Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Singing Drag with Conchita Wurst and Courtney Act

 I would like to dedicate this post to a long-time friend, Alistair Smith, who recently 'engaged' quite directly in gender issues himself.  Best wishes, Alistair, and I hope that you are feeling all better soon!

This past weekend, Austrian contestant Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest.  Her victory was noteworthy, in part, because Conchita was born a he.  Thomas Neuwirth developed the character of Conchita in response to the challenges that he encountered growing up gay in a conservative community.  Her victory has sparked discussion across the internets that this win is significant because it defies the kind of anti-gay policy that has been surfacing in places such as Russia (Russia denounced Conchita's performance, although the popularity of her single seems to indicate that Russians themselves take no issue with gender bending).  Yet Conchita was not the first contestant to win Eurovision in drag; Dana International, representing Israel, took the 1998 competition:

Conchita's win is significant because her success suggests that a clearly transgender performer can be accepted by a wide audience--the fact that Conchita has a beard makes it impossible to forget that underneath the dress is a man (in contrast to Dana International, whose performance is much more feminized). Paris Lees, writing for The Guardian, called Conchita 'a sort of bearded Beyonce; adoring her is now compulsory, and rightly so.'

Conchita's song, 'Rise Like A Phoenix,' points, of course, to her transformation and rebirth, engaging directly with this new identity that she has chosen.  The performance itself blurred her gender by keeping Conchita's face in shadow until the audience has already seen her body, juxtaposing the female and male appearance more effectively than if she had simply appeared on stage:

While Conchita's win is significant as a testament to the level of acceptance that now exists for performers who explicitly question the binary of gender, I also want to suggest that the fact that these performers are singing is of equal significance.  Typically, drag performances have relied more heavily on lip-synching, which helps to mitigate the obvious challenge of men playing women but still sounding like men.  The 1994 Australian film Priscilla: Queen of the Desert features numerous performances of this type:

Anyone who is a fan of RuPaul's Drag Race is already aware of how essential lip-synching is to drag: the elimination round hinges exactly on this skill.

Having men sing like women and vice versa is not necessarily new, although I believe that what Conchita and her contemporaries are doing is new.  For example, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and even into the nineteenth), opera seria was performed by castrati: men whose voices never changed because they were castrated at a young age, and who could perform in the range of a soprano with the gusto of a tenor.  Historical evidence suggests that audiences viewed these men as men, not as men singing as women.  Castrati typically performed the role of the male hero, so there were few questions about how their gender was to be understood in these works.  These parts continue to pose challenges today in terms of performance: in some versions, women will play men and sing the roles.  Alternatively, men can sing the roles as contratenors, meaning that they perform using a falsetto voice.  Either way, the actual effect differs greatly from the expectations of a Baroque audience.

Another way that opera engages with gender is through trouser roles, where women will play male characters.  These characters are typically younger men, with the implication being that the voice has not yet fully changed.  Trouser roles are found in repertoire works such as Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (Cherubino) and Strauss's Rosenkavalier (Octavian, who then confuses things even further by dressing as a woman in some scenes).  In such cases, the gender switching is often considered to be a form of titillation for the audience.  The opening scene for Rosenkavalier, for instance, features Octavian in bed with an older woman.  Trouser roles are conventionally reserved for women playing men, a gender switch that is viewed today as relatively harmless.  Even popular family films such as the 2006 She's the Man show that it is okay for girls to pretend to be boys.  I can't think of too many popular family films that show the reverse.

Conchita, on the other hand, is playing a woman, even though she retains aspects of being a man.  She also is singing, not lip-synching.  In this, she is joined by two of the three finalists from this season of RuPaul's Drag Race: Courtney Act and Adore Delano.  All three of these individuals competed on their country's version of Idol as men; in Courtney's case, she came back the next day, after being eliminated, and performed instead as a woman, then went on to compete in drag:

Much of this clip is engineered for television, of course, just as any reality show.  But the performance is noteworthy.  There is nothing here that indicates a man is performing, particularly in the voice.  I suspect that part of why these male performers can sing female parts is specifically related to the fact that contemporary pop music is frequently sung in a lower register for women, so, for the most part, it is possible for a man to perform this same repertoire without changing the music significantly (I doubt we will see any of these performers tackling Mariah or Donna Summer anytime soon, since that range would be too much of a challenge).  Courtney Act lowers the vocal range from the Lesley Gore original, but it still sounds like it could be a woman performing.

Drag queens singing is a tradition that also goes back a while, as this 1993 track from RuPaul reminds us:

While some moments sound like a woman, for the most part, the voice sounds more masculine.  This is in contrast to Conchita or Courtney, whose voices also remain 'in character' throughout their performances.  Conchita's victory, then, may be of greater significance than demonstrating growing tolerance toward gender ambiguity.  These performers are not simply mimicking others' words, they can now convey their own.  With this generation of artists, drag is not only a visual art: now drag also has a voice.

PS - If you are curious, #teamBiancadelRio


  1. I appreciate the broad spectrum of gender diversity, from drag (identifying as one gender and putting on a character/persona of another) to those of us for whom our presentation matches with our gender identity, if not necessarily with our biology. It's tricky territory to navigate at times.

  2. Dana International is not a drag queen. She transitioned a few years prior to her Eurovision win.