New chamber opera brings to life true story of trans stagecoach driver in the California Gold Rush

Wednesday, April 10, 2019
The Barmaid (Chang Liu) sings to Charley (Holden Madagame). Composer Keith Allegretti conducts. Photo by Logan Smith.

When Cecelia Raker came across a children’s book about cross-dressing stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst years ago, she pocketed the story, hoping to return to it for inspiration on a future project.

That moment came in spring 2018, when Raker, an M.F.A. in playwriting candidate, was approached by Keith Allegretti to collaborate on a chamber opera as part of his dissertation project for his D.M.A. in composition. He wanted to create something set during the California Gold Rush era, and Raker immediately pitched the story of Parkhurst as source material.

“I told him the story, and mentioned that at least from my research, it didn’t seem like anyone had told the story as a piece of queer history,” said Raker. “All the narratives I could find about Charley are about a girl in boy’s clothing doing something brave, a feminist icon, first woman to vote in California, etc. But this is a person who lived his whole life as a man from the age of 11, and seems to have identified as a man, and it felt right to complicate the narratives I’d heard. Far too often, queer and trans identities get erased when history is written, and we have the opportunity to repair that history with a potentially more accurate—albeit fictionalized—version.”

Raker began working on the libretto in summer 2018 and went through a few drafts before landing on a structure that worked for the story: one fictional night in Parkhurst’s life set in a saloon that pulled from a number of historical anecdotes.

The Doctor (Joseph Quintana) and the Lady (Chantal Freeman) order a round of stiff drinks from the Barmaid (Chang Liu) after surviving a holdup with outlaws. Photo by Logan Smith.

“I had a fantastic time learning the catawampusly rowdy language of the old West, and this was also a useful craft exercise in concise writing,” said Raker. “I’ve learned to be less subtle when basic plot points are concerned—sometimes subtle gestures or sarcasm just don’t read when sung.”

Allegretti began working to add music to her libretto in the fall, and even before he began composing, they were already working on casting a trans singer whose own lived experience resonated with Parkhurst’s story.

“Casting began with the realization that we would need to find a specific singer before I could write a note of music,” said Allegretti. “Writing for a specific person is generally good advice for any composer, since the human voice is so much more individualized than any instrument. But with the added consideration that we would cast a trans person as Charley, I knew that we would absolutely need to cast the role early so I could tailor it to our Charley’s voice.”

Allegretti and Raker put out calls in their respective networks, and more than a dozen applications came in from trans singers all over the world. But Holden Madagame, an American tenor based in Berlin, stood out above all the candidates. Madagame has worked as a passionate trans activist, forging the way for trans-identified artists to work openly in opera and classical music, and he turned out to be a terrific collaborator with Allegretti and Raker.

Good Country is the first opera we know of that was composed in collaboration with a trans singer and written for their voice,” said Allegretti. “Our Charley, Holden Madagame, was trained as a mezzo, and has all of the expertise that a highly competent cisgender singer would. The fact that he knows what it feels like to get tired vocally, or struggle with singing a high note pianissimo differently than a trained lyric tenor would, adds a rare depth to our artistic process.”

Allegretti is including ossia options in the score for singers whose voices reflect the variety of ranges among transmasculine and non-binary transition, and he says that he would love to hear a contralto, countertenor or baritone sing the role of Charley in a future production.

Thanks to a grant from the Fine Arts Diversity Committee, Allegretti and Raker were able to bring Madagame to Austin this spring for a performance of Good Country as part of the 2019 Cohen New Works Festival. The festival is a biennial, week-long showcase of new work created by students at The University of Texas at Austin held in various locations in and around UT campus. Good Country is one of 30 new works created by UT students that will be performed next week. Audiences will have two opportunities to see the new opera: Monday, April 15 at 4 p.m. and Tuesday, April 16 at 5:30 p.m. in the Lab Theatre.

After the festival, Allegretti and Raker hope to continue working with Madagame as a dramaturgical consultant and a performer to develop the opera further and to pitch the work to opera companies to develop it as a full production in the future.

“My biggest hope is that this piece will inspire trans classical singers whose gender journeys have impacted their singing voices in different ways,” said Allegretti. “Holden has told me this is an important part of what he does as a trans activist, and I hope that Good Country will allow him to further pursue that goal.”

Images: Top, The Barmaid (Chang Liu) sings to Charley (Holden Madagame). Composer Keith Allegretti conducts. Photo by Logan Smith.

The Doctor (Joseph Quintana) and the Lady (Chantal Freeman) order a round of stiff drinks from the Barmaid (Chang Liu) after surviving a holdup with outlaws. Photo by Logan Smith.

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