Arts & Theater

How Sacramento transgender opera singer Lucia Lucas made herself and made history

Though Lucia Lucas just became the first transgender woman to perform a principal role on an American opera stage, she misses the intimate spaces she used to perform in as a high school student in Sacramento.

“I love being able to look into the audience’s eyes. Most opera stuff I can’t see beyond the first row,” she said.

Lucas didn’t have time to return to her hometown the last time she was in the country, this past May. She was wrapped up in Tulsa, performing in “Don Giovanni” as the Don himself, a violent, seductive nobleman with a rapacious sexual appetite.

It’s surprising to some that Lucas continues to play male roles since she started presenting as a woman. When she came out, she said in an interview, her friends asked what her next move was. Clearly, they said, she was going to stop singing.

To which Lucas responded: “Did I say that?”

She cited the example of Willow Zietman, a transgender woman who quit the blacksmith trade under pressure to be infallibly feminine – only to return to her work years later, refusing the notion that her gender identity was under threat from her profession.

Lucas doesn’t mind performing as men. For her it’s a matter of working with what you have.

Her baritone voice and the years of training behind it are the foundation of her work, and “singing baritone means singing guy roles, usually.” So she plays men – and plays them well, because gender is part of any performance, and she steps into it accordingly.

True to her pragmatism, she calls the range of movements she perfected to pass as a masculine cisgender man a “repertoire,” like the set of baritone roles she is trained to perform – though, unlike her vocal repertoire, her repertoire of masculine physicality wasn’t elective: it was learned on pain of reprimands, name-calling and physical violence.

“When I came out,” she said, “the intendant (opera house administrator) said, ‘I don’t understand! You play a man on stage so well!’ I said, ‘I learned my entire life how to do that. The stakes were so high.’”

A Sacramento Native in Europe

A performer since the age of 15 – she was a theater kid in high school and a music nerd in college – Lucas is at ease in front of the Skype camera. During an interview, she’s so expansive in her gestures – as though the computer screen, or her studio apartment, were a mainstage – that she knocks over a wooden sculpture of two women, each the size of a hand, from her book case. “Don’t tell my wife,” she says. A little bit of wood has chipped off. “It’s okay. It’s still beautiful. I’ll fix it.”

She remembers her high school theater days fondly, citing the former Red Brick Center for the Arts in Loomis, a small black-box theater, as part of her artistic growth. “We would perform for as many as 60 people and as few as four people. The audience was 2 feet away. You could touch them.” Doing the same show over and over at such close quarters made her a better performer, she said.

At Sacramento State, she started to study music in earnest. She wore dresses and started to sing opera.

Among her fellow opera students was the woman she went on to marry, Ariana.

She and Ariana moved to Germany, with its abundance of opera houses, within a few years of each other. Things went well enough – they were both employed at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe – but not quite as well as Lucas wanted. Lucas, still not out, wanted “a shooting star career,” one that would afford her so much success that the mundane constraints of money and social approbation would cease to apply.

“I always thought maybe I could have a big career and just disappear. And have my own private life where nobody knew me – a new life,” she said. “And that wasn’t happening.”

She tried to start taking feminizing hormones under the radar, wanting a period of insurance against claims that transition would hurt her capacity to work. (Unlike testosterone, estrogen doesn’t change vocal pitch.) But her psychologist refused to grant her the requisite permission if she didn’t come out first. “He was gatekeeping me,” Lucas said. “But when you’re an immigrant in a country you follow their rules, because you want to stay there.”

Lucas remained firm within her purpose. After extended discussions with Ariana, Lucas arrived at the Staatstheater Karlsruhe’s Opernball, arm in arm with Ariana, in a sequin-webbed, floor-length gown.

They’d splurged on 300 euros’ worth of makeup at the MAC counter and bought Lucas’s first gown. They’d fought over the mirror while Lucas tried to make a finger wave work in her hair. They’d rushed into a taxi, where her earring got caught on the lace of her dress. They’d clung to each other as she began to share what had, until then, been “a very personal part of (her) life.”

In a photo she and Ariana are coiffed, glamorous. Dark jewels are splayed across her neck.

Fellow guests quickly realized it wasn’t just a costume. “They didn’t see someone in drag in front of them, it wasn’t funny, I wasn’t making the situation funny,” Lucas recalled.

She now considers her coming out entirely hers: the psychologist’s demand was “just the catalyst.” He grudgingly wrote a “really passive-aggressive” letter to Lucas’s endocrinologist, who swiftly put Lucas on hormones.

The institutional roadblocks she encountered were only a minor example of the discrimination trans people encounter – she’d just read about an FBI investigation of several murders of trans women of color in Texas. “I’m sure that when a cop shows up, that cop’s background is going to drastically affect your interaction with them. … Any member of a minority community’s experience with a police officer in the states is going to be progressively more difficult the more (marginalized) communities they belong to.”

“I’m very fortunate that I live in Germany,” she added later. “I don’t fear police here.”

The fears she did have didn’t come to pass: She didn’t lose her job and shows featuring her didn’t lose their audiences – in fact, there were more people than ever.

The Flying Dutchman

Lucas emerged on stage in a leather jacket. She’d secured her copper hair at the nape of her neck and stippled a beard onto her face for the occasion: a performance at queer venue The Glory in London. It was 2016, two years after her transition, long enough that she felt she could tell her story, her way: through opera.

Sitting down wearily in an on-stage chair, she removed the leather jacket, revealing a three-piece suit.

“Die First ist um,” she sang. The time has come: the opening, eponymous line of a 12-minute aria from Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” in which a man cursed to sail the seas forever is permitted, by an angel’s grace, one night every seven years to make land and find true love, which, if found, will lift his curse.

“Often into the ocean’s mouth I threw myself and my death I could not find. Towards cliffs I sailed; I drove my ship towards it, but the grave would not receive me.” Lucas, her expression registering rage and despair, unbuttoned her cuffs, removed her tie, unbuttoned her shirt with rising agitation – spat her words, tossed her shirt to the ground, extended her arms wide.

Translating and interpreting these lines, she said, “Many people try to be straight, or CIS, or whatever they’re not, and they really try and it doesn’t work. ... I would go hard in my performances, I would sing harder on my voice than anybody would, I would act with all of my heart – it was sort of my outlet for these emotions.”

She removed her trousers, then, with a swipe of a towel, her beard.

Finally, she removed her binder.

Naked, drawing her arms into herself, opening her palms to heaven, she supplicated God for help. Her voice soared into a major register. “I turn to you, blessed angel of heaven. To you, who obtained the terms of my salvation. Did you mean to mock me by giving me hope?”

“At this point,” Lucia recalled, “I put on a dress and I go: ‘You know what? I challenge you. This is me. This is me and if you’re going to challenge me, bring it on. Because it was my energy, my determination, that led me to my life as it is now. I love my life now. And I didn’t before.’”

“As soon as I knew there were boys and there were girls, I would pray to wake up the next day simply as a girl. And that never happened until I made it happen.”

Her hair, loosed from its tie, spilled onto her shoulders like fire.

Her arms wide, her chest heaving, she watched the audience – each and every one of them visible from where she stood – burst into applause.

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Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.