Music

Laverne Cox on the One Queer Thing That Changed Her Life: Leontyne Price’s Opera Singing

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Oh, wow.

My voice teacher for the past 20 years, a guy named Ira Siff, had an opera company called La Gran Scena where the men sang the women’s parts in drag. It was a parody. Ira was inspired by Theatre of the Ridiculous and Charles Ludlam, and there was always something very queer about opera in Ira’s world — just these loving parodies of opera. But Leontyne Price was my introduction to opera and now I love opera because of her.

Had you read The Queen’s Throat before discovering her?

No, The Queen’s Throat came later. My love for Leontyne was something I couldn’t describe. It just was this love, this connection, this diva worship. I’ve been thinking a lot about diva worship in my life, which feels like something very queer. If “queering” is a verb, as some folks have suggested, diva worship is something that queered me. I think people of all sexual orientations and identities worship divas, but there’s something specific about diva worship that I think can be very queer.

You discovered Leontyne when you were 10 or 11. Do you think that has gone on to inform your approach to acting? Is there any connection there?

I think the connection with Leontyne for me is just so deep. It’s her singing. I just love her singing. I love her voice and her high Cs. The top of her voice is insane. But I think it’s also the excellence that Leontyne Price embodies as well. She was a barrier breaker. Leontyne Price was the first Black person to sing televised opera in the United States of America — she sang Tosca on NBC in 1955. She broke a major barrier on television, and the South didn’t run the broadcast because her leading man was white. She just broke all these barriers for Black women. I find her story really important as I have broken barriers as a trans woman.

There’s an interview with Leontyne where they’re asking her about the NBC Tosca thing, and they were like, “Were you nervous?” because there were all these protests. She’s 26 years old and there were protests all over D.C. And she’s like, “No. My country gave me this opportunity. The opportunity was there and so I took it.” Then she says, “If you can’t deal with the beauty of this voice, I don’t know what to say to you.”

That was the truth for her and I am deeply inspired by that — that she also says that the accomplishments have no color. For her and other Black people at that time, it really was about, I have to be exceptional. I have to be excellent. And that has stayed with me my whole life. That is something that my mother instilled in me, so I’m really interested in being very good at what I do. I’m very, very interested in that. That comes from Leontyne Price, that comes from my mother, that comes from Black people of that generation who understood that you had to be excellent. It can never be about any kind of mediocrity. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in being exceptional. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but that’s what I’m working toward.

Her story sounds so fascinating. Is that something that you would be interested in bringing to life in a biopic of some sort?

Yes. It’s so funny. Whenever I post about Leontyne Price on Instagram, which I do often, people are like, “You should play her in a film.” I wonder if it’d be controversial for people to have a trans woman play Leontyne Price in a movie. Miss Price is still alive, so we’d have to get permission from her to do so, but it’s definitely something I’ve thought about. And it keeps coming up, so maybe I need to explore it. I’d love to play Miss Price. Absolutely. I’ve been imitating her my whole life. She even has this very specific way of walking out onto stage. I was watching a video this morning. It’s the way she walks out on stage to receive applause, it’s the way she curtsies as she’s bowing. She’s from Laurel, Mississippi, but she talks in a really specific way. She’s clearly very Southern, but she’s very grand at the same time.

Sounds like you’re the perfect candidate. You’ve already been doing the character work!

That is true, very true. Maybe we should look into that. We’ll see.

Promising Young Woman hits theaters on December 25.

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