the pain.”
The protagonist searches for the right song in which to find comfort, singing tune after tune, moving through one trite phrase at a time, trying out each song for a few seconds, only to grow more and more confused and frustrated. McCormack’s interpretation highlighted the humor of each of Strozzi’s variations, as he picked up a new page of music for each attempted song and subsequently ripped it to shreds, responding to each with a sarcastic Italian quip in a conversational tone. Finally, having exhausted all the music on offer, the troubled singer expresses his own feelings, in his own words. The music ultimately settles from the chaotic jumble of musical styles into two arresting and elegant stanzas, melancholy and sweet. Its last two lines demand athletic runs and devilish intervals, the singer finally admitting: “So I, wretched and foolish, not wanting to sing, have sung much.”
Today’s early music landscape contains the sort of playfulness and exploration that Strozzi would likely enjoy. McCormack mentioned the American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy’s program in San Francisco last summer, which combined Bach with bluegrass, exploring “themes from the Brandenburg Concertos, cantatas, and more in folk and jazz idioms,” as the program’s advertisement promised. Other transgender artists, too, McCormack said, are paving the way for a more inclusive and multifaceted community, artists who “don’t really fit into a normative idea of what a man ‘should’ sound like or what a woman ‘should’ sound like.” There’s Adrian Angelico, a Norwegian trans male mezzo who’s performed with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and Lucia Lucas, a trans female baritone. Lucas made history as the first trans singer to sing a principal role in a U.S. opera house, singing the title role in Tulsa Opera’s 2019 production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
As for McCormack, he said he hopes people hear in him “someone who sounds like they have something to say. Either in terms of communicating the effect and the rhetoric of the music that they’re singing, or in terms of doing something unexpected that might cause someone to reconsider the preconceptions that they might have. … For me personally, it can be really hard to strike a balance between being too reserved as a performer and not communicating enough versus being too extroverted to the point of losing poise. And that’s something that I’m still working on. Basically, I hope I can move people — whatever that means. That’s sort of optimal for me. And that I can serve the music by communicating what it wants to communicate.”