When opera singer Lucia Lucas, the world’s first openly transgender female baritone, was hired for the lead role of sociopathic, predatory male scoundrel Don Giovanni in the Tulsa Opera House’s lauded, contemporary 2019 production of the Mozart classic, she became the first trans performer to headline an opera in the United States.
Director James Kicklighter’s captivating new documentary The Sound of Identity reveals what went on behind the curtains as the trailblazing artist settled into her temporary home in the deeply red state’s progressive, artsy enclave (for reference, Trump won Oklahoma by 33% in 2020 with over 65% of the vote). Shooting took place during the six weeks leading up to and during the run, and filmmakers captured some truly dramatic, operatic moments — like a reunion between Lucas and her father, who hadn’t seen her since before she transitioned and came out as trans circa 2014.
Based in Germany with her wife, Ariana, the now 39-year-old Lucas joined NewNowNext via Zoom to discuss making the documentary, being typecast as hunty evildoers, and which LGBTQ operas she’d love to see and be part of.
How did this documentary come to be, and was taking part an instant yes for you?
Yeah, it was a yes from me. I had a meeting with the documentary producers and Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker, because that required a huge amount of cooperation with Tulsa Opera since classical musicians are very particular about rights and recording. And now that I’ve seen it, I’m very happy I gave [James] the trust. I hoped and wished things would be edited together at least fairly, and I think they were.
Did you tell James there were things you absolutely wouldn’t do or discuss on camera during filming? What was the process like?
I wouldn’t say he wanted particular things. I had to do the job I was contracted for, and it wasn’t to act for a film, and having a film crew around me is really intimidating. So it was me just giving him situations, like, “My family is coming down on this day and this day, and I haven’t seen my father in 10 years.” But James didn’t say, “This needs to happen.” He had some ideas on how things might turn out and storylines to follow, but that’s just my life. I’m also really thrilled about the documentary because the focus is not on [my] transition. Because all of the scripted art about trans people is about that!
It was interesting that there’s no “villain” in the documentary, like a Black Swan-style undermining costar or a hateful local transphobe.
Yeah, but there was a question, I think, of how the relationship between my dad and I after not seeing him for 10 years was going to be. I did a little thing in those 10 years colloquially known as a “transition” [laughs], so I hadn’t seen him since 2009 or 2010. Even if that didn’t happen, 10 years is a long time to not see someone, especially your own child.
Lucia Lucas in The Sound of Identity.
Tulsa itself seemed pretty chill despite the state’s Trump-iness. What was it like actually being there?
I didn’t end up renting a car — and this is something we don’t talk about in the movie — so I walked 3-5 miles a day just going around. The theater wasn’t that far from my apartment, but I would walk everywhere, and everyone was so nice. I really enjoyed the architecture, and the food offerings were much more metropolitan than I would have guessed. There was this ramen spot, Jinya, about three blocks from the theater and I think I ate there about 10 times!
Have you ever given a hard pass to a job offer?
Yeah. There are some European TV competition and reality shows. Maybe they would help me establish myself more, but I already did a “slow burn” on my career anyway, so why not continue that? I’m singing at some of the biggest and best opera houses in the world, so I don’t need to go on a show like that. That causes more confusion for the professional casting world.
Judging from your resume and your Instagram, you like playing scoundrels, evildoers, and gnarly, scarred characters. What’s with that?
I trained for a long time in many schools and programs to do baritone, and if you have a large booming voice or cutting voice, you play villains. These are just archetypes composers wrote for hundreds of years. The really light voices are the ingenues. The really low voices are the fathers or grandfathers.
Is there any role you’re dying to play?
I’d love to do The Flying Dutchman, a.k.a. Der Fliegende Holländer, if anybody wants to cast me. Just cast me. It will be amazing. I think there’s a lot to say about the personal journey and being misunderstood and searching. Even if somebody just glued a beard on me and we did it traditional style, I think it would be amazing.
Is there any LGBTQ person, real or fictional, whom you would love to portray in an opera?
Tulsa Opera’s Tobias Picker is writing The Danish Girl and that’s cool. I think it would be really wonderful to put a story out there that’s really compelling. And I hope that maybe we can just have characters who happen to be trans.
Your wife makes a sort of cameo via video chat in the documentary. Do you wish she had been there in Tulsa physically?
We’re amazing together. We’re also very strong, independent souls. We’re both only children. I like my alone time, so when we’re together it’s wonderful and we celebrate that, but when we’re apart it’s time to focus on our art and ourselves. We love our time both together and apart, which makes each moment of that sweeter, too.
How has life changed for you since the documentary?
Well, at the performances of Don Giovanni, I know there were scouts from big opera houses, and I’ve had auditions and contracts since basically because Tobias brought me there, and that was during the filming.
And what about things between you and your dad?
The same. I’m in Germany and he’s there. I don’t know. I am who I am because of everything that’s happened to me until this time, a culmination of all the events in my life. Part of me getting good at theater is not caring what other people think. Sometimes it’s hard to get to that point with family or friends, but especially with [my] transition, if you’re with me, great, and if not, here’s the door. The whole transition thing didn’t play a big factor in our relationship; we just haven’t been close. He got remarried and has a new family. When I was in Sacramento before grad school, they would invite me for family events and vacations but I think it’s one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind things. There’s not necessarily malice in it but it shapes you.
For those who don’t necessarily like opera or haven’t been to one yet, what is a gateway drug to get them hooked?
Maybe it’s this film! I’ll be really happy! Who knows? I think there’s good and bad art. It doesn’t matter the medium. There’s good opera and bad opera, good film and bad film. I hope this doc is their seed.
Ultimately, would you like to have your own opera company?
Yeah! Go check out Coffee, Gin, and Murder on YouTube. That’s my first film.
The Sound of Identity (Shout! Factory) premieres on VOD and digital on June 1.