On May 3, 2019 the Tulsa Opera will host an American first. According to a carefully worded press release, it will be “the first time a trans woman has performed a principal role on the operatic stage in the US.” Baritone Lucia Lucas will make her American main-stage debut in the title role of Mozart and da Ponte’s “Don Giovanni.”
During a recent chat, Tulsa’s Artistic Director, Tobias Picker, mentioned the front page of the New York Times. The Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate a ban on most transgender people in the military had just received above the fold coverage.
This and other controversies suggest that while trans issues are publicly discussed like never before, gains remain fragile. Picker sees Lucas’ debut as part of a larger discussion: “It would be ignoring the elephant in the room not to say, as an American artist, as an American composer, as an American citizen, that this is extremely timely because Lucia’s community is under siege and attack by the President of the United States.”
In a spirit of defiance, Picker framed Lucas’ arrival as a celebration. By showcasing a transgender star, the director noted that “The Tulsa Opera is actually kicking off the 50th of Stonewall.” Lucas’ debut shows how far things have come in the LGBT community since 1969 and it is a response to those who still discriminate.
Lucia Lucas presented as a man until she couldn’t anymore. Her transition has involved important medical interventions during the last five years and today she reports having “done medically as much as I want to do.”
Her career began in the United States, but has flourished in Europe. After studies in San Jose and Chicago and several summer residencies with American companies, she took a leap and went to Germany.
A scholarship first took her the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2009 before she became fully immured in Germany’s “fest system” in which a singer is a contracted employee of an opera theater. She has had such long-term engagements in Heidelberg, at the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, and most recently at the Oper Wuppertal.
The fest system has had the benefit of steady work and exposure to a broad repertoire, but as Lucas explains, a theater “basically owns you.” She was often forbidden to do guest engagements. Now she is exclusively a freelance artist and finds the freedom thrilling.
And yet, breaking into the American scene has not been easy. She has auditioned for significant companies, but has gotten only praise in return.
“I did auditions that I felt good about, and I even got good feedback and they were like Yeah, yeah , let’s look for something, and then three years later nothing happened,” she told OperaWire.
When we spoke in Tulsa things were on the move. She was in-between stints recording an episode for Houston Grand Opera’s “Star-Cross’d,” a web-opera series. Lucas will star in “Now,” by composer Avner Dorman and librettist John Grimmett, an opera focusing on a transgender experience.
Still, Tulsa will be a major first step toward a more prominent American presence.
Lucas’ engagement with Tulsa happened almost by chance. Tobias Picker is currently composing an opera for a transgender character and thought it would be right to cast a trans singer. When Lucas auditioned for Picker’s opera in New York, he was bowled over.
Picker was particularly stricken by her take on Iago’s sulfurous aria from “Otello”– the “Credo”– which begins by affirming a belief in a cruel God and is drenched in sardonic nihilism throughout. Picker recalled the power and, above all, the authority of her performance.
When the audition was mentioned to Lucas, she explained that the villain helps undermine misgivings or prejudiced filters that might obstruct a listener. “I think that there is a fear of the unknown, a fear about trans people, and I think that by taking on evil characters, it’s sort of like What? Fine I’m evil, if you want me to be, fine.”
In addition to Iago’s “Credo,” she also performed the “Painting Aria” from Picker’s tense and musically lush drama based on a novel by Èmile Zola, “Thérèse Raquin.” In the aria, Laurent describes an encounter with a woman along the banks of the Seine. He spots her and she spots him. She approaches and asks what he is painting. He responds: “The river, the boat, and the mooring.” She asks him to paint her, he asks her to wait.
The piece is multilayered. Just as Laurent is telling his friend, Camille, about the encounter, he is also seducing his wife, Thérèse, who listens nearby. Laurent’s character will later take on a darker tone, but the aria is seductive, gentle– a moment of tender lyricism.
When Lucas performed it, Picker was surprised by the sophistication of her portrayal. “Having not coached it at all, it was a profoundly moving reading of that aria, the sensitivity she brought and the understanding she brought to it.”
Lucas studied the music and the words meticulously and remembers finding her way deep into the moment, finding her way out of platitudes or superficial meaning. The baritone imagined Laurent’s initial hesitation toward the woman along the Seine as a form of embarrassment. He had already been ensnared, but did not want to give away that secret. The key to this interpretation, she noted, was a close reading of the libretto. When Laurent initially describes what he is painting, “the mooring” referred to the beautiful woman he had painted.
Lucas is a Helden baritone, at home with Verdi and Wagner as well as beefier lyric repertoire. She is naturally big-voiced, but capable of elegance and beauty in stretches of higher tessitura. Positive reviews in the German press for her 2018 Wotan in Heidelberg and the villains in “Les contes d’Hoffmann” speak to her sophisticated interpretations and a knack for villainy on stage.
There is a good recording of her singing Ford’s aria, “È sogno? o realtà”, from Verdi’s “Falstaff.” In it, Ford reflects on his wife’s supposed infidelity. Lucas sings with clear tone, crisp phrasing, and expressive acting. She explores the darker parts of the character– unbridled rage and vindictiveness.
She brings up Ford when I ask her how a trans experience influences her reading of the men she portrays. She explains that she feels no need, as men might, to tamper with the intensity, even the ugliness of masculinity.
