‘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.”

Sacramento Republic FC keeper Josh Cohen balances school, professional sports

Josh Cohen’s regimented daily schedule begins sometime between 8 and 9 a.m. in the training room, where he’ll spend the next three to five hours. Then he gets a couple hours of downtime before heading to Sacramento State for his evening classes, which this semester start at 4 p.m.

Other evenings? You’ll find him on the soccer pitch, parked in front of the goal and trying to keep the Sacramento Republic FC’s opponent from scoring.

“Playing for Sacramento, in particular, is amazing just because of the fan base we have and the culture of the team in Sacramento,” said Cohen, the starting goalkeeper for the Republic. “At every game, we have 10,000, 11,000 people out there.”

Cohen also is a master’s in mechanical engineering student in his third semester at Sacramento State, balancing school with life as a professional athlete. The Sunnyvale native completed his undergraduate degree at UC San Diego.

Playing soccer professionally has been a dream of Cohen’s since he was a small child, but when that dream came true and he was deciding where to play, his higher education goals definