‘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.

Advertisements

‘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.’ ”

Henry Garcia embraces change and lands at Pixar

Why would Pixar hire a guy on track to become a physics professor to work on animated films? Let Sacramento State’s William DeGraffenreid explain.

“Henry and I decided to get together and watch a football game,” recalls DeGraffenreid, referring to his former student and current Pixar Animation Studios technical director Henry Garcia ’05 (Computer Science and Physics). “During commercials, he was telling me what he could about his work. I remember him asking me if I had seen Wall-E, and I said, ‘Yeah, it was a good movie,’ though it had come out before Henry had joined Pixar.”

Garcia mentioned a scene featuring a pile of garbage in which papers were fluttering randomly. In the real world, he pointed out, they would move in patterns. In Wall-E, they didn’t.

“He said, ‘But they do now,’ and he gave me a smile,” DeGraffenreid said. “He had already made a contribution to Pixar and contributed his knowledge.”

Garcia’s first project with Pixar, creating that realistic paper fluttering effect for Toy Story 3, was ultimately cut from the film. But since then, he has made his mark at the animation studio – and on some of the most beloved films of the past decade.

The rain in The Good Dinosaur? Garcia’s work. He helped a red hooded sweatshirt come to life in the short film Lou. He’s also worked on Up, Inside Out, Coco, and currently is the simulation supervisor for the highly anticipated Toy Story 4. And, in what he considers his favorite achievement, he helped create Merida’s iconic, curly red hair in Brave.

ToyStory4SimulationReviews04WEB
Henry Garcia gives notes during a Toy Story 4 simulation review on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

“That was 18 months of my life dedicated to building that simulator, with the rest of my team,” Garcia said. “When I look back at that film and I look at her hair and how much it brought that character to life, there’s a lot of pride.”

It’s hardly what the Citrus Heights native envisioned when he transferred to Sacramento State in 2001 after a couple of years at Indiana University. He had followed his girlfriend halfway across the country, run low on money, and was unenthusiastic about having to return home and enroll at the local university.

“In hindsight, it was a huge blessing,” said Garcia, a first-generation college student. “What Sac State did for me was amazing, and I can’t say I would be at Pixar if it wasn’t for that.”

Having been fascinated by computers and graphics since playing video games in middle and high school, he enrolled at Sacramento State as a computer science major. Then, while taking the calculus-based physics courses required for that degree, he fell in love with physics and decided to double major, with the ultimate goal of obtaining his doctorate.

Two internships helped him get into the physics doctoral program at UC Berkeley – located less than four miles from Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters. The studio recruited at Berkeley, and Garcia was fortunate enough to land an interview.

There was just one issue: Despite his computer science background, he hadn’t touched a computer in almost three years.

“After the interview, the room kind of split in half a little bit,” he said. “Half were thinking, ‘What are we doing? We can’t hire this guy. He doesn’t know anything about computer graphics.’ And the other half was saying, ‘Yeah, but he’s so passionate, he’ll figure it out. Let’s give him a shot.’ And luckily, one of the people on the positive side was the head of Toy Story 3 at the time.”

Garcia landed a one-year residency, left Berkeley, and hasn’t looked back. As a technical director, he uses computer software to animate effects like fire and smoke as well as “simulations,” such as hair or clothing, generally handling between two to 10 shots per week (a full film has around 1,600 shots total). Once the work is ready, he takes it to his supervisor for feedback, and then ultimately the director for final approval.

ToyStory4SimulationReviews02WEB
Henry Garcia works on Toy Story 4 on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

On Toy Story 4, Garcia has assumed a supervisory role, working with a team of about 13 to make sure the film comes in on time and on budget – and is up to Pixar’s high standards.

The work is relentlessly collaborative. For example, the Toy Story character Bo Peep wears a cloak. Technical directors like Garcia have to work with the animators to ensure that, when Bo Peep moves her arms, the cloak moves with them realistically.

That’s where Garcia draws upon his experience at Sacramento State, where he found small class sizes, engaged professors who put students first, and a highly supportive and collaborative environment he didn’t have at other schools he attended.

“That’s something I’ve taken with me,” he said. “I think part of my success at Pixar is because I have the skills to bring a team together and be a positive voice in the room, while also having good ideas. I attribute that to Sac State.”

DeGraffenreid, now a special assistant to Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, remembers Garcia as incredibly talented academically while also bringing a sense of humor and caring to the Department of Physics. Garcia was heavily involved in the student physics club and spearheaded the group’s efforts to provide after-school science programming to local homeless K-12 students. And he has returned to campus several times to speak with Sacramento State students and share his knowledge and experience.

“Anytime I’ve asked, ‘Hey, we’ve got this opportunity, would you like to come to speak to our students and tell them your story,’ he’s ready to do it,” DeGraffenreid said. “As a Latino, he understands that he can serve as an example of what’s possible, and that by being present and showing himself as an example, he can inspire other Latinos as well, because unfortunately it remains a marginalized group in physics.”

Garcia – whose path has taken him from Sacramento to Indiana and back, from computer science to physics, from graduate school to a dream job at one of the world’s most famous movie studios – hopes current students will see him as an example of someone who wasn’t afraid to alter course when necessary.

“I’ve seen a lot of people get tripped up on being so focused on their plan that they’re not open to changes in that plan,” he said. “So as you’re progressing through your major, as you’re applying to internships, as you’re setting up and planning the rest of your life, recognize that there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, and be open and embrace them whenever they seem like a positive step.”