'They Know That I'm The Real Deal': Transgender Baritone Makes Opera History | Texas Public Radio

'They Know That I'm The Real Deal': Transgender Baritone Makes Opera History

May 31, 2019
Originally published on June 1, 2019 9:25 am

This month in Tulsa, Okla., opera singer Lucia Lucas made her U.S. debut. She also made history.

At the Tulsa Opera, Lucas sang the title role in Mozart's Don Giovanni. Mozart's character is a ruthless, macho womanizer. Lucas is a transgender woman with a rich baritone voice and is the first known trans woman to sing a principal role on an American opera stage. In a conversation with NPR's Ari Shapiro, Lucas said she doesn't want her performances to be entirely defined by this historical marker.

"It's meaningful because any time something happens for the first time, it's meaningful," she says. "But it shouldn't be meaningful. Trans people shouldn't have a barrier to entry, except for just talent."

But in the beginning, Lucas says, she was fearful that living as a woman would jeopardize her ambitions in opera: "I was concerned that it would be too uncomfortable for me to present as a man onstage, to sing with my baritone voice onstage." Her discomfort took hold immediately after coming out, when she had to face a week of performances.

Lucia Lucas in Don Giovanni.
Shane Bevel Photography / Tulsa Opera

"But instead of questioning these things and thinking about how it would psychologically affect me, I decided to just do it," she says. "And so I did the next week of performances and said, 'Oh, I can do this. This is fine. As long as I don't have to pretend offstage, I can pretend onstage.' "

As far as talent goes, Lucas is confident that her craft speaks for itself. She says she's unconcerned about being pigeonholed as a trans opera singer, as opposed to simply an opera singer: "When people hear me, they know that I'm the real deal."

Lucas spoke with All Things Considered about her experience; hear the full conversation at the audio link.

: 6/01/19

In the audio of this story, as well as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Lucia Lucas is the first known trans person to play a principal role in an opera on a U.S. stage. While she is the first known trans woman to do so, trans male opera singer Adrian Angelico performed in the U.S. in 2017.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Tulsa, Okla., earlier this month, the opera singer Lucia Lucas made history.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON GIOVANNI")

LUCIA LUCAS: (As Don Giovanni, singing in Italian).

SHAPIRO: This is a recording of Lucas rehearsing for her American debut. At Tulsa Opera, she played the title role in the Mozart opera, "Don Giovanni." The character is a macho womanizer. Lucia Lucas is a transgender woman. Her voice is a baritone, so the roles she performs on stage are primarily men. She is the first known trans person to play a principal role in an opera on a U.S. stage. She knew that she was a woman from a young age. She only discovered her passion for singing opera in college.

So when I spoke with her recently, I asked whether she was ever afraid of those two dreams getting in the way of each other - living openly as a woman and making a life in opera, with a masculine, baritone voice.

LUCAS: Absolutely (laughter). It wasn't until I came out that I tried to figure out how it all would work.

SHAPIRO: Right.

LUCAS: (Laughter) So no, I never thought I could do both.

SHAPIRO: So what was your lightbulb moment that you could sing opera with the voice that you have, as a transgender woman, playing male roles?

LUCAS: Well, I think the key was, the week after I came out, I had three or four performances, and I was concerned that it would be too uncomfortable for me to present as a man on stage. But I decided to just do it. And so I did the next week of performances, and I said at the end of that week, oh, I can do this; this is fine. As long as I don't have to pretend offstage, I can pretend onstage; that's fine.

SHAPIRO: You not only play male roles, but the specific roles that you have sung have been these archetypes of masculinity. I mean, from Don Giovanni, who is this womanizer who you just played at Tulsa Opera, to Wotan in Wagner's ring cycle. Here's a clip of you singing an aria from "Das Rheingold."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DAS RHEINGOLD")

LUCAS: (As Wotan, singing in German).

SHAPIRO: What's it like as a woman to embody these most kind of stereotypical, cliche archetypes of masculinity?

LUCAS: There's two sides of it. One is my own person is so far away from these characters that I play. I know that when I get off the stage, whatever I do onstage is not my own personality offstage.

SHAPIRO: Right, people who play murderers on stage or screen don't get asked, when they leave the stage, whether they actually kill people in real life.

(LAUGHTER)

LUCAS: Yeah. You don't necessarily have to have all of the experience of your characters in order to portray them. But the second thing is, in cases especially of fathers, because I play a lot of fathers, I think I am able to show a more vulnerable side. Like, in Wotan, putting Brunnhilde on the rock. I think Wotans don't normally let that hit them emotionally, that this is the last time they're going to see Brunnhilde. And I think that letting that really hit you emotionally can be really powerful.

SHAPIRO: You know, the conductor Marin Alsop used to fight against being described as a woman conductor, rather than just a conductor. Are you worried that, similarly, you will be identified as a transgender singer, rather than just an opera singer?

LUCAS: Not at all. When people hear me, they know that I'm the real deal. Doesn't matter.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That is such a good answer. It's like, judge me on my merits.

LUCAS: Look - I've been singing opera my entire adult life. I've been singing opera professionally for the last 10 years as my only source of income. So what else do you want, really?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Let's listen to a little bit more of you in performance. This is from the opera "Falstaff." You're singing the role of Ford.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FALSTAFF")

LUCAS: (As Ford, singing in Italian).

SHAPIRO: Is it more exciting or lonely to be the first and most prominent person in this position, or does it just feel like the life you're living, you know, whatever that means?

LUCAS: I mean, it's the same life that I was living before. It's - being trans doesn't have much to do with my daily life.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LUCAS: So I don't think about being trans; my wife doesn't think about me being trans. We're always consistently working on our careers, trying to make ourselves better. And tons of travel. And that doesn't have anything to do with me being trans.

SHAPIRO: Right, right.

LUCAS: It just has to do with my opera career. I think my opera career has made my life way more hectic than me being trans.

SHAPIRO: Let's go out on a little more music. We have a recording of you singing an aria from Wagner's "Flying Dutchman." Lucia Lucas, thanks so much for talking with us.

LUCAS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE FLYING DUTCHMAN")

LUCAS: (As The Dutchman, singing in German).

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say Lucia Lucas is the first known trans person to play a principal role in an opera on a U.S. stage. While she is the first known trans woman to do so, trans male opera singer Adrian Angelico performed in the U.S. in 2017.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.