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Tona Brown

The singer/violinist talks about refusing to be defined by voice coaches, the canon, or biology

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Tona Brown is an African-American opera singer and classical violinist. To hear her rich mezzo-soprano voice, you would never guess that she was born a man. When Norfolk, Va., native Thomas Brown, as Tona was known at the time, started singing his vocal coaches told him that a man should not sing mezzo-soprano. Brown, certain of her range, eventually became certain of her identity. Sometime during her voice and violin studies at Old Dominion and the Shenandoah Conservatory, Brown gradually began to identify as trans, in part she says because “people at auditions thought I was a woman anyway.” She came out as a transgender artist in 2006, when she went on a national tour with the Tranny Road Show and now works as an advocate for transgender issues. Based in Baltimore for almost two years, she is a founding member of the Aida String Quartet and performs both locally and nationally. Last month, she was the first classical musician to ever perform at the Out Music Awards, sometimes called the “queer Emmys.” While on her way to a performance in the Midwest, Brown answered a few questions by phone.

City Paper: Tell me a little bit about the Out Music Awards? How did that happen?

Tona Brown: The executive director of the LGBT Academy of Recording Arts thought it would be imperative for me as a transgendered African-American to be a part of this, so it would be inclusive of all people. I didn’t know people would relate to classical music, because most of the artists are rock, funk, R&B, popular genre music. But it was a great experience. We got a rousing standing ovation. It was an ensemble of about 10 or 11 musicians from my network. It was me playing from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and I had a string chamber orchestra behind me that were all my friends, so it was very emotional.

CP: And you’re recording an EP?

TB: It’s entitled This Is Who I Am, and it’s all music of African-American composers, for both violin and voice.

CP: Who are some of the African-American composers you’re recording?

TB: William Still, probably some arrangements by Cal Johnson, and definitely Adolphus Hailstork. I have always included African-American composers in my concerts. So, over the years, I kind of had a good mixture of repertoire, and I didn’t see these pieces being recorded, and I don’t see too many performances of them either. Even just getting the music is difficult. You have to go to special web sites or even contact the composers’ families in some cases. But this music is absolutely gorgeous. I feel we can make these composers well known and make it into something more mainstream. The subject matter is unique, because you have an impoverished people who wanted to share their experience. A lot of these composers set their music to famous poems. A lot of history goes behind it, and I’m excited to share my own rendition of the music.

CP: Since you can’t get the sheet music and they aren’t widely recorded, how did you discover the composers?

TB: I have a certain reference point, because I have been performing with the Gateways Music Festival [a festival featuring African-American classical musicians and composers] in Rochester, New York, since I was 15, and that was the first time I heard any of the music. And my voice teacher and my accompanist and some of my coaches give me music that people don’t perform, and so through time I’ve implemented them into my regular recital performance. And so people were always asking, ‘Do you have an album with that? I’d like to play it for my friends or my family,’ and I’d have to say no. This stuff is my love, so I have to get it out there.

CP: In many ways, classical music is the most European and white male form of music. Have you faced any particular difficulties because of being African-American and transgendered?

TB: It’s the music that matters more. As long as you present yourself with integrity in whatever you’re doing, you usually don’t have too many problems. A lot of African-American singers don’t want to perform this music. I talked to this one young woman who said, ‘I don’t want to sing spirituals and stuff. I don’t want people to think this is all I can do.’ And that’s a horrible way to think about it. If we don’t perform it, then who else is going to do it? Audiences love it. The melodies are not just typical classical music. A lot of times there’s influences of jazz and different rhythms you wouldn’t hear from Bach.

CP: You told me before that you have had trouble getting vocal coaches to accept your range?

TB: I happened to come across some vocal teachers who didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t negate [my] range and the register, but they felt like it was going to ruin my voice. That was their thing. So I feel that, with more exposure, it’s possible for someone who is transgendered or even a male to have a soprano voice in a soprano register, and it is OK. Or a female that sings in a tenor or baritonal register, and it’s OK. If it becomes more accepted by the vocal medical community, then we won’t have as many issues.

CP: You’ve been in Baltimore for a while. What do you think about the classical music scene here?

TB: I work with the Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation, which is a smaller opera company. And I work for myself. So I’ve been very fortunate. But the classical music scene in Baltimore is . . . you have the Meyerhoff and you have Peabody. But there needs to be more places where people can go to hear smaller productions. There are a ton of classical musicians who graduated from Peabody who are still here and could do amazing things, but if you don’t support them and you go to one hall all the time because you think that is all that is out there, then you have a lot of artists who are struggling.

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