December 29, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by James Kicklighter
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the documentary “The Sound of Identity” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one Asian person) discussing the life and career of Lucia Lucas, the first female baritone to perform a principal role on an American operatic stage.
Culture Clash: Lucas, who is a transgender woman, encounters obstacles and prejudice because of her transgender identity.
Culture Audience: “The Sound of Identity” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories of transgender people succeeding in traditionally conservative and elitist environments.
You can count on one hand the number of female baritones who have been a principal cast member of a major operatic production. The revealing documentary “The Sound of Identity” tells the fascinating story of opera singer Lucia Lucas, the first female baritone to star in an American-produced opera. The fact that Lucas is a transgender woman makes her story even more unique and compelling.
Directed by James Kicklighter, “The Sound of Identity” follows a conventional format of interviews, archival footage and scenes that are exclusive to the documentary. Although Lucas talks about the part of her life before she began openly living as a transgender woman, the movie doesn’t dwell too much on her past. The focus on the movie is primarily on Lucas’ career as an opera singer.
Born in 1980, Lucas doesn’t talk too much about her childhood, except to say she still has emotional scars from her parents’ divorce. She half-jokingly says that one good thing that came out of her parents’ divorce was that her father gave her a Nintendo video game system because he felt bad about the divorce. Nintendo sparked an interest in playing video games that Lucas still has today.
Lucas, who is an only child from her parents’ broken marriage, says she still feels emotionally hurt by that her father, had a hard time accepting that she is transgender. Lucas is close to her mother, whom she describes as completely accepting of Lucas’ transgender identity. She and her mother speak frequently by phone, as shown in the documentary.
Lucas’ father, Jack Harbour, got remarried and gained a new family (including a stepson and stepdaughter) after the divorce. Lucas expresses some resentment that her father was more attentive to his younger children than he was to her. As soon as Lucas talks about her “daddy issues,” you just know there’s going to be a scene in the documentary where her father is going to see one of her performances. That scene happens toward the end of the film.
Lucas comments, “The worst time, absolutely, in my life was in junior high, because I felt like my body was betraying my mind.” The movie could have had more insight into how Lucas discovered her passion for opera and how she developed her craft when she was younger. And there isn’t much discussion about any particular performers had an influence on Lucas.
Despite some painful childhood memories, Lucas seems to be in a good place in her life. She’s happily married to her wife, Ariana Lucas, a former professional singer who stood by Lucas during her transgender transition. (Ariana is interviewed in the documentary.) The biggest challenge in the couple’s relationship is all the time that Lucia has to spend traveling because of her job. As Lucia says in the documentary: “Performing is not the job. The job is traveling all over the place and not getting sick.”
The portrait that emerges of Lucia is of someone is focused and determined to be the best opera singer that she can be. Her current performing home base is in Oklahoma, at the Tulsa Opera at the Tulsa Center for Performing Arts. The documentary chronicles Lucia’s journey as the star of the Tulsa Opera’s 2018 production of “Don Giovanni,” as a rare female singer to perform the opera’s title role.
Lucia says of the Tulsa Center for the Performing Arts: “This theater is sacred in a way.” She also comments on performing live: “There’s no substitute for it. [Performing virtually] is not going to make up for that energy when you are in person.” Lucia is also a Method actor, immersing herself into the role she has at the time, even when she’s not on stage.
But one of the challenges for this “Don Giovanni” production is selling tickets. As Tulsa Opera development associate Susan Stiff says in the documentary, the audience for opera is shrinking. The movie shows that Lucia is not a diva who thinks it’s beneath her to do grunt work tasks to sell tickets. In the documentary, she’s a tireless promoter: She doesn’t hesitate to handout promotional flyers for “Don Giovanni” and paying for the flyers herself. “I’ve been told it’s not my job to sell tickets,” Lucia says.
In her interactions with the public to convince random people to buy tickets to “Don Giovanni,” Lucia shows a natural curiosity and a flair for making an impression when she asks people what they think of a transgender woman starring in the show. She doesn’t convince everyone to buy tickets, but she seems to have opened up people’s minds a little bit to the idea that it’s not far-fetched for a well-known opera to gender swap in the character in the title role.
As for the idea of having a transgender woman in the role of Don Giovanni, Tulsa Opera general director/CEO Ken McConnell comments: “We’re not trying to make a political statement. We’re not trying to offend people.” Tulsa Opera artistic director/composer Tobias Picker adds: “It’s an added benefit that she’s trans. No trans singer has performed ‘Don Giovanni’ in the world.”
“Don Giovanni” director Denni Sayers comments, “It just shows that we’re not doing anything traditional here.” Later in the documentary, Sayers notes of having a transgender woman in the role of Don Giovanni: “We’re not saying that Don Giovanni is a transgender person. We’re saying that Don Giovanni is a master of disguise.”
As for how the public reacted to this unusual casting, “Don Giovanni” conductor Andres Cladera observes that the audience members seem to enjoy the singing, but they often have a hard time looking at Lucia. It’s no doubt because it’s difficult for some people to reconcile such a deep singing voice coming out of the mouth of a woman. Overall, the reaction to this version of “Don Giovanni” is very positive.
The documentary shows how Lucia and Picker have a close friendship not just because of their passion for opera but also because Picker is an openly gay man who is a tireless LGBTQ activist, just like Lucia is. Picker shares some of his personal story when he says that growing up gay and having Tourette Syndrome, “I felt like a freak.” Picker adds, “I am interested in helping people who are oppressed.”
The group of people interviewed for the documentary consists mostly of people directly involved in the “Don Giovanni” production. They include actor Hidenouri Inoue, who had the role of the Commendatore; actor Michael St. Peter, who had the role of Don Ottavio; actor Anthony Clark Evans, who had the role of Leporello; and Tulsa Opera vice chair Ronnie Jobe. Also interviewed are Lucia’s half-sister Kaitlin Schaars and Michael Cooper, who was theater editor for The New York Times at the time.
The documentary acknowledges that opera is not a genre of music that’s been embraced by popular culture. In North America and Europe, opera attracts people who are mostly affluent, mostly white and mostly over the age of 40. It’s briefly mentioned that the Tulsa Opera board of directors has struggled with its lack of racial diversity.
The board also has issues with attracting young people to become loyal opera audience members, because younger generations are needed to economically sustain the business over time when older people eventually pass away. It’s not said outright, but Lucia’s groundbreaking role in opera is a sign that opera institutions (at least in Tulsa and some other places) are open to progressive and open-minded casting decisions. It’s not just for idealistic reasons, but there are financial reasons too: Lucia’s starring role in “Don Giovanni” got a lot of publicity that helped sell tickets.
“The Sound of Identity” is a fairly straightforward and briskly paced film that doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It presents Lucia mostly as a performer but doesn’t dig too deep into her entire personal history. It’s not a comprehensive biography, which might disappoint some viewers.
Instead, “The Sound of Identity” is more of a capably made snapshot of what she was like while preparing for and performing a pivotal opera in her career. The performance scenes are expected highlights of the documentary. And thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t overstuff the movie with too many talking heads.
If there’s any big takeaway from the movie it’s that true happiness starts with being true to yourself. “I make art for me,” Lucia says of her philosophy on being an artist. “Your art has to be for you. You can’t make other people like you. You can’t live your life for other people. I tried that. It didn’t work.”
Shout! Studios released “The Sound of Identity” on digital and VOD on June 1, 2021. Starz premiered the movie on June 21, 2021.