'I used to go to bed praying that I'd wake up as a girl'
Lucia Lucas is the most prominent transgender singer in the opera world, and her wife Ariana has supported her all the way
Lucia Lucas will take to the stage of the National Concert Hall next weekend in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, playing Sharpless, one of the male leads. If you were to catch this very glamorous woman off-stage, however, you'd raise an eyebrow at her being cast in a male operatic role. The explanation is that while Lucia fully transitioned from male to female in recent years, her singing voice has remained baritone.
"Once the voice drops, it can't go back," the softly-spoken American explains, "although I have trained my speaking voice to be higher than it used to be. I don't have a problem playing men on stage, because I manage to keep my career and private life separate. I'm always travelling, so I get to go to new places where I can be an advocate and talk to people."
By advocate, Lucia (36) means she wants to help others understand what it's like to grow up knowing you're not the gender you were assigned at birth. She considers herself lucky though, because even though the situation was difficult and transitioning has been a complicated and painful process, she's now in the right body and has retained a loving relationship with her wife Ariana.
They started dating back in college, when Lucia was a young man called Lucas, and are now married and are very much in love. "We have been together for 14 years and I'm still fascinated by Lucia because she is so clever, thrilling and brilliant," says Ariana, who is a contralto and is also a full-time opera singer. "I'm really in love with her, and it was clear to me from the second I met her that I would never find anybody else like her. It was her soul that I first fell in love with, and it was almost beyond physicality, and way more than gender and physical body. I have never met someone who cares so much about others, as Lucia always goes out of her way to help people. She is also really smart."
Lucia knew from the age of five that she had been born in the wrong body, although she didn't know how to articulate it back then. Her childhood in Sacramento, California, was weird and disorienting as she knew she was a girl internally but was being moulded as a boy. "My dad would tell me I couldn't walk or talk a certain way, so I learned through my childhood what being a boy was," she says. "Later on, I learned what being a man was, and the things that were, and weren't, appropriate."
Once Lucia hit puberty, she began to visibly develop into a teenage boy, body hair and all, which was very traumatic for her. "Those years from puberty until college were really difficult," she says. "When your brain thinks one way, and your body goes in the opposite direction, it's really hard. I used to go to bed praying I'd wake up as a girl, which never happened, of course."
Lucia's parents separated when she was five. She lived with her mum Patricia and saw her dad Jack once a week. She wishes that the framework that has been put in place around gender and sexuality in recent years had been there in the 1980s. A huge stigma existed even around being gay back then, which was partly fuelled by the AIDS epidemic.
"I knew I wasn't really attracted to boys, but who knows what would have happened if my body had gone the same way as my brain?" she says. "I was always attracted to girls, but it was confusing because I didn't know if it was because I wanted to be like them, or to be with them. I was more feminine than other boys, so people just assumed I was gay and I think my mother thought that too. Me being trans was never on her radar. She told me that she would always love me no matter what, but she was worried that a hard life lay ahead of me."
Lucia always played instruments growing up, and when she went to California State University, she began a degree in music performance, specialising in the French horn. She joined the choir and the idea of trying out opera seemed interesting, so she asked the choir director if it was possible? She had a big ribcage and a good lung capacity from years of swimming, and her fine baritone voice impressed the teacher so much, he gave her private lessons in opera. She ended up specialising in it for her degree, and also met Ariana during her time at California State.
"Ariana is gorgeous inside and out, and we caught each other's eye when we did productions together," Lucia recalls. "I had come to class in feminine clothing on various occasions, and Ariana asked me if it was something I really needed and I replied that I didn't think so. At that time, I decided to will myself to be 'normal' and it was like my relationship with her was a reward for doing that. If I had said that I was going to transition at that moment, I don't think we would have been together, or maybe we would have just been friends? At that moment, I felt I didn't want to transition so I could lead this normal life."
