María closes her eyes and sings along with the piano in the Teatro Colón. Her exquisite soprano voice resonates in the same room in which her tenor tone had resounded until she completed her gender transition and broke the mould and the status quo of Argentina’s main opera house and concert hall.
Argentine by choice, María Castillo de Lima was born as Felipe in São Paulo 34 years ago. She is the first transgender artist to set foot on the stage of Teatro Colón, one of the most important music venues in the world.
The composer and vocalist entered as a tenor in 2010 and, after her transition in 2011, she made her debut in 2014 as the role of “mother” in Madame Butterfly receiving wide public acclaim in a career that has not stopped soaring.
As a pianist, the brilliant soprano has composed three operas, hundreds of songs, chamber pieces and symphonies.
Castillo de Lima’s presence shook up the rigid conventions of opera in the most conservative of spaces. At first, the Colón was hesitant to offer her a soprano position in the resident choir, but ended up surrendering at the feet of the leading lady’s talent this year.
The singer’s life is a source of inspiration for the transgender community who considers her an icon in their fight for equal rights.
"I am a body with two voices", the diva laughs, conscious of the peculiarity of her case.
Another tenor of the Teatro Colón has transitioned after María, "but did not manage to change registers and continues as a tenor," she added.
"I made two changes. The more profound and absolute was relearning and reorganising all of my vocal work so that it corresponded with the gender I perceive myself to be", the Argentine-Brazilian citizen explained proudly.
"Plácido Domingo has recorded duets singing baritone and tenor, Grace Bumbri in soprano and mezzo, but a person singing tenor and soprano has not been seen so far," she says.
A character of her own creation, María Vkallasova, was a bridge to the opera singer’s new identity.
"I used to sing like a woman and at one point I would tear off my clothes on stage, I would look like a man and sing like a tenor," she recalls about the performances she put on in an alternative theatre in Buenos Aires.
After taking the final step in her transition, the groundbreaking performer stopped singing tenor in public to avoid being mistaken for a transvestite.
Daughter of an Argentine bricklayer and a Brazilian cook who sang in the Evangelist Church, María had a humble but richly musical childhood.
She arrived in Argentina with her family at age seven and settled on a government-owned plot in La Plata, 60 kilometres from Buenos Aires, the antithesis of the golden world of opera.
"My dad built a ranch. I'm not ashamed to talk about it. I'm proud of it because having such a limited childhood I was always very happy. I try to honor the effort," the star adds excitedly.
Self-taught, Castillo de Lima learned music mostly from a book that she took out on loan from a public library.
"I went to a school with an old piano and when the professor wasn’t there, the door lady would let me in and I would play.'' she recalls.
Her first music theory teacher, Elda Juarez, remembers her as the student who "didn't want to sing."
"She said she wanted to be an instrumentalist and refused, until one day while I was writing on the blackboard, she sang. She possessed an exceptional talent," the educator says.
When years later she entered into the municipal conservatory she was given the nickname "Little Mozart" for her musical precocity that brought her to compose an opera at age 16.
María found her feminine voice almost by accident, when a soprano couldn’t hit the high note and a timid Felipe sang it to everyone’s amazement.
From then on, she knew that she could reach the register which would be in tune with the gender expression that would allow her to "be happy"
Although it hasn’t been an easy journey, she thanks the Colón for “opening itself to diversity.”
"The arms were opened little by little because this is a social process not only within the theater but also in Argentina, which despite being a pioneer with the law of Gender Identity, still houses a society that has to rethink the issue of trans people and see that they can thrive in any field." the star affirms.
In that sense, Castillo de Lima believes that she has marked a path beyond the arts in favour of inclusion.
"Those who deny work to a trans girl because of prejudice can see that the Teatro Colón accepted a trans person", María says, "in a few years this will be commonplace.''
by Sonia Avalos, AFP