Talking about transitioning

"My whole idea is to create one giant opera. That’s why instead of the word ‘act,’ I use the word ‘transition.’"

Anthony Green at work: ‘As a black gay man, I recognized in myself a prejudice toward the transgender community that I violently wanted to correct.’ (photo credit: ITAMAR RONEN)
Anthony Green at work: ‘As a black gay man, I recognized in myself a prejudice toward the transgender community that I violently wanted to correct.’
(photo credit: ITAMAR RONEN)
By the time you read this article, something truly out of the ordinary will have happened, something unusual even for Tel Aviv.
A theatrical production will have been staged on June 15 that focuses on the life of a fictional transgender woman – that is, someone who was previously a man and has transitioned into a woman.
As uncommon as this subject may be as the subject of a stage show, what is even more unusual is the fact that the show is not a drama or a musical comedy but an opera. And to complicate things even more, Alex in Transition, An Opera in Three Acts is probably unlike any opera ever written or staged.
The creator of the project – composer of the music and the libretto – is Anthony Green, who describes himself as a “black gay male.” He was born 32 years ago in Virginia and was raised from age three in Providence, Rhode Island.
“I’m a true New Englander at heart,” he says.
He is also a lifelong artist. “I started playing piano by ear when I was five. We really didn’t have too much money to spend on piano lessons, but I progressed with piano. My mother recognized that I needed lessons, and I started piano lessons when I was 10,” he recounts.
Green was then sent to chamber music camps. Later, he started as a piano major at Boston University but quickly switched to composition; he received his master’s at the New England Conservatory of Music.
While studying in Boston, Green met Itamar Ronen, an Israeli pianist and doctor who has been Green’s life partner for the past eight years. The two live in The Netherlands, where Ronen is associate professor of radiology at the Leiden University Medical Center. Green returns to Boston two or three times a year, however, to perform and to direct the activities of Castle of our Skins, a nonprofit organization he founded, he says, “to celebrate black artistry through music.”
To write the libretto for Alex in Transition, Green did about two years of research, interviewing two transgender women.
His motive for this is compelling. “As a black gay man, I recognized in myself a prejudice towards the transgender community that I violently wanted to correct,” he says.
Elaborating about this prejudice, Green explains, “There was a time when I became aware that I am black and gay and thus belong to two minority groups who throughout history have been prejudged and treated badly just because of their skin color and their sexual orientation.
But before being aware of myself as a black gay male, I had some really negative attitudes toward the trans community.
“A lot of gay men approach the transgender world with a bit of hesitancy. They include it in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement, but they don’t do much to promote transgender rights or actively get to know transgender people.
“But taking into consideration that I am a part of a minority gave me the impetus to correct my ideology,” he continues, “because I know firsthand how it feels to be stereotyped as a black man and as a gay man. So I want to avoid that kind of stereotyping towards as many minority groups as possible. And this particular group really stuck out to me because I had never really grown up knowing anyone who was trans.
“And when you look at many of the portrayals of transgender, transsexual and transvestite people on TV, they’ve been very comedic and not positive. I can’t recall seeing a trans person being portrayed in any kind of sophisticated and artistic way at all. So I wanted to correct that, not only for me but for others who are willing to see better representations of trans people,” he says.
Green “corrected” this lack of sophisticated portrayals by writing an opera that explores the life and transitions of his fictional character Alex in a respectful way, in more or less “ideal situations,” he says, instead of exploring some of the “real tragedies that many trans individuals face.”
Asked to give some examples of these less than ideal realities, Green replies, “Oh, my God, where do I begin? For many trans people who grew up when the whole trans terminology wasn’t really there for them, they just knew they were different. There’s a lot of psychological angst and pain at not being able to recognize what is wrong with yourself and why you hate yourself. Your parents are telling you that you’re a boy and must dress, talk and act like a boy, or that you’re a girl and must behave like a girl.
That causes a lot of psychological pain.
“And for those trans individuals who have been rejected by their families and communities for being gay or for being in-between gender expression, they have to live on the street. And unlike someone like [famed athlete and now transitioning] Caitlyn Jenner, they don’t have enough money to safely transition. So a lot of trans, especially trans teens, will get hormones from the street, and those hormones are dirty. And they have to hustle to get enough money for the hormones in the same way that drug addicts hustle to make money for the cocaine or heroin addictions. So that’s why a lot of young trans people are sex workers, just to get enough money to take hormones to maintain an identity they feel comfortable with,” he says.
Green chose to portray his character’s gender transitions in an ideal, positive way to express a broader, more universal message.
“I wanted to focus on the idea that transition happens in many ways, for everybody,” he explains. “In order for everyone to better relate to the transgender world, I think we need to approach that transition the way we approach other transitions in our lives. Coming out, if you’re gay or lesbian. Or just growing up and finding out who you are as an individual, coming into your own talents, recognizing that you are a fruitful person.”
Composer and librettist Green describes Alex in Transition as “a modular opera,” comprised of acts or scenes – he calls them “transitions” – that can be performed in any order or can even be extracted and performed as stand-alone productions. Each transition has a varying cast and is of varying lengths.
“I think it’s new,” Green says. “I don’t think that anyone has ever done something like this before. My whole idea is to create one giant opera. That’s why instead of the word ‘act,’ I use the word ‘transition.’ Because eventually I want to have 12 transitions, which would be about four and a half hours’ worth of music.”
The current production, seen in Tel Aviv on June 15, has three transitions, all performed with a small orchestra and conductor. Green and his co-producers were able to crowdfund a significant portion of the production costs on
“Alex in Transition has elements of inevitable didacticism,” Green says, to “reflect a more accurate view of sexual reassignment than what is usually presented through media.”
One would assume that most members of the transgender community hope that a generation or two from now, in a more enlightened time, an opera like this might be performed with knowing irony instead of didacticism, and maybe even for laughs. That day, however, is probably still very far away.