Tona Brown: Trans woman, mezzo, violinist, trail blazer

Tonya Brown

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2014 — Tona Brown is the first Transgender woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. She is also the first African American Transgender woman to perform for an American president. Tona created her own show, and built an artistic life for herself within the classical world. This inspirational performer spoke to CDN’s Dane Edidi about her ground breaking concert at Carnegie Hall.

EDIDI: Where are you from?

BROWN: I am originally from Norfolk, Virginia but currently resident in Springfield Virginia.

You have an amazing show called Conversations with Tona. How was that birthed?

Conversations with Tona Brown was started out of frustration with how mainstream media handle interviews with LGBT people particularly transgender people.  Before conversations with Tona Brown there were a number of notable journalists that were interviewing transgender people but they did not seem to know the proper terminology, use the proper pronouns in reference to us and didn’t seem to “get it.”  So I decided to start with a few of my friends and colleagues and to start my own series entitled “Conversations with Tona Brown” on Youtube. It’s been a lot of fun.

What brought you to music? How long have you studied? Voice? Violin?

Music was actually my second choice because originally I wanted to be a famous dancer.  I took ballet, tap and jazz throughout my adolescence and really enjoyed it.  But I had issues with my weight and didn’t feel that I could pursue the art form with my weight fluctuating the way it did.  But music was introduced to me from a very young age and at the age of 9 or 10 I went to a children’s concert at the Kennedy Center for the performing arts and fell in love with the sound of the violin.  I told my teacher that I wanted to be just like the first chair and I went home to my parents and asked them to buy me a violin.  Of course my family couldn’t afford to do so but realized I was serious about my desire to perform on the instrument and rented me a violin in the fifth grade.  So from the age of 10 I played the violin. I sang in the church choir growing up but didn’t start taking voice lesson formally until I was in college!  Vocal expression and music would come much later.

Who are some of the Women of Color in Classical Music that inspired you?

I was very inspired by Leontyne Price.  My roommate and I would listen to her voice all day and we would listen to Denyce Graves at night! I love the sound of Jessye Norman as I prefer darker toned sopranos to the very bright sound that is the norm in America.   Kathleen Battle, Shirley Verrett, Martina Arroyo, and Grace Bumbry were others.   I had the pleasure of writing an article for the St. Louis American Newspaper about Shirley Verrett and we spent four hours on the phone speaking about her life and my transition as a vocalist and into music.  She has been a huge inspiration to me.  We later met in person at her masterclass and she told me never to give up and to find my “own niche” because there is plenty of room for all of us to succeed.  Some advice I live by today!

I remember my mother and me cheering because you played for the president! How did it feel to the be the first transgender woman of color to do that? You brought our presence back into the White House!

Well it was really amazing.. I can’t remember being more excited to perform for an event.  The performance was actually at the Sheraton NYC for the LGBT leadership dinner and fundraiser for president Barack Obama’s campaign.  It’s a night I will never forget.  It was amazing too because I was able to talk to him and get my photo taken with him.  A photo I will cherish forever.

Now, I love Opera and Puccini is one of my favorite composers. How was it playing the princess in Sour Angelica?

Playing La Principessa in Suor Angelica was an amazing opportunity for me.  First I was actually asked at the last minute because the Mezzo who was originally cast had a scheduling conflict and my voice teacher thought I would be able to perform for the role.  I was very nervous because Puccini who I adore didn’t normally write for my voice type.  I had never heard the role before and I had not been in a professional operatic production as a soloist! But I trust my vocal coach and teacher and when I sang through the piece the first time I knew it was a perfect fit.  It sits a little low because it’s a contralto role but I found it not too be too terribly difficult to manage after some practice.  It’s also a very short role with a very difficult argument scene that took some diligent work but when it was all done I was happy with what we were able to do in such a short period of time.  I commend Jane Tavernier and the Singer’s Theatre of Washington for allowing me the opportunity.  Of course I am the first transgender mezzo they have ever cast.  It was a huge success!

How does it feel to be the first Transgender woman of color to perform at Carnegie Hall?

Being the first transgender woman of color to perform at Carnegie Hall is an enormous honor.  It’s sad to hear that in 2014 this is the case.  But I’m very glad to be the person to break open the door for other amazing artists in the future.

Are you able to tell me about one of the pieces you will perform and why it is special to you?

I’m very happy to be performing a wide array of selections but most of them will be art songs and negro spirituals by African American composers.  I have been studying this repertoire for the past four years and I enjoy the music immensely.  One piece in particular will be from the poetry of Langston Hughes composed by Margaret Bonds an incredible female composer of African American decent.   The Three Dream Portraits consisting of Three individuals and what their ideals of an amazing time or a happier existence would be during the time of slavery.  The three movements are entitled I, Too, Dream Variation, and Minstrel Man.  The music in glorious, the key signatures are challenging along with the musics complicated rhythmic structure but I can’t sing these songs enough!  Since I adore Langston Hughes I’m also singing another piece based off his poetry entitled Genius Child by Robert Owens and so much more!

I love that you will be both singing and playing violin! How does your mind switch from the technique of the violin to the technique of the voice without tension?

I make it a priority to do both mediums (violin and voice) on most concerts unless I am in poor voice and its all violin or the client hires me to just do one or the other.  Switching between the two doesn’t bother me at all because they are so entirely differently although I have learned to draw parallels with each instrument.  It also gives my body a rest as the program progresses so that I can stay fresh and alert for any given period of time.  Therefore there is very little tension because I am not over exerting my energy either way.  It works out perfectly and gives my audience a very diverse program allowing a memorable listening and visual experience.

Thank you for taking time to answer these questions, sis; and as a Trans Woman and  performance Artist, I would love to take the time to thank you for paving the way for all of us.

Check out Tona Brown as she takes to the Carnegie Hall Stage in her historical and groundbreaking recital from Stone Wall to Carnegie on June 25th. Accompanied by pianist Charlie Gilmer this is an event not to be missed.

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