Lucia went to Chicago for her master's degree in opera and Ariana went to San Francisco for hers, and they were married in 2009 prior to Lucia moving to Germany on a scholarship with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She began her professional career as bass-baritone Lucas Harbour, and began to accommodate baritone repertoire in 2014. After stints at Heidelberg and Karlsruhe, she is currently resident artist with Oper Wuppertal, and has received much critical acclaim for her performances. Ariana came to join her in Germany five years ago, and by then Lucia could no longer pretend to be someone she wasn't. She had some loungewear clothes that she wore at home, which were more feminine.
"I would say that I was in two very different head spaces at the point that Ariana and I met and the point that we got married," says Lucia. "We spoke about it prior to getting married, and both knew by then that there was a chance that I might transition. You get to a stage where the unknown of transitioning becomes better than the life you're living. It was a shift for Ariana, of course, and she tried to feel out how she felt about it and how I felt about it? In the end, she was the one who told me in the fall of 2013 that I should go and talk to somebody and see if I really wanted to do something about it, medically."
After doing a lot of research, seeing psychologists and finding the right doctors, Lucia decided to begin the process of transitioning and went on hormones to change her body. She spoke to her employer about it, who said that as long as her voice stayed the same, that was all that mattered. She told her colleagues in May 2014, which was just before they broke up for the holidays, and everyone was very supportive. Even so, when she returned after the break, issues like which dressing room she used took a while to be ironed out.
The singer chose the name Lucia as her new name, and moved Lucas to be her surname as it was also her great-grandmother's surname. She says that although a lot of transgender people decide to change their name entirely, she is really proud of the things she accomplished in her life before she transitioned.
The oestrogen gave her breasts and wider hips and lightened her body hair. Things began to smell and taste different to her, and within a couple of months of being on oestrogen, her food choices changed and her body smelt different. "Men also began to smell different to me than they had before," she remarks.
Lucia had her first operation, facial feminisation surgery, in Antwerp in September 2014. It involved a mid-facelift, forehead and hairline recontouring, a brow lift, chin and jaw recontouring and a lip lift. It took a while to recover, but Ariana was with her, taking care of her through it all. "My face operation was easily the biggest life-changer for me, because that's the thing that everybody sees," Lucia explains. "When you're walking down the streets, people aren't looking at your body parts - they're looking at your face. Even so, I know it was extremely hard for Ariana, as while she loves my face now, she also loved the way I looked before."
Emboldened by the success of that surgery, Lucia underwent gender confirmation surgery in Thailand at the beginning of 2016, which is the surgery performed on a transgender person in order to change their sex characteristics to better reflect their gender identity. In Lucia's case, it meant removing her male genitals and creating a vagina, and she chose to have it done in Thailand as her surgeon was known to be one of the best in the world. As Ariana was performing in an opera, she couldn't accompany Lucia this time, but her mum Patricia went with her and they both stayed for a month.
"I had a fantastic experience in recovery from this surgery, and am extremely happy with the results," Lucia smiles. "This operation makes it possible for me to partake in German sauna culture, because it's normal there to go in naked. For me, it was one of the most gender-affirming things, as now people don't look at me, thanks to one of the greatest doctors in the world who did such an amazing job." While she is all woman now, Lucia says that she has always identified as lesbian. She feels that her relationship with Ariana was already developing emotionally in that way from 2009 onwards. They did a lot of mental preparation before the surgeries, and both viewed them as something that would make Lucia's life better. While it is easy enough for people to understand Lucia's journey, most are curious about Ariana and how she feels about it all? After all, she fell for Lucia when she was Lucas, so how has the transition affected her now that they are in a lesbian relationship?
"I have to deal with questions about it a lot and never really know what to say," Ariana admits. "People wonder why we are still together or assume that our relationship is purely friendship now, but I wouldn't be with Lucia if we didn't have the intimacy we had before. I guess I'm attracted to all people. Everyone just read me as straight because I was with a man, but this has kind of led me to come out later in life. My family weren't so aware of that side of me, as I am super femme and love clothes and dressing up. A lot of femme girls are assumed to be straight, as if they are doing it for the male gaze or something, but I do it for myself."
