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‘Outside my skin’

Lucia Lucas brings a hard-edged empathy to ‘Don Giovanni’

Lucia Lucas is here to play Don Giovanni as a psychopath—and it’s getting a bit complicated.

You’ve caught me at a strange moment,” Lucia Lucas says on the phone. The carousel of dinners and interviews—of talks and performances, of fittings and meetings required by her U.S. mainstage debut at the Tulsa Opera—has been turning for two weeks.

Such fanfare would test this witty Virgo anyway. An introvert who walks new cities as part of her artistic process (“soaking everything in; seeing the people, the animals, the trees”) Lucia is finding herself distracted as she courts colleagues and patrons in Tulsa.

It’s all lovely, she says. It’s just: She’s here to play Don Giovanni as a psychopath, and it’s getting bit complicated.

Like the other night, when she went to Jinya for dinner. She approached a host at the door.

Do you have free wi-fi? Lucia asked with a charmed smile.

This is not like Lucia. Usually she would look at her phone first; if she would have, she would’ve seen “Jinya Free wi-fi” right there in the network list. But, for some reason, she seized the opportunity to ask, to test. The host was super nice, said he’d go check into it. Lucia ate her noodles. Her liaison returned to say that yes, the restaurant does have free wi-fi.

Oh, what’s the password? Lucia asked. She looked at her phone then, to see the network listed plain and public, no password needed.

“I don’t know why I asked him,” Lucia laughs. “I just feel like I’m a little bit outside of my skin, like, watching myself interact with people in a way that Giovanni would.”

Lucia Lucas’ Don Giovanni, under the direction of Denni Sayers, would collect as much information about every person as possible, quietly reading the room while romancing it. This Don Giovanni might not, for example, physically drag Zerlina out of the ballroom in Act 1.

“What happens if I don’t pull her? Will she still come with me?” Lucia posits. “These are great moments. A psychopath is testing their power … I feel like all sociopaths—and specifically in this case, psychopaths—are empaths. They are all empaths. But empaths have maybe a moral framework that says, ‘I’m not going to use this for evil.’ I feel like psychopaths and sociopaths—they can feel other people’s emotions. But they just don’t have a problem using that against that person. If you’re an empath, you can choose—you can choose to be good or evil.”

Lucia Lucas’ Don Giovanni is poised to be singular for a few reasons. The baritone prepared for the role with a Killing Eve binge, a careful recommendation from Sayers. It was Tulsa Opera who approached Lucia for the role. And she’s the first transgender woman to play a lead role in a U.S. opera company—probably the first out transgender woman to play a lead role in a major opera, period. This has meant a new dimension of both pressure and intrigue for Lucia, who’s lived in Germany for the last decade.

“I decided through a process that if I wanted to have an international career, if I wanted to do everything in my power to make sure that my career continues and is as fruitful as possible, I needed to see if I could be comfortable playing anyone in any gender,” Lucia says. “If I wanted to perform for myself, for my own amusement or my own character enrichment, I could perform in LGBT spaces. And I could say: ‘This is the show that I want to do. This is how I want to present. This is what I’m most comfortable with.’

But if I want to perform at Tulsa, if I want to perform at ENO [English National Opera], where I’m performing in the fall—if I want to perform at the Met someday, it’s not for me to say how far they’re allowed to take my character,” she says. “If I do that, I’m limiting my work.”

Lucia’s career up to now has been unconcerned with limits of any kind. She unceremoniously zeroes in on what she wants, and gets it. In describing the parallel trajectory she’s taken with her wife, Ariana, she speaks with a matter-of-fact sort of pride. “We decided 15 years ago that we both wanted to do opera, and we were going to make careers—we were going to make giant international careers—in opera. And then you know, we set out doing that.”

The pair met at California State University, Sacramento, when Lucia played french horn. She remembers hearing Malcolm McKenzie and Dean Elzinga at the Sacramento opera and feeling inspired. Later, Lucia found her own baritone, and the experience was close kin to the sensations of horn-playing.

