Saturday, 22 March 2014

Interview with Tona Brown

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Tona Brown, a talented African American Transgender violinist, vocalist, mezzo soprano, actress and host of a web TV series entitled "Conversations with Tona Brown". 
Tona was the first transgender woman to perform at Carnegie Hall and was chosen by the White House to sing the National Anthem for President Obama at a 2011 LGBT Pride Gala in New York City. She participated in such shows as “Now What” with BET producer Kevin E. Taylor, WHRO’s Hear Say with Cathy Lewis, the Anthony McCarthy Show, and the Marc Steiner Show. Hello Tona!
Tona: Hi Monika. It is a pleasure to speak with you and everyone that follows your work. 
Monika: You started as a classical violinist but soon you became a successful mezzo soprano diva. Would you like to keep both options open or you have already decided about your artistic future?
Tona: I would like to keep all options open because I enjoy making music no matter the genre or medium. Music IS my life!
Monika: Could you say a few words about your music career?
Tona: My decision to follow my dreams was the best decision of my life. As an artist I can express things that would be very difficult for me to express normally. Through my art I can release all frustrations and emote in ways unimaginable.
Monika: Regardless of what critics were saying that a transgender woman would not be able to sing mezzo-soprano, you have proved them totally wrong.
Tona: I have, Monika, and the experience has been challenging to say the least to find the right teachers and a medium that would fit my unique instrument. But I wouldn't trade these experiences for the world. They have made me a stronger person and even more determined to succeed.

Monika: Do you have any favourite opera singers?
Tona: I do. I enjoy listening to Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Deborah Voigt, Kathleen Battle, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Reri Grist, Dolora Zajick, Mirella Freni, Beverly Sills and Jessye Norman. 
Monika: What I love about opera divas is their taste in fantastic gowns, make-ups and hairdos. Do you like this aspect of the opera life?
Tona: I do. There is nothing more lovely then to see a beautiful diva in a lovely gown! I believe I am a gown fanatic! lol But the primary interest in opera for me has been the gorgeous melodies and the challenges of the music and characters and one cannot forget the incredible voices that sing the repertoire.

Monika: You toured extensively in the USA and Europe. Do you intend to go back to Europe?
Tona: Yes since I was a teenager with my art high school the Governor's School for the Arts one of the best programs in the country for very young artists. I would love to return to Europe this time as an adult with my own perspective.
My primary interest these days are to share the music of African American composers to the world. There are so many wonderful pieces for recital that the world has not had the opportunity to hear. This to me is a injustice on so many levels.
So I decided to make an EP called "This Is Who I Am" to showcase a few of these wonderful gems. This album can be found on iTunes or Cdbaby. It is the first of many projects to come. I am also singing with The Repertory Theatre of Washington playing the role of Zia Principessa in Sour Angelica later this year as requested by the opera director Jane Tavernier.

Time to let the Music talk and the BS walk
in 2014! Can the church say Amen!

Monika: In 2006 you took part in the Tranny Roadshow project. Could you elaborate more on that project?
Tona: The Tranny Roadshow project was an incredible experience to perform with and meet transgender artists around the US and Canada. I learned that I was not alone as a transgender artist and I feel that was the most important lesson from the tour.
So many transgender artists feel discouraged to pursue their dreams and to speak about their artistic endeavors in fear of what the mainstream media might say about them.
These fears are justified in our society as we are often times seen as people that should not be in the forefront. But what a loss to the artistic community and experience when so many people are being discriminated against we don't get to hear the very best!
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Tona: I am currently working on a number of projects collaborating with various artists from different genres of music. But I am very pleased to also try my hand in acting on a new TV series to premiere on Netflix this year called City Lightz.
Monika: What does it mean to be a transgender artist? Are your music performances influenced by your transgender experience?
Tona: What it means to me to be a transgender artist is I have the opportunity to dispel the negative stereotypes about our people. I don't think I consciously make decisions based on being transgender when picking musical opportunities unless they are within the LGBT community or an opportunity to speak out as an activist. The music is my primary focus when choosing to play a particular role or picking a piece of music to perform.
Monika: What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Tona: I am not a huge fan of the way transgender people are depicted in film and TV. Transgender people are seen as crazy, undesirable or the object of punch lines or jokes. We are not taken seriously.
But I am confident that these depictions will change now that transgender activism is coming into the mainstream and more transgender artists are allowed the opportunities to showcase their abilities. 
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Tona: I did not unfortunately. Which is why I chose to speak out about my life and career to the media.

With President Barack Obama, on the night Tona sung
"The Star-Spangled Banner" at the LGBT event in NYC.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Tona: Knowing that as an African American transgender woman life would be three times harder. I also knew that I would not have the traditional career that most of my colleagues had. But I was OK with it.
As Shirley Verrett advised me: "Their are plenty of opportunities for us all but YOU must find your own niche in this industry". I feel very confident that I have found that niche and enjoy a successful career.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Tona: It is still a struggle for American transgender women to gain acceptance and understanding. Yet, things are changing and more transwomen are developing phenomenal careers and opportunities that weren't available just ten years ago. But there is no denying the challenges, struggles and violence that transgender women around America face on a daily basis needs to be addressed and more work should be done to protect transgender Americans.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Tona: I feel it could be. To be transgender breaks all barriers to gender, sexual orientation and ones general thoughts about who a man or woman is on a very personal level. This is another reason why the violence against transgender people is so prevalent today.
Our very existence makes some feel uncomfortable about who THEY are. It has very little to do with the person being attacked or called horrible names. One who is transgender has to be very strong and learn to pick your battles wisely and to have a greater understanding of why people treat you the way they do at times.
Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Tona: Transgender women are imperative in future politics. I am very supportive of political campaigns and politicians that support LGBT rights and make an effort to teach equality for all people.
Which is why I supported president Barack Obama and sang the National Anthem to honor him at the LGBT Leadership conference in NYC. It has been my pleasure to perform for many of the most progressive political leaders in our country. 

Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Tona: I think beauty is beauty no matter how you were born. Transgender models have been around since the beginning of time. Some of the most beautiful women on this planet are indeed transgender.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Tona: I have been offered the opportunity many times. I feel that I am too young to do so. One day I shall. Right now I just want to live my life to the fullest and PERFORM!
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Would you agree?
Tona: I totally agree. One of the problems of our community is that we want to be accepted so much that we tend to let go of our dreams quicker then that average person out of fear of failure or success. If you have a goal your goal has very little to do with your gender, sexuality or identity. You must go for it with no distraction, whole-heartedly and unashamedly if you want to be successful!
Monika: Tona, thank you for the interview! 

Main photo credits to G. Gar Roberts of Gar Roberts Photography.
All the photos: courtesy of Tona Brown.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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