Zachary James, an out gay opera artist you need to know

Being an openly gay singer in the opera scene can be very challenging. Zachary James, performer, opera singer and musician, is an internationally renowned out artist that shares with YASS how the opera industry has evolved from a conservative world where singers were hiding their personal lives for the sake of their career to a more liberal industry.

How did your career start?

I began my career on Broadway shortly after getting out of school and moving to New York. My first Broadway show was Coram Boy, a big hit in London but a flop in NYC unfortunately, the show closed after a few weeks. The next year I was in South Pacific at Lincoln Center and following that played Lurch in the original cast of The Addams Family. It was from my experience in The Addams Family that I ended up moving to opera. The director of The Addams Family was Phelim McDermott who works with Philip Glass a lot. Phelim connected me with Philip Glass who I auditioned for and who cast me in his world premiere opera, The Perfect American, playing an animatronic Abraham Lincoln doll in Disney Land. We performed the opera in London, Brisbane and Madrid and it was a big break for me and started an important relationship with Philip which has continued for many years now.

When did you decide to come out? How do you feel being one of the few out singers in the opera industry?

Well, I came out my freshman year of college at Florida State University. I was at a party around out gay guys for the first time and I ended up having quite a few drinks and making out with some guys in front of my friends, so….I was kind of a mess. But that’s my story. And to say that was the end of my coming out experience would be a lie. We have to come out over and over and over again in our lives as members of the LGBTQ community. I am constantly on the move, hopping state to state, country to country and meeting new groups of colleagues and new audiences. Every gig I am on I end up having to tell someone I am gay. Just the other day I was on the phone with the Department of Motor Vehicles trying to settle an automobile record for a car I owned with my ex- husband. The clerk asked what my wife’s name was. And I had to “come out” to this stranger. I think it is generational a bit. I am noticing kids don’t come out as much anymore because their age peers don’t care who they are attracted to, so it is not an issue. But we still have people alive today who have had to wait until their parents die to come out because they knew they would lose their families. I am encouraged by the pace with which people are making this a non-issue, but there is much work to be done.

As far as opera goes, it is an interesting beast. We opera singers travel a lot and therefore find ourselves surrounded by a vast array of people with differing backgrounds and views and it can be tricky to navigate. I have several times been the first out gay man someone has met and many times am the often out LGBTQ person in a cast. I also constantly deal with this feedback from strangers that they would never know I am gay because I am so “straight” acting. Yikes. That’s the worst. Because they think they are complimenting you. Like congrats on not appearing gay, wow, you pass. But it is not a compliment. It is a sign that we have had to hide who we are to be accepted socially and professionally. In opera the tides have changed significantly as far as our industry community goes. Colleagues are generally very accepting and celebratory of the LGBTQ presence in our industry. I do know of several LGBTQ people in the opera industry, however, who only recently felt comfortable being out in our industry and certainly there remain those who are not comfortable revealing anything about their personal lives for fear of rejection. It is progress, not perfection. I must contribute that as an artist I am only my best and offering vulnerably of myself in my art when I am fully myself. Owning confidently and shamelessly who I am has a lot to do with my ability to share my soul in performance.

Why is the opera world so seemingly conservative to the point that many people in this sector decide to hide their personal life to pursue a career? Do you have any examples of people in your sector hiding their personal identity?

Absolutely. People are scared of rejection. People are scared to lose work. It’s such a tough life being an artist and the sacrifices are plentiful. We are constantly criticized for things we are not in control of. Recently a singer was torn apart by critics for appearing heavier than when last she was on stage…she had just had a baby and was returning to singing. It is insane what we are subject to. And as I mentioned previously, we also deal with audience members opinions and many times in opera, audience members are also donors to the opera companies, or board members, and their opinions of you matter at the hiring level. We often have to sit for dinners with opera donors or are hosted by them in their homes. Inevitably, an artist’s personal life is brought up in conversation and I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked if I have a wife and kids and where are they and isn’t my life on the road hard on them, etc. The assumptions people can make it very uncomfortable to be yourself sometimes.

Do you think we are moving towards a more LGBTQ+ friendly opera scene? Do you see things change?

Absolutely. This past year The Metropolitan Opera participated in the NYC Pride Parade and featured LGBTQ artists on their social media feeds in celebration of Pride. The Met’s newly appointed Music Director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin is an out gay man, happily married and very active on social media with his husband. These are huge steps in visibility. Many companies are on the frontlines of this movement but many have a long way to go to be fully supportive and proud of LGBTQ artists’ enormous contributions to the industry.

Is the new generation moving towards a less conservative working environment?

Yes, I see major institutional changes primarily due to the Me Too movement. At many opera companies we now begin our rehearsal periods with meetings with Human Resources department where we all are given the same set of tools, resources and guidelines to safely navigate potential experience in the workplace which may make certain individuals uncomfortable or feel discriminated against. There is no excuse for anyone feeling uncomfortable, threatened or unsafe when making art. Creativity requires vulnerability and openness and safety and it is the responsibility of the company to set the standards and guidelines for maintaining positive environments.

How did coming out change your life?

Well. I was able to accept myself. It took a long time. No one really cared that I was gay but I still had some self-imposed societal shame buried in there that I had to wrestle with. Growing up is hard. We are all just truing to figure out who we are and how we fit in this world. I love myself and feel very good about who I am and what I contribute to the world and I wouldn’t have that inner peace if I was living a lie or hiding my identity from the world.

Have you experienced any discrimination because of your sexual orientation?

I have been called faggot a few times, sure. But I survived. Everything is a teachable moment. Either an opportunity to learn something about yourself and to grow or an opportunity to educate someone else who is acting or reacting out of ignorance. I am grateful to have a supportive family. I have friends who come from conservative and religious backgrounds whose families chose their faith life over their children. That is heartbreaking and I am lucky I didn’t have that experience. I am deeply spiritual and have an awesome relationship with a higher power. My idea of what God or the universe or that higher power is is a loving entity, not one that would ask someone to turn their child away because of who they love.

How do you imagine the future of the opera scene?

Opera is finding its footing in the modern world. I think there will be a trend of opera becoming a more intimate experience leaning toward chamber works and continuing to bring in new audience while we reexamine the traditional works to find new meaning. A lot of these top ten operas that every company does over and over again don’t look kindly on women and yet we continue to do them and try to change the circumstances and perspective of the productions to be more accessible to today’s audience. It is interesting.What do you prefer? Theatre or opera?I love both forms and see the divide between them slowly disintegrating but the challenge of opera keeps me going, keeps me young and keeps my brain fresh. It also keeps me on the go and seeing some amazing parts of the world. I love theatre and will always long for eight shows a week on Broadway and being a part of that community again but opera is my home.

What has been the most important moment in your career?

There have been so many milestones, definitely Broadway was a big moment, but bowing on stage with Philip Glass after starring in one of his operas at The Metropolitan Opera was the biggest moment of my stage life.

What has singing taught you?

Oh so much. To stand confidently in who I am, to genuinely connect with others and to be vulnerable. To listen.

What is the message you would like to send to the YASS readers? 

Find yourself, be yourself, love yourself, stay yourself.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m on the road a lot coming up. I have a mini concert tour that’s taking me to Florida, Idaho and Iowa and then I start work on the world premiere of Edward Tulane at Minnesota Opera followed by Macbeth at Florentine Opera and Platee at Des Moines Metro Opera. I’m excited to be returning to The Metropolitan Opera and making Dallas Opera and Opera Omaha debuts in the near future as well. Off stage, I’m looking forward to some much needed beach time with my boyfriend and dog!

More of Zachary James here:

*all images are courtesy of Zachary James

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