Kicked out for being gay then rescued by opera: writer Garth Greenwell’s extraordinary awakening

Thrown out of his Kentucky home for being gay, the writer felt his life spiralling downwards. Then he took up opera singing – and everything he had been forced to suppress suddenly exploded out

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Garth Greenwell
‘As a boy, I tried to police myself, to move in the ways I was told were manly’ … Garth Greenwell, right, in 1998 with his accompanist. Photograph: Courtesy: Garth Greenwell

By Garth Greenwell for the Guardian (UK)

I became an opera singer because I failed ninth-grade English. I was a terrible student, lazy and without any apparent gifts, and my mark fell further because shortly before semester’s end my father discovered I was gay and kicked me out. My parents were divorced, and though my mother would have her own long journey when it came to accepting a gay son, she took me in. Even with a bed to sleep in, though, the change in my situation, and the sudden separation from my father, left little room for study. A guidance counsellor sat me down to explain that as a communications student I wouldn’t be able to graduate on time with a missed semester of English; her suggestion was that I change the focus of my studies. I remember looking over the brochure she handed me and being surprised to see that one possibility was choir – the school had the city’s only high-school performing arts programme. I had never been musical but I had sung in church choir and I remember thinking that, of the choices available, choir would surely be the easiest.

It frightens me a little, to think of all that followed from that choice. The choral director, David Brown, heard something promising in my voice. He started giving me lessons after school, for free – and at a cost to himself I wouldn’t understand until decades later when I worked as a teacher and realised how precious that time must have been. He worked with me on scales and exercises and finally simple songs. He taught me about breath and support, and I felt my voice take on a power and spaciousness that surprised and thrilled me. It was my voice, I felt as I sang, but grander than my voice; it suggested I had unsuspected dimensions. He also introduced me to opera, lending me recordings and video tapes, and in doing so gave me my first real experience of art.

Related: Garth Greenwell on his debut novel: ‘I’ve been cruising since I was 14’

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Source: Opera News from the UK Guardian