The history of opera is woven with a surprisingly transgressive relationship to gender. Mozart, Strauss, and Verdi all wrote “trouser roles” or “pants roles,” male characters explicitly created to be played by women; the earliest known operas had female sopranos in the roles of boys. Castrati, men who were castrated before puberty in order to preserve their high voices, were celebrated, considered superstars of their time, and played both male and female roles.
Despite all of that, when it comes to opera singers who are out and identify as trans, there are few who’ve made it. When Lucia Lucas was first coming out as transgender in 2014, she thought it could be the end of her career. There was no precedent or rule book for her or others to look to, and while she has since gone on to make opera history, that was never a guarantee. “I think that it’s a very good example of how accepted and how willing the business is to keep specifically me in it,” she says on this week’s episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast.
Lucia Lucas is a baritone — with a formidable voice. In the opera world, that means she’s most often relegated to playing male roles, particularly those imbued with masculinity’s most toxic traits. Since she came out as trans, that hasn’t changed. “Oh, I can just do my job the same way if not better than before,” she realized right away. “You can just glue a beard on and I’ll go out there and I’ll sing and it’s fine.”
Coming out as trans allowed Lucas to remove the “exoskeleton that was protecting me from the cruel world.” But would playing these male roles be dysphoric? “Is it too much? Can I handle this?,” Lucas wondered early on. She’s careful when answering these questions. “I’m not going to belittle the fact that people have gender dysphoria, or say even that I don’t have it. Of course, it’s something that I thought about,” she says. But acting is not real life. “It doesn’t have anything to do with my identity,” says Lucas. She’s been studying and performing masculinity for her entire life. It’s freeing to only have to employ that expertise onstage now. “As far as me continuing to work as an international opera singer, I just want to do my job. If I’m going to sing baritone, I just want to go sing baritone really well.”
A new documentary from James Kicklighter, The Sound of Identity, follows Lucas as she takes on the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, making her the first known trans person to perform a principal role in an opera in the U.S. The message of the film is bigger than Lucas: You can be trans and still live the life of your dreams. These things are not mutually exclusive. There’s still a long way to go to reach full LGBTQ+ equality, especially for the trans community, but Lucas is an example of what’s possible.
LGBTQ&A is a weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Roxane Gay, Trixie Mattel, and Laverne Cox. Episodes come out every Tuesday.