‘I don’t want an asterisk by my name’: Opera singer Lucia Lucas makes headlines, but has sights set even higher

Sitting in her graduate classes at Chicago College of Performing Arts alongside students who had attended Julliard and other prestigious music schools didn’t faze Lucia Lucas ’05 (Voice and Instrument) because she knew she had a crucial advantage.

At the more prestigious schools, performing opportunities typically went to graduate students. But things are different at Sacramento State.

“There were never more than a couple graduate students involved in the opera program when I was there, so undergraduates had to do the roles,” she said. “I went off to conservatory after Sac State totally prepared, and much more prepared than other people who had maybe more prestigious degrees.”

All of that preparation has paid off. Lucas is enjoying success as an opera singer based in Germany and performing worldwide. Most recently, she became the first transgender opera singer to play a lead role in a professional U.S. opera production when she portrayed the title character in Don Giovanni in Tulsa, Okla.

That moment earned her headlines as a milestone for the transgender community, but Lucas says her primary focus was delivering a quality performance.

“There was so much pressure on it, but basically all I had to do was my job. So in that moment, I’m not thinking about any history being made,” she said. “It was important, but it wasn’t important that it happened. It was important that it was good.”

Growing up in the Rosemont area of Sacramento, Lucas says she had difficulty communicating and expressing her feelings until she discovered music and began performing. When she arrived at Sacramento State as a student, she briefly considered majoring in engineering – both her parents are engineers – but was drawn to the University’s tight-knit performing arts community. She met her wife, also an opera singer, at Sac State. And when she performed in her first opera, Orpheus in the Underworld, she fell in love with the genre.

“It was singing with your full voice. I always felt like I was stifling my voice a little bit in other forms,” she said. “I really feel that opera has some of the most pure emotions in music form, so my appreciation and love for it has only grown as I’ve been able to grow as a performer.”

Robin Fisher, a Sacramento State professor of voice who worked with Lucas as part of the University’s opera program, says Lucas was an extremely dedicated and focused student who was still working to find her voice. Fisher encouraged Lucas to audition for regional productions, telling her she had the talent to make a professional career as an opera singer.

“Next thing you know, she’s singing with the Sacramento opera, which is a big deal.”

Classical music is challenging, Fisher said, because the performer has to infuse something written by someone else with their own message, meaning and sense of purpose. That Lucas has been able to do so successfully as a professional opera singer, she added, is a testament to her talent.

“It takes immense courage to really be yourself when you’re singing classical music, and I think she has found that way to communicate, that way to be true to herself, that way to sing authentically, and that touches people,” Fisher said. “That reaches people with universal meaning.”

Over a decade-long career, Lucas has performed throughout Europe as well as in Korea and the United States. She recently portrayed the role of Wotan in Die Walküre with Theater Magdeburg in Germany to critical acclaim, and this fall will return to the opera that started it all, Orpheus in the Underworld, with English National Opera at London Coliseum.

Lucas still is unsure how her transition has ultimately impacted her career, acknowledging that there likely are people who will not hire her solely on the basis of her gender identity. But, she said, “my sense of self is much stronger,” and, regardless of what others say, she has her sights set high.

“To not just be the best trans singer but the best singer in my voice category is important to me,” Lucas said. “I don’t want an asterisk by my name.”

Photo of Lucia Lucas by Josh New. Video via youtube.com/channel/UCxWgI4gQInFt65UzOiXwtog.

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Work on Sac State housing project brings engineering grad full circle

Leticia Valenzuela always had been good at math, so when Sierra College held an engineering seminar the summer after she graduated high school, her friend suggested she attend. She didn’t know much about engineering, but that changed quickly.

“There was a structural engineer who was female, which is rare, and she told us about what she does and did a little exercise with us and had us build something, and it really struck a chord with me,” said Valenzuela. “I really enjoyed it, and that’s literally the day I said, ‘You know, I want to do what she does.’ ”

Valenzuela eventually transferred from Sierra to Sacramento State, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering before starting a career as a staff engineer for Miyamoto International, a global structural engineering and disaster-risk reduction firm.