Nonetheless, Ariana says that it was very difficult and scary when Lucia went through her surgeries, and there were also financial issues to consider. She also still worries that someone will try to hurt Lucia out of prejudice, but says that her wife is so great with people that even sceptics fall in love with her as soon as they get to know her.
"Some people look at trans women like they are either a fetish or they are not desirable," says Ariana, "People act like that with me and it's horrible. Men can be so gross about it, and even my girlfriends might feel bad for me because they believe that I'm not getting something physically fulfilling, although I am. Lucia and I are from California and have liberal friends who wouldn't think anything of it, but there are people who can really be mean about it."
As a woman, Lucia says she experiences misogyny, but is also subjected to trans misogyny. She finds silence to be an effective weapon in the face of hostility, whereas she would previously have been drawn into an argument.
Transitioning has also given her an interesting perspective on how women interact around men and how they are perceived. "I've noticed that when women are in mixed settings, they hold back their opinions, but when they are just with other women, there is a more collaborative conversation going on," she muses. "I've also found that if women try to interject around men, they get labelled 'bossy' or 'aggressive'."
Lucia and Ariana are very happy living in Germany, and say they love its great healthcare system and how supportive the country is towards the arts. While she is very close to her mum, Lucia hasn't seen her dad for about seven years while she has been living in Germany. "We don't really speak much," she says. "It's not because of my transition as we spoke a bit through email and he said he was happy for me."
When it comes to the subject of starting a family of their own, Lucia and Ariana are not sure yet if babies will be part of their future. However, they took a very practical approach to their unusual situation, which is something they discussed prior to Lucia's transition. "Before I went on the hormones, we banked some of my sperm," she explains. "As much as we would love to provide a home for someone who needs one, there is a biological curiosity there. Ariana is the person I love and I wonder what our babies would be like? We have pumped all of our money into our careers for our whole adult life, and any extra money goes on performances and paying for hotels. The idea of being responsible for another person financially is overwhelming, but at least we have an option for the future."
While she knows that some transitioning opera singers don't want to sing any more because it conflicts too much with their identity, Lucia is fine with playing male roles on stage. She has been very successful and says that she manages and protects her mental health through being free and happy in her personal life.
When she performs in concerts, she wears female attire and says the costume department of her opera house loves to find the most beautiful dresses for her. She trialled her own show called Binary Optional in London last summer to see if people would be interested in bending gender in opera, and will return with the show to London on May 25. It will be less about opera, and more about identity and telling her story.
"Professionally, I'm happy with everything for the moment, and I feel like my career is more interesting to me now than it has ever been," she says. "I am constantly reinventing what I want to do with it and seeing how big I can grow it, and it's important for me to have this other avenue to release steam."
Having never been to Ireland before, Lucia was delighted to arrive in Dublin earlier this week to rehearse for next weekend's production of Puccini's much-loved dramatic opera Madama Butterfly, at the National Concert Hall. It's her debut performance as Sharpless, and acclaimed Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee will make her Irish debut singing the title role. English tenor Julian Hubbard plays Pinkerton, the US Naval Officer who breaks her heart, while Irish mezzo Sarah Richardson makes her role debut as Suzuki. Breathtakingly beautiful from first love to tragic end, this production brings together the best of Irish and International talent, with conductor John Rigby leading the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus.
Lucia and Ariana don't really get the opportunity to sing much together, although Lucia says her wife is an amazing performer. She is very grateful for their relationship - not only because it has survived the transition but because they got together so young. "Anybody who stays in a relationship for longer than 10 years must understand that people change," she says. "I have changed more than most people do in a lifetime, but deciding we wanted to sing opera for a living and making it actually happen was way more difficult for us being together than me transitioning. I'm very happy and thankful that it has all worked out the way it did."
Madama Butterfly is at the National Concert Hall on February 18, 19 and 21, presented by Lyric Opera. Bookings: 01 417 0000 or www.nch.ie
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