Every artist has a first gig. Taylor Trentham's was at Dollywood.
The 22-year-old opera singer recently played the titular role in Roosevelt University's production of Considering Matthew Sheparda classical music tribute to the gay college student who was kidnapped and slain in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Trentham, a vocal performance major at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts ( CCPA ), described the experience as "an uncomfortable yet powerful journey." But years before he took on this historical figure, Trentham encountered another gay icon.
"I've been onstage with Dolly Parton five times, between ages 8 and 13," Trentham said via phone. "Anytime she came to visit Dollywood, they would have the entertainers [sing] backup for her. She was one of the most radiant, humble and humorous people I have ever met."
Parton took a liking to him as well. "She joked to my parents that she wanted to adopt me, to my parents' funny reply, 'well, we've done that already!'"
Trentham's life could have gone in a very different direction. Born in the Philippines, he was only nine months old when his orphanage burned to the ground. Trentham was one of few survivors but was left with second- and third-degree burns on 60 percent of his body. "My parents had already been placed with me through the adoption agency," he said. "When they found out, they were able to fly to the Philippines and adopt early with the help of a senator from Tennessee."
Upon his arrival in the United States, Tennessee surgeons took care of Trentham. Howeverconcerned that the care wasn't adequatehis grandfather, a Shriner, connected Trentham with the organization's burn center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Not only were Trentham's appointment and surgeries free of charge until his 21st birthday, but a doctor also planted the seeds of a lifelong passion. "One of my surgeons when I was 4 years old recommended [I] get involved in dance, hoping that it would help the elasticity of my burns," Trentham said. "I began shortly thereafter, and that was truly the beginning of my love for the stage."
Trentham performed professionally at Dollywood as a child and discovered opera as a teenager, first at Tennessee Governor's School for the Arts and then Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy. After graduating in 2015, he returned to his hometown of Gatlinburg for a self-imposed gap yearand came out as gay. His friends were "absolutely supportive," he recalled.
The singer first learned about Shepard while researching queer culture. "I had watched documentaries and The Laramie Project [a play-turned-film about the effect of Shepard's death on the small Wyoming town] years before," Trentham said. Of course, playing Shepard was an entirely new challenge.
"I was terrified," he admitted. "[Shepard] was an ordinary boy and I feel like that as well. It was very difficult to have to go into that headspace and be brave enough to tell [his] story." At the same time, Trentham said, "I felt that of all the people in [our] choir, I understood the gravity of Matthew's horrific death. So that's why I stepped up and did the role."
Trentham said his most difficult moment was portraying Shepard's demise: "The way that it was staged, the choir was surrounding Matthew as he transfigured into the next realm. Moving on from there was very hard."
On a happier note, Trentham said, playing Shepard made him optimistic about the future of classical music. "This score expresses inner depth and the stories that deserve to be told," he stated. "We do a lot of Beethoven and Mozart, the standard repertoire, and being able to do something so relatable really gave me hope for music as a craft." He also gained confidence as an advocate in "the long, long battle for queer acceptance and validation in society," adding, "Some people are meant to be on the front lines as lawyers and professorsbut sometimes doing what makes you, you, is enough."
Trentham said he seeks to inspire others, on and off the stage. A former volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Chicago, he was selected to participate in the Obama Foundation's first Community Leadership Corps and Community Training Day. "These outside experiences have allowed me to learn how to best engage and support our community, examine arts organization management practices and network," he said. Currently, Trentham serves Roosevelt University as a peer mentor.
"We're all about giving students resources and connections to other parts of the university [as well as] academic and emotional support," said Trentham, who maintains drop-in office hours and meets weekly with a small group of mentees. "I think my life story and all of my experiences make me good at being empathetic. You never know what someone else has going on."
Trentham originally planned to attend Florida State University but changed his mind after visiting a friend in Chicago and meeting CCPA's faculty. He's happy in his adopted home: "[m]y educational goals have been to diversify my skills and apply my knowledge in as many ways as I can, and Chicago has provided that for me."
After completing his degree in 2020, Trentham hopes to begin a career in opera. "I want to sing throughout the world and travel, and experience everything through music," he said. Despite a tumultuous past, his focus is clear.
"One morning in high school, when I'd had five hours of sleep and was hungry and exhausted, I thought, 'I want to do opera,'" Trentham said. "And I decided if I love to do this at my most tired, that's a sign!"