'I don’t think I would be as good an artist if I wasn’t living as a non-binary person': soprano Ella Taylor
Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Having won second prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards last year, Ella Taylor's career is going from strength to strength. Hattie Butterworth speaks to them about their identity, dealing with transphobia, and why the music industry needs gender nonconformity.
Speaking over Zoom with soprano Ella Taylor about their work, life and recent successes feels remarkably freeing. Achieving the second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards last November, Ella has seen enormous career progression in a short space of time. I hear true ownership of what it means to achieve an award of this calibre, but with an unabated humanity. Ella is someone for whom success has been achieved without either loss of self or the desire to conform.
Perhaps this comes from Ella’s identity as a trans person. Navigating the opera world as a soprano using they/them pronouns, outside of the gender binary, Ella frequently overcomes adversity and discrimination. There has recently emerged a distinctively transphobic undertone within the UK, normalised by some higher profile individuals at the expense of trans and non-binary people. Some are questioning trans identities and why they are necessary. Ella explained to me why it is essential for them that they live as a non-binary person, within both personal and musical circles: ‘I tried, when I was a music college, to have those things separate - my trans identity and my singing - but I don’t think one could exist without the other. I don’t think I would be as good an artist if I wasn’t living as a non-binary person. It is the way I must live in order to survive mentally.’
I go on to ask Ella what they think might have happened if they hadn’t have come out as non-binary in their professional work, ‘God knows how awful it would be if people misgendered me all the time, and it wouldn’t be their fault. I think I would be so depressed that I wouldn’t have bothered to have a career in singing because it would have been too difficult.’
Speaking with Ella coincides with the culmination of a series of performances of Gluck’s Paris and Helen with Bampton Classical Opera, Ella’s professional stage debut. Success wasn’t exactly at the forefront of musicians’ expectations the past 18 months, but Ella is honest about how the Kathleen Ferrier Awards in November jump started their career, meeting their agent and subsequently securing performing work on a high level. ‘I’ve had more work this past 5-6 months than I’ve had in my life, which is a really weird thing to say, given that we’re in the second year of a global pandemic. Saying that, I shouldn’t have had to come second in a competition to have any work this year. I think people’s talent and hard work should be enough.’
" I decided to be an out trans singer because we need more of them. I want people to feel like they can do that safely because me and others before me have done that. "
Within Bampton Classical Opera’s productions of Paris and Helen, Ella plays the role of Paris, traditionally scored for soprano castrato. Gluck’s opera is unique in featuring exclusively soprano voice parts, channelling his desire to reform through pushing creative boundaries. I ask Ella about their thoughts on playing a role outside of traditional soprano representations: ‘I’ve got to say I’ve adored the working dynamic; it’s been absolutely brilliant. It’s not something you see so often. I don’t know any other operas that have just soprano voices. There are also not many soprano "trouser" roles, so it’s nice to do just because that’s how I feel comfortable presenting myself. Saying that, a soprano castrato role lies in a really awkward place in the voice - I had to do quite a lot of work to try and get that comfortable. The opera was an English translation by Gilly French, so I tried to bring myself to it, making him cheeky and a bit of a himbo.’
Ella rejoins BCO for a performance of Paris and Helen in St John’s Smith Square on 24th September, as well as securing a place in the Royal Overseas League Vocal Semi-Final, also next month. The future looks exciting for Ella, but I can’t help but wonder whether they feel anxious about encountering even more situations where misgendering and transphobia may be present. I ask if they feel their success may have protected them in some way, ‘It’s protected me in the sense that I am secure in the amount of work I have, but I still often do not feel safe in the rooms that I am working in because nobody has done the "required reading", as it were. Nobody has thought about when you meet a person who isn’t using binary pronouns. You have to put the work in, and you have to do your research. I think so many people are still just unwilling or unable to do that - I don’t even have a good reason why.’
One of few trans artists to emerge to such heights within the classical profession, Ella is also acutely aware of their non-binary identity being an important part of supporting other trans artists. Still, inspiring a new generation of classical artists and audiences to celebrate and accept trans people, Ella says, requires resilience. ‘I decided to be an out trans singer because we need more of them. I want people to feel like they can do that safely because me and others before me have done that. Unfortunately - or fortunately - it takes quite a lot of self-reflection to do that. You don’t really get anywhere in activism, trying to make yourself better, without doing quite a lot of reading, legwork and counselling. You have to be totally at peace with your sense of self to be able to present it to the world unapologetically.’
In response, I am keen to ask Ella their thoughts about the recent backlash to a series of articles celebrating pride month and LGBT classical musicians on Classic FM’s social media. Hundreds of homophobic responses to one of the world’s largest online classical platforms included questioning whether raising awareness for LGBTQ+ voices takes away from the ‘true purpose’ of Classic FM - to promote music, not the personal lives of the musicians. Ella’s answer questioned how far we can separate human from musician: ‘You can’t separate the art someone makes from who they are, because it inherently affects their art and the way they portray themselves. Even if I were playing a woman on stage, I would still be bringing aspects of my personality, trans or not, to that role. I would be bringing the empathy of my lived experience to that character, even if they were different experiences. These things are interwoven - they have affected the artist becoming the artist that they are.
‘As long as people are neglected and marginalised in the arts then you need to lift them up, celebrate them and raise their platforms. Still, there’s a thin line between doing that and just having someone there as a token. Companies and organisations need to put working to be actively anti-racist and anti-transphobic in their hiring practices. Just throwing me on the stage: it’s visibility, but it’s not liberation, there’s quite a difference.’
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