“Jealous lovers, angry people in general, like Ford in ‘Falstaff,’ the quintessential angry husband, somebody like that I’m not going to try to stick up for him, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh he has a point there.’”
“I think that it’s no big deal at all and a huge deal at the same time,” Lucas noted when asked about whether, as a transgender singer, her American debut is culturally important. “Is it a huge deal? Well, I have a career, but at the same time this is the first time I got hired in the US.”
The opera stage has long been a place to explore sexuality, and at least implicitly, gender. Castrati and trouser roles are embedded in the form’s DNA. From the audience standpoint, the opera scene has often been a place for queer participation.
Lucas mentions queer opera balls going back to 1920s Germany. The idea of the “opera queen” goes way back, too. As Wayne Koestenbaum discusses in “The Queen’s Throat” (1993), the concept came to be associated with a “pre-Stonewall throwback” to when sexuality needed to be expressed obliquely, through, among other things, an intense affinity to opera and its divas.
During the past twenty plus years, operas have increasingly dealt with queer subjects. Some operas have portrayed towering historical figures: Stewart Wallace’s “Harvey Milk,” Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar,” and, most recently, Rufus Wainwright’s “Hadrian.”
Others have depicted intimate historical stories: Gregory Spears’ “Paul’s Case” and “Fellow Travelers.” There have been more harrowing, personal dramas as well: Charles Wuorinen’s “Brokeback Mountain” and Péter Eötvös’s “Angels in America.” As music critic Alex Ross has pointed out, male stories have gotten more attention than women, with important exceptions like Ricky Ian Gordon’s “27” and Paula Kimper’s“Patience & Sarah.”
Surprisingly, Laura Kaminsky’s “As One,” a transgender opera, is among the most performed modern works in the United States. According to Operabase, it saw six North American productions last year and four are scheduled this year.
To date there has been no performance of an operatic role made specifically for a trans artist. This will change soon as Picker is currently working on an opera that will, and the New York City Opera advertises that Ian Bell’s forthcoming “Stonewall” “will be the first opera to feature a transgender character specially created for a transgender singer.” The character of a transgender woman, Sarah, will be sung by Liz Bouk, a transgender man who, according to his website “continues his career as a female mezzo-soprano.”
Clearly the ground is shifting, but some are wary. Lucas once talked to an artistic administrator in Germany who flatly rejected the idea that her playing men was part of the “trouser” tradition. He shot back: “No it is not, you play men.” From that encounter she took away the sense that some would be okay with a woman playing a boy, but not a man. A child, not an adult.
Even would-be supporters feel they have to be careful. Lucas noted that opera companies suggest that “It’s not that we don’t like trans people, its that our audience might not like trans people.”
Audiences in Tulsa will soon have a chance to voice their opinions.
“Don Giovanni” begins with an attempted rape and ends with Don Giovanni pulled into hell. In between we hear about the number of women– all over Europe, of all shapes and sizes, young and old– that Don Giovanni has conquered. We also watch him in action as seducer and overall letch. This is an opera about toxic masculinity if there ever was one.
Tulsa’s production by R. Keith Brumley was first seen at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. It moves the action to America in the 1950s and has a smoky film noir aesthetic.
Denni Sayers, this production’s director, explained that the opera occurs “within the shadows” and so it toys with reality. “Life for Don Giovanni is a stage” and he is always looking for a new disguise to mislead or misrepresent. Sayers believes that Lucas’ life experience brings a special understanding to spaces between self and representations. She noted that Lucas “presents as totally convincing as a man or a woman” and that her versatility allows her to get underneath the many versions of Giovanni.
As for how being a transgender woman affects her reading of the role, Lucas noted, “my experiences in life can enhance this character. Learning to present masculine through my childhood was what gave me protection as I got older. I was less and less picked on, the more I learned how to hide feminine behaviors. The stakes were highest to perfectly perform that role. I was even physically attacked growing up before I figured out how to hide my femme gestures and presentation. I think any role I play is not about ‘playing’ the character, but stepping into their essence for the moment. This opera gives me many characters to experience.”
Lucas also relayed that Don Giovanni’s disguises and dissimulation are fundamental to the “real” character. “I think Giovanni would rather die than show himself to the world.” At the very end of the opera he is asked to repent for his sins, but that would amount to a confession. By refusing, “Giovanni in death even gets what he wants.”
Sayers suggested Don Giovanni finds fulfillment in the thrill of the chase. He is “psychopathic, but also great fun.”
“I don’t think [Giovanni] has to be likable,” elaborated Lucas. “I think the audience can not like him. I think the audience can hate themselves for liking him.”
What to Expect
In his history of music after 1989, “Music After the Fall,” Tim Rutherford-Johnson reminded us that “the body, as a performing or listening subject, has become central to a number of trends within recent music.”
Mozart’s opera is old, but each performance reflects its own musical culture. Today, perhaps more than ever, our engagement with opera is informed by the physicality of performers on stage, how they look, their personal characteristics, and even their gender identification. Given this reality, it would be near impossible to ignore the body of anyone playing Don Giovanni.
But this is only part of the story. Lucas’ success will be judged by the effectiveness of her performance, the quality of her portrayal, and the pleasures of the production as a whole. If the stars align, audiences will see a hard-working musician, an intense performer, and a talent still unrecognized in the United States.