Sacramento Opera Star Lucia Lucas Pushes Industry Boundaries — and Beyond

Opera singer Lucia Lucas became the first transgender person to sing a lead role in a standard operatic work in the United States. (Josh New)

Opera has a long history of gender play. Women have performed young male roles on stage for hundreds of years, like the lovesick youth Cherubino in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

Yet the industry still mostly observes rigid gender codes when it comes to casting.

But then ... there's Lucia Lucas.

The Sacramento-born-and-raised baritone made her debut in May as Don Giovanni with the Tulsa Opera, becoming the first transgender person to sing a lead role in a standard operatic work in the United States.

The New York Times sent a reporter. The Metropolitan Opera sent a casting representative. Lucas had a documentary crew following her around. And her dad, whom she hadn’t seen for a decade, flew in specially for the occasion.

“There was a lot of pressure to sing well,” Lucas said.

Jana McIntyre (left) and Lucia Lucas (right) in the 2019 production of 'Don Giovanni' at the Tulsa Opera.
Jana McIntyre (left) and Lucia Lucas (right) in the 2019 production of 'Don Giovanni' at the Tulsa Opera. (Emily Steward)

Lucas said she’d been wrestling with questions about her gender identity since she was a kid.

"My mom caught me with makeup," Lucas said. "My dad found my stash of girls clothes."

It was a difficult time.

Lucas started singing in high school. She sang baritone and mostly presented as a man. She almost came out as transgender in college. But her career was starting to unfold. And she fell in love with a fellow opera singer — a woman. They got married. So Lucas decided to put the decision off.

"I don’t know," she said. "I guess I just sort of thought maybe I can have this 'normal life.' "

Lucas moved to Germany in 2009 — where she still resides today — because there were more opportunities for opera singers there.

"There's so many people that would love to have that," she said. "To be a working artist, you know, where they make at least enough money to live and continue doing their art full time. But it wasn't fulfilling for me."

Lucia Lucas' masculine stage persona
Lucia Lucas' masculine stage persona. (Johannes Kaplan)

She was about five years into a steady, salaried job as a baritone with a highly regarded German opera house, the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, when she finally decided she had to come out.

Lucas chose the splashy opera ball for the occasion. It was May 2014. One of her company’s artistic directors, Jan Linders, said she made quite an entrance.

"We were startled," Linders said. "She came fully dressed as a woman. Made it clear that she wanted to be addressed as Lucia from that day on."

He said after they got over the initial shock, the company grappled with what to do about Lucas.

"Where should be her dressing room? Should it be in the ladies or the gentlemen floor? How should she be addressed in program books? How could we convey this private change to directors that would cast her?" he said.

Living Authentically: Life As A Transgender Opera Singer

Lucas said the opera company ultimately decided not to renew her contract. Her former employer isn’t commenting on that.

Lucas started taking estrogen and underwent surgery. She embarked on a freelance career, singing swaggering Wagnerian baritone roles like Wotan.

Though her professional status is steadily rising, she’s suspicious of the reasons companies give — if they give any — for failing to follow through on promised auditions or for dropping her from their roster.

"You know, nobody is fired for being trans," she said. "They’re fired for being, you know, 90 seconds late, or not complying with the dress code regulations."

Sponsored


Taking testosterone is an option, albeit a risky one, for trans men seeking to lower their voices. But it’s a different story for trans women hoping to sing in a higher, more traditionally female range, said UCSF voice speech pathologist Sarah Schneider.

"For trans females, taking female hormones does not actually change the voice," Schneider said.

She said surgery on the vocal folds is a possibility for people who want to sing higher. But it’s a major risk.

Opera singer Lucia Lucas
Opera singer Lucia Lucas (Josh New)

"The outcomes are not always predictable, and we don't know if it's going to impact that accessibility to the upper range," Schneider said.

Some vocalists can train their voices to sing in different registers.

But that’s not the path baritone Lucia Lucas took. She has considered the possibility of training her voice to sing soprano, and has fantasized about playing Wagnerian heroines, like Brunhilde.

"If I could wake up tomorrow and sing Brunhilde, that would be amazing," Lucas said. "Does it work that way? No."

Lucas, who’s 39, looks very different today from what she looked like before the surgery and hormones. She has a mane of light-brown curls and favors bright red lipstick. But her bread and butter — that awesome voice — is just the same.

Lucas said she often gets compliments at auditions. But the nice words haven’t always translated into contracts. So she often dons fake facial hair and men’s clothing for auditions to prove she can play guys.

"A lot of people are really confused because they have 'Ms. Lucia Lucas' on their paperwork as a baritone," she said. "But I'm presenting with a beard in masculine attire."

Her efforts are starting to pay off.

She has landed a lead role with the English National Opera this October, and her schedule is booked out with singing engagements for the next three years.

Lucas said the exposure she’s been getting has been useful for her career. But she said it may be many years before singers like her will be able to shake off the buzz that surrounds them because they're trans.

"I had a theater director in Germany say, 'Oh my gosh, this trans thing, it’s so hot right now.' I don't want that," she said. "I want it to be not a thing."

Lucas has been using her platform to advocate for greater inclusivity both within and beyond the world of opera. In a recent speech she gave, the singer said she didn’t once use terms like trans, gay, lesbian or queer.

"Because I wanted to make it an inclusive speech and not an exclusive speech," she said. "When we support each other, it's better for everybody."

Special thanks to the makers of “Lucia’s Voice,” a feature-length documentary coming in 2020 from Kirkpatrick & Kinslow Films, directed by James Kicklighter. 

Sponsored