Trans Baritone Lucia Lucas Will Shatter Opera’s Glass Ceiling in the U.S.

She will play the title character in a production of Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" at the Tulsa Opera House.

Pictured above: Lucia Lucas in Les contes d’Hoffmann at Oper Wuppertal in Germany.

When Lucia Lucas came out as transgender in May 2014 while performing opera in Karlsruhe, Germany, people had a lot of questions. However, they weren’t the typical ones many trans people field after opening up to other people about their gender identity—like when they “knew they were transgender” or if they plan to get “the surgery.” Instead friends and colleagues asked, “What are you going to do now?”

“People assumed there was no place for me in the opera world,” the singer tells NewNowNext.

Lucas found herself wondering the same thing. The 38-year-old baritone hoped to delay telling other people that she was transgender for a couple years for “job security’s sake.” The idea was to start hormone replacement therapy (HRT) under the radar, so that if others took issue with her transition when it finally came up, she could say with confidence it hadn’t affected her ability to perform.

However, her psychologist in Germany—where she lived for a decade—wouldn’t allow her to begin taking hormones until she came out. Lucas feared she was being forced to pick between her gender identity and giving up the passion that defined her entire adult life.

Lucas chose both: to fight for space as a transgender woman in opera. She says it was a “huge risk.”

“There were no guarantees at all,” Lucas claims. “All I could do was try and do my best and hope that my talent was good enough. It wasn’t until I came out that I figured out I could [be transgender] and have a career at the same time.”

That leap of faith will soon pay off in a big way. Next month, Lucas will play the title character in a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Tulsa Opera House. When it bows on May 3, she will become the first transgender opera singer to star in a lead role in the United States.

When Lucas spoke to NewNowNext last Wednesday, she had just flown from Germany to Oklahoma to begin rehearsals. She admits the two-act opera—which is based on the mythos of Don Juan—is a challenge for her first lead. Lucas refers to the fictional libertine of 17th century Spanish legend as both the “original seducer” and a “psychopath.” The character is also male.

For many transgender women, the idea of playing a man on stage every night may seem like a nightmare—a dysphoric reminder that far too many people still see trans identities as nothing but a costume.

But for trans opera singers, Lucas says it’s often part of the job description. When she came out nearly five years ago, she had to perform “three or four shows” over the next week in a male role. She recalls showing up in a dress every night to the theater, where her makeup would be wiped off and a man’s face drawn in its place.

“If you sing baritone, you can’t always expect to be wearing a dress,” Lucas says. “You’re just going to have to be willing to have somebody draw a beard on you.”

Her job requirements have to do with the extremely few parts available to transgender opera singers and—what’s more—the even fewer performers granted the opportunity to make a living in the industry. Lucas is able to name just one other trans singer who performs full-time with no other source of income: mezzo-soprano Adrian Angelico.

Angelico, a transgender man, made his debut at Britain’s Royal Opera House in 2014 playing the Marquise de Merteuil in Luca Francesconi’s Quartett, an avant-garde take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The character, a scheming noblewoman with a politician’s cunning, was famously played by Glenn Close in a more straightforward film adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ gossipy 18th-century novel.

Lucas and Angelico have each performed both male and female parts on the stage, however.

Andreas Lander
Lucas in Die Walküre at Theater Magdeburg in Germany.

Angelico will soon be appearing as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro at Sweden’s Gothenburg Opera. Although a male character, it’s written as a mezzo soprano and is sometimes performed by a woman. In a notable exception, countertenor Justin Kim will be playing the role at the Royal Opera House later this year.

According to Lucas, opera has long blurred the lines of gender, citing the history of “trouser roles” in which women are cast as young boys. Examples include Octavian in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Hansel in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

Lucas views being able to play male roles as just another tool in her toolbox.

“These are mannerisms that I learned while I was growing up and trying to fit in with my peers,” she claims. “If I have to play a man on stage, that’s fine as long as I don’t have to play one in my personal life.”

While Lucas asserts that she will play Don Giovanni as a cisgender man, she hints that Tulsa Opera House may toy with gender expression in the portrayal. Skilled in deceit, she says the nobleman “disguises himself multiple times” during the production to get out of predicaments, including dressing “as his own servant.” In their production, one of those disguises may end up being a woman.

“We’re definitely taking advantage of that,” Lucas predicts.
 

But given that it’s just the first day of production and she’s still jet-lagged, Lucas says it’s hard to know what to expect. She hopes, though, that this milestone helps opens the door a little wider for other trans opera singers—as well as anyone else who feels they may be forced to give up the thing they love to be the person they are.

According to Lucas, transgender people used to be told they would have to leave their entire lives behind if they chose to begin transitioning. “You had to sort of fake your own death and basically just disappear,” Lucas claims, noting that these decisions were historically made due to safety concerns and sometimes still are. “You become a new person and nobody would know what ever happened before.”

But as trailblazers like actress Laverne Cox and politician Danica Roem show that trans people can succeed authentically as themselves in all areas of public life, Lucas is ready for a new story.

“In some way, this feels like a little bit of a redemption—for the people who didn’t think that it could happen,” she says. “But it’s not even about about that. I want people to understand that you can just come out and keep living your life.”

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang