Wild West PSU opera features lead role for trans singer

Portland State’s acclaimed Opera program presents a tale straight out of the Old West, tracing the true story of Charley Parkhurst, a stagecoach driver in the California Gold Rush who was assigned female at birth and lived life as a man. Created by composer Keith Allegretti and librettist Cecelia Raker, “Good Country” is one of the first contemporary operas with a lead role crafted specifically for a trans singer.

Oliver Schulenberg, who is studying vocal performance at PSU, is singing the role of Charley for the “Good Country” production. We asked Schulenberg about his experience as part of this monumental production. “Good Country” is being performed at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3 and 3 p.m. Dec. 4. Tickets are available online

Q: What made you gravitate toward this role?

I was really excited about this role because the music is written specifically for a trans person, which is not something you typically find in opera, or classical music in general.

Q: What does it mean for something to be written specifically for a trans singer?

In this case, I worked with the composer, Keith Allegretti, and he has written this role specifically to be for a trans-masc singer. The role can be sung up an octave or down depending on wherever they are in their transition, so it can be sung wherever fits their voice the best. 

As someone who’s been on testosterone for a couple of years, my voice is still changing. It was really nice to be able to have the freedom to have musical transposition that will fit me no matter where I am. 

Oliver Schulenberg
Oliver Schulenberg, Sarah DeYoung and Andrew Walton in “Good Country” | Photo by Chad Lanning

Q: You’ve mentioned that opera can be difficult to be real, honest and vulnerable as a performer. Why is that?

Opera, like all other theater arts, involves acting. It involves tapping into your own emotions and maybe putting yourself in situations or experiences you never would have been in normally. In this show, I am almost a victim of a hate crime, and it’s really difficult to put myself as a trans person and a trans character in the shoes of someone who’s experiencing a hate crime. That’s something I live in fear with everyday. I feel very safe in Portland, but I’m still gripped with fear everytime I walk into a men’s bathroom because it’s like, what’s going to happen? You don’t know and that can be really hard.

On top of all that emotion, fear and vulnerability, you have to sing and you have to make beautiful sounds. It’s really difficult to find that balance between being able to produce the art I want to produce and be vulnerable and real and also keep enough space so that I’m able to perform to the best of my ability and be in the best voice.

Q: What anchors you in those moments of intense emotion where you find that fear is activated?

I’m very, very lucky to be working with the cast I have. I trust and love every single person in this cast — specifically my co-star counterpart Saori. There will be times on stage where I feel myself starting to trail off and I look at her and like, we take a deep breath and I’m grounded. Being able to separate myself from my character is something I need to work on, but something that’s very effective is reminding myself this is not happening to me, this is happening to Charley, and I get to walk out safe and sound and go home to my cats and take a shower and be completely fine the next day.

Oliver Schulenberg | Photo by Chad Lanning

Q: What do you hope that this offers LGBTQ+ folks who might come to see “Good Country?”

I hope that this offers LGBTQ folks who come see it the knowledge that there’s a place for them in the arts. I have been singing most of my life and I sang most of my life as a woman. When I came out, I almost completely lost that ability. I hated singing literature written for a woman. All of this shouldn’t be gendered, but it is because that’s the classical music world. I just found myself living in this horrible limbo of wanting to honor my gender identity and also wanting to do the one thing I felt that I was good at — which was singing. 

I know that there are a lot of trans people at Portland State and in the music department, and I want every single person to see this show and know that no matter what your gender identity or your voice type, there is room for you in the art you want to make. Nothing should ever limit that. 

Q: What do you hope folks feel when they see this play?

You hear about trans people as like a monolith, but when you see someone on stage and you see them suffering and you want them to survive and you fall in love with their character, that’s exactly how you should feel about every trans person — especially if they’re in your family, your kid, your grandkid, your niece, your nephew, whatever. I just want people to see us as people and not like “others.”