Meet Kim Mendez-McLeish, 2022 Graduate Lecturer

Opera song

Kim Mendez was given the role of Baba the Turk, the bearded lady in Igor Stravinsky’s opera in 1951 The progress of the rake. It didn’t feel right. The character looked like a mix of bad gay stereotypes. For Mendez — who identifies as a queer Latin fat liberator — that was a problem.

So Mendez went to see the director of the opera. Together, they reinterpreted the character. Baba’s pronouns would be changed into them (which are also Mendez’s pronouns). Mendez would sport a glittering beard to portray Baba as a beloved character whose gender-fluid nature confuses everyone. “It gave me a sexual euphoria to sing this fabulous role on stage,” Mendez said.

Like their role as Baba, Mendez’s own path to UCLA has been anything but ordinary. Growing up in Chico, CA, music was always a part of their lives, but it wasn’t something they ever considered a career path. College was not on their horizon. Working in an office, they began to feel like their life was going nowhere. Afterwards, Mendez was visited by a friend from Los Angeles, who mentioned she needed a new roommate. Mendez gave his two weeks’ notice that day.

“LA was intimidating,” Mendez recalled. They enrolled in Pasadena City College, then spent several years working as costume designers. While a fascinating undertaking, it was a grueling schedule that often left Mendez wondering if there was a healthier way to earn a living. They returned to Pasadena City College, this time thinking music therapy might be an interesting career path. Their singing teacher, Maria Fortuna Dean, was struck by Mendez’s talent and asked Mendez if they were going to apply to transfer to UCLA to study music. Mendez said no.

“She asked me if I was crazy,” Mendez recalled with a laugh.

Mendez then completed his bachelor’s degree in music at UCLA before enrolling as a master’s student in vocal performance. Among their highlights at UCLA were performing on a Grammy-winning recording with the UCLA Chamber Singers, as well as participating in the Seraphic Fire Ensemble Artists program through their Choral Studies program. This gave them two opportunities to travel to Miami and sing with a professional vocal ensemble.

“The music was incredibly challenging,” Mendez said. “And the pandemic has made it difficult to reunite and rehearse before we go to Miami. So I was really nervous. Professional singers saw this deer in the headlights and assured me it was some of Bach’s toughest music.

The impact of singing with Seraphic Fire cannot be underestimated. “It was a life-changing experience.”

A longtime human rights advocate, Mendez served on UCLA’s LGBTQ+ Student Advocacy Committee. Of particular note was their work in conjunction with the Trans Wellness team to ensure that the language of the [email protected] website was welcoming to all. Given the stress and tension of the pandemic, Mendez understood how important this was.

“For a trans person, going to the doctor can be terrifying, especially for trans students who may be able to come out and receive trans care for the first time,” Mendez said. “We went through the language of the website, line by line, to make sure it was specific, informative and inclusive.” Mendez has also worked on outreach to the LBBTQ+ community.

Mendez’s final master’s recital was a showcase of their vocal talent, family history and identity. The recital was framed by a cycle of songs by Dylan Tran entitled Eulogy of Mi Cuerpo (In celebration of my body), with poems by Guatemalan feminist poet Alíde Foppa. Kim Mendez created numerous arrangements, including a mashup of Benjamin Britten’s song “Funeral Blues” with William Bolcolm’s “George,” a song that adapted a poem about the murder of a trans woman. In Mendez’s arrangement, the character’s pronouns were changed to her correct pronouns, and her real name, Georgia, was used rather than George, her dead name (a trans person’s birth name, which is changed during gender transition).

Except in one place. “There was a time when I had to guard George because of the pace,” Mendez explained. “But I followed it up with a line where Georgia corrects me [the singer] with her real name, like so many trans people have to do every day. It was my own representation of the trans experience.

Mendez is looking forward to the start. But there will be little time to rest. After graduating, they head to the Aspen Music Festival with the Seraphic Fire Professional Choral Institute, and then it’s time to prepare for the fall audition season.