Her current project with the firm hits close to home: She’s performing the design calculations for Sacramento State’s Hornet Commons, an eight-building student housing complex that broke ground this summer, handling the complicated math needed to ensure each building’s walls and foundations can withstand earthquakes, wind and anything else that may come their way.

In other words, Valenzuela literally is helping to build the campus where she spent five years learning to be an engineer.

“When I first heard that our office got this project, my first thought was, ‘I want to work on that,’ ” she said. “It’s all full circle. I feel like I’m giving back to the school I went to.”

Growing up primarily in Sacramento and Yuba City, Valenzuela was no stranger to buildings and the housing industry: Her father works in construction, and her mother is a real estate agent. The first in her family to attend a four-year university, she initially planned on attending school in San Diego or Oregon. But the recession hit her parents’ industries hard, and when she graduated high school in 2009, she decided to stay local and attend community college.

“Now I look back and I feel as if it all happened for a reason,” she said. “After Sierra, I didn’t want to go far anymore. I wanted to still be close to my parents’ house. I wanted to be close to my family.”

That left her deciding between Sacramento State and UC Davis to finish out her bachelor’s degree. Sac State won out, she said, in part due to its dedication to hands-on, experiential learning. For their senior project, she and her classmates had the opportunity to submit a mock redesign of an actual railroad bridge in Calaveras County. She also participated in the American Society of Civil Engineers, serving as secretary of the student chapter for a year, as well as the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.

“I feel like I am well prepared (for a career), as well as you can be prepared, because you don’t know what you don’t know until you get out there,” Valenzuela said. “You think, I got all this education, and then in the real world, day by day you’re learning more and more. You build off everything you learned in school.”

She wasn’t thinking about grad school – even though her then-boyfriend and now-husband, Sacramento State alumnus Manny Valenzuela, suggested it – but a random encounter with a professor changed her mind. In an on-campus parking garage, she ran into her soils professor, Cyrus Aryani, who told her that her work was graduate level and that she should consider pursuing her master’s degree.

Aryani taught Valenzuela in an undergraduate and graduate course, and called her one of his top students. He said she aced his exams, an impressive feat “because my exams are usually tough, and hard to get 95-100.”

“She was very smart and she would grasp onto the topics very well, and she understood the material well,” Aryani said. “She worked hard and she always, as I recall, had a smile and a very positive attitude toward everything.

“I saw the potential. She was an excellent student.”

Valenzuela stayed at Sacramento State for her master’s degree while also beginning work at Miyamoto, where she was hired full time after finishing graduate school in 2017. She has conducted design calculations on several local projects, including Del Paso Elementary School in Sacramento, an apartment complex in Roseville, and a military housing facility in Mather.

“She’s very conscientious about what she does. She’s a quick learner, fairly detailed,” said Bob Glasgow, a principal at Miyamoto who earned his master’s in civil engineering at Sacramento State and also taught Valenzuela there. “When you’re studying and going through school, it probably teaches you about 10 percent of what you need to know for your career, so there’s a lot of on-the-job learning. You learn and build experience as you progress by working on many different projects, and she has definitely been doing that.”

Beyond her engineering work, Glasgow said, Valenzuela has given back to the community, helping to organize a Women in Construction volunteer event, and serving as a mentor for high school students in the CREATE Mentoring Program.

Valenzuela doesn’t dwell on the fact that, as a Latina in engineering, she remains a rarity. But she recognizes the impact she can have by showing young people that someone like her can succeed in the field, much as the woman at the Sierra seminar did for her back in 2009.

“I want people to get into the profession. I love it,” she said. “Someone gave a good description one time: Civil (engineering) is for the people. It’s for the community and civic-type things. Ultimately, that’s what we do. We’re giving back.”

