The transgender opera star on life as a female baritone
Photographs by Alice Neale
Interview by Lucy Nurnberg
When I'm on stage, I can gather all the feelings that build up throughout the day or week and let them all out.
My deep voice often has me playing angry characters, so the screaming that I hold back in response to intolerant people on the street can be released upon the audience.
I enjoy playing the villain, because there is a stillness and elegance to them. I recently sang the 12-minute aria of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, completely naked, at The Glory, Muse and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London. The Dutchman is an outcast and misunderstood; I can very strongly relate to his journey. I made the performance a story about my transition. It wasn’t fetishised, it was about me and my body and getting comfortable.
Afterwards, I got a letter from someone in the audience who is intersex, presenting as female. They assumed that I was like them — they saw my naked body and saw a woman’s body, not a trans woman’s. That was very gender confirming.
Six shots of coffee a day is normal for me, and I have an energy drink about an hour before I go on stage. I like to think about my performance as having the right energy. Usually I have too little. If I need it right away, I’ll jump up and down. If my heart rate is too high, I’ll do breathing exercises to lower it.
At university, when I was about 18, I worked with an opera singer who was 45. I said: “I really like opera, what should I do?” He said: “Get a day job until you’re 40.” If you have a heavy baritone voice, like I do, you usually don’t start professionally until you’re at least 30. I would have worked in computers if I didn’t pursue opera — but I’m not yet 40 and I’ve done a lot in my career.
In performances, I play men about 90 per cent of the time. My singing voice hasn’t changed since I transitioned. I try to step into my character every rehearsal and performance. I wouldn’t want a member of the audience to think a woman was playing the character unless they looked down at their programme.
Home is wherever my wife is. We met and fell in love 13 years ago at California State University, where we were studying opera. We got together when she crashed my Halloween party; I was the devil and she was a fairy.
We have a home in Wuppertal, near Düsseldorf, but because we’re both freelance artists we’re always on the road.Thankfully we live in the age of Skype and global communication.
It wasn’t until I was five or six that I learnt that boys and girls were different. I was an only child and I played with Lego and educational toys, so my first exposure to a gendered society was when I went to school. I was told I was not a girl, but I knew I was not a boy.
The advice I would give to trans kids is to be insistent in what you know to be true. Let the professionals diagnose you, but don’t let the corrections of conservative society tell you who you should be. If you have a bad home life, get good grades so you can move to a big city for college. From there, you can make anything happen. I hope that every trans child can get puberty blockers if they need them, but they should know that transition after puberty is possible. I didn’t begin my transition until the age of 33 and I am still very happy.
I came out in May 2014. I knew for sure that I was transitioning in late October 2013, but the medical journey, especially in Germany, is heavily regulated and I had to wait till that was well on its way.
I came out to the opera community at a ball with my wife — she wore a tux and I wore a dress. People didn’t recognise me at first — they recognised my wife, looked at me and eventually they figured it out. Being able to see their genuine reactions was helpful; I came out the next week. I told the intendant that I liked my job and hoped I could continue to do it, but this was something I had to do for myself; it was something I’d been putting it off forever. He said: “OK, how does this was something I had to do for myself; it was something I’d been putting it off forever. He said: “OK, how does this work?” I replied: “Well, nobody’s ever done it before.”
People at Karlsruhe, my opera house, were shocked. I ended up telling my story a lot. I went to the canteen every day for about a month and basically hung out there for hours. I talked with anybody who wanted to talk and tried to be really open. I could never be stealth at work — there was too much internet history under my old name — so I decided to be in advocacy. I write articles for anyone who wants to know more.
I am proud of my gender and trans status, but people on the street don’t need to know. Never out a trans person because you could be exposing them to someone dangerous. Since presenting as a woman, the biggest change is my awareness of danger. I take more taxis now when before I felt safe to walk alone.
Knowing that sexism exists and seeing it clearly is very different from having it turned on you. I expect trans misogyny, but the first time I was called into an office and yelled at, and then told not to be emotional, I was very disturbed.
A masculine face typically has an angular jaw line, a protruding brow bone, a downward-turned nose, an M hairline and no Cupid’s bow on the upper lip. I had surgery to bring the dimensions and appearance of my face into the female range. In my consultation, my surgeon noted that my nose was upturned and that I lacked an Adam’s apple so I wouldn’t need surgery to alter them. It was lucky because both could have interfered with my singing. Since having the surgery, I can go in public with little or no make-up and be read as female.
Right now, I’m most comfortable with my body when I’m wearing no clothes. I love the shape of my body since transitioning. Despite being about 6ft tall with a large bone structure, my fat distribution is clearly female. I don’t need to play tricks with fashion to balance out my shape, my body is shaped well without clothes. I also love how soft my skin is now.
Reactions to my transition have been polarising. Some conservative opera critics have gone so far as to tell me not to transition so I will stay in the industry.
In mainstream opera they’ve been queering it for a long time. Lots of productions will switch the genders of roles or drag up performers. But when you have a trans person doing it, all of a sudden some people’s heads explode. The same people who wouldn’t care if it was a man in the dress, suddenly freak out when there’s a trans woman playing that role.
There are lots of trans singers out there, but way more are in the closet than out. I’ve had friends who I’ve sang with for five years who assumed that I was done with opera because I was transitioning. I’m like, “Did I say I was quitting?” No, I’m going to keep doing it and I’m going to do it better than I’ve done it before.
On the brighter side of things, my supporters have been very enthusiastic and lots of directors have been excited to work with me. This autumn I’m working on a production of The Tales of Hoffmann with four directors, in which I’m playing three of the four male characters as female. As soon as you change the gender of one character it switches the dynamic of all the other characters. It plays games with the entire production. I’m also part of a new group called oedipa, where the end goal is forming a queer opera company.
I look forward to singing at any house that is ready for world-class opera.
It’s very powerful to take your identity into your own hands — most people don’t ever get to choose a name for themselves. My last name now was my first name at birth. It was given to me because it was my great-grandmother’s maiden name and would have been the end of that line. I chose Lucia because it’s the Italian, feminine form of my old name. I’m proud of what I have accomplished in my life even before I transitioned and I’m not trying to erase any of that history. Now, if someone slips up and calls me by my old name, I can say: “Why so formal? Just call me Lucia.”
Credits: Assistant: Hannah Burton; styling: Rachael J Vick; make-up: Naomi Serene; retouching: Signe Emma