“When I started singing I was already vibrating with my entire body. When I sang for the opera director at my school, he said, ‘Oh, have you thought about studying privately?’ I had to learn how to sing high. The low voice and the mid voice was something that came natural to me. I’ve been singing with the same voice for 20 years now,” she says.

Her career is that voice, a star around which all other elements of the roles orbit with intention. She is a permanent member of the Staatstheatre Karlruhe in Germany, and was seen before with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, II Teatro Regio, the Sacramento Opera, the Chicago Opera Theater and others. Lucia began her transition at the age of 33. It was clear that she would continue to play male roles, primarily, and she set out to educate the opera community at large on how it’s totally possible for a woman to do that.

She relishes teaching makeup artists and costume designers the best practices for gender performance. Realistic stubble only requires wax and tiny snips of faux hair, Lucia shows them. Recently while acting for a long-form classical music video, she shaved a beard made of wax and faux hair cleanly off her face in one take, beaming at the movie magic. Lucia keeps in her kit a binder to conceal her chest and a packer for tight pants. (“If a binder minimizes the top, a packer fills out the bottom, let’s say,”
Lucia laughs.)

Facilitating this insight is part of the deal now, she says. “Especially during a show, navigating the character that I’m living with and [trans advocacy] is a little tricky. But I basically decided that it wasn’t going to be possible for me to be a stealth woman baritone because nobody did that yet. They have existed, not like this—maybe in pop music, or in jazz music,” Lucia says.

“When I decided to come out in 2014, I pruned my Facebook a little bit for in jokes, with the idea that—‘From this point on, any post that I do, anything that I do, is just going to be public. All of this is going to be public record, from now on. This is my life, and I’m just going to be open. I’ve said this in a lot of interviews but I still feel it to be true, and what I want to do is be who I needed when I was younger.”

Lucia Lucas performs songs from ‘Don Giovanni’ during Tulsa Opera’s President Council Dinner on April 23.

With Lucia’s openness has come a loop of affirmation. In 2017 Lucia performed the 12-minute aria of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer completely naked in London at The Glory, Muse, and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Someone in the audience was intersex and presented as female; they responded to the show in gratitude. Lucia gave the exchange a tender mention in a piece she wrote for Accent magazine soon afterward.

“They assumed that I was like them—they saw my naked body and saw a woman’s body, not a trans woman’s,” Lucia wrote. “That was very gender confirming.”

When it comes to traction for opera singers who are trans, Lucia is the sole generator. What she’s doing as a baritone is creating new possibilities. She played the four villains in Les contes d'Hoffmann as women with Oper Wuppertal, a feat she credits to an experimental director.

“In the scale of my career, I’ve had people saying, ‘Yeah well I guess that was good for you, because you can play that.’ And I was like, ‘No! If they were all men, I would have played it just fine,’” she says.

Looking broadly, just two contemporary operas center queer characters in large productions. Hannah, the small-town quarterback heroine in As One, goes through a series of self-actualizing moments as she transitions and a larger world blooms around her. As One debuted in Brooklyn in 2014, the same year Brokeback Mountain met audiences as an opera in Madrid. It’s unsettling for many that Hannah’s part is articulated by cis singers—one man, and one woman—rather than a trans performer.

Lucia mentions this kind of dichotomy offhand as it happened in The Danish Girl in 2015, when cis actor Eddie Redmayne portrayed Danish artist Lili Elbe. She brought up the story because it’s one she deeply relates to: the pair of artists, tenderly in love, navigating one partner’s transition; even the ball at which Lili steps out as herself is familiar. The controversy surrounding the film is distant from our conversation, which is about real life, Lucia’s life, the epic roles in her grasp, and the success that’s shaped her relationship of 15 years. She’s here to see the screen—and the stage—catch up.