‘El Chicano’ co-writer Joe Carnahan recalls ‘blue-collar’ Sac State film education

Joe Carnahan ’95 (Film Studies) has written and directed several movies that feature high-octane action sequences designed to get your heart pumping and adrenaline running. But he doesn’t consider himself an action director.

“I guess that’s what I’m known for, but what makes any film interesting, what makes any genre work, ultimately, is the characters,” said Carnahan, whose credits include Narc, The A-Team, Smokin’ Aces and The Grey. “How much you connect to them and how much you care about them.”

Carnahan hopes that the characters in his latest film, El Chicano, which opened May 3, connect with audiences in a big and very important way. The film is the first superhero movie to feature an all Latino cast, something Carnahan and his co-writer Ben Hernandez Bray, who also serves as the director, hope can address a major problem in Hollywood: the underrepresentation of Latino individuals in movies.

“Ben for years had been saying, ‘I don’t see myself represented. I don’t see brown faces. I don’t see those movies,’” Carnahan said. “The only balm I could supply, as his best friend, was to say, ‘We need to go make this movie now.’”

Carnahan credits much of where he is today to Sacramento State, from which he says he received a “blue collar” film education – one that prioritized hands-on learning over theory – in a diverse environment that exposed him to individuals from all backgrounds.

A native of Vacaville, Carnahan had become involved with creative writing while a teenager, which morphed into an interest in film while attending Solano Community College. At 19, he wrote his first screenplay.

“It was terrible, but it was a good learning process, and so I wrote that and began to write another one, another one, another one, and through attrition and just being stubborn about the process and understanding that I was learning even though it wasn’t stuff I was ever going to do, I just kept slogging forward,” he said.

He continued to take film courses, raised his GPA and transferred to Sacramento State, where he enrolled as an English and film studies double major. Working at a moving company to help pay for college, he also got involved in the local theater and film scene, and staged a one-act play in the Playwrights’ Theatre.

The campus itself even made its mark on Carnahan’s career. The tunnel below Arboretum Drive at the front of campus was used as a filming location for an early version of Narc, which eventually became one of his first commercial films.

Carnahan eventually saw a string of success with several big-budget action films and thrillers, but getting financing for El Chicano proved difficult. He and Hernandez Bray eventually had to go to Canada to secure funding.

The film, based in part on Hernandez Bray’s personal experiences, tells the story of a Los Angeles police detective who discovers that his deceased brother had planned to become a masked vigilante known as El Chicano in an effort to fight the influence of Mexican drug cartels in East Los Angeles, and eventually assumes the mantle of El Chicano himself. Billed as a superhero film, Carnahan says it also touches on issues of identity, including what it means to be both an American and a Mexican American.

El Chicano aims to make a dent in a severe underrepresentation of Latino characters in Hollywood. A 2018 USC study found that just 6.1 percent of speaking roles in films in 2017 went to Latino characters, despite Latino individuals making up nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population. The disparity is even greater when looking at who is spending money at the multiplex: Latino individuals bought 23 percent of all movie tickets in 2016, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Or, to compare apples to apples, El Chicano came out just one week after the highly anticipated Avengers: Endgame, the culminating film of a 21-movie superhero series that featured just one prominent Latino character.

In talking about how to address the issue, Carnahan circles back to what he loves most about making movies: creating characters that can connect with an audience.

“If you watch Black Panther, you don’t say, ‘Well I’m not African American or African so I can’t possibly understand what that story is about.’ It’s absurd,” he said. “Of course you do. It’s a great movie. Great movies transcend.”

The approach Carnahan took with El Chicano – to make the movie, whatever it took – stems from lessons and values he learned at Sacramento State, which were imparted by faculty members who also were working professionals in the film industry.

“I didn’t go to film school. Sacramento State was my film school, and I’m very proud of that,” he said. “It had a blue-collar approach to it. It wasn’t so steeped in film theory. It was, ‘ Get out and do it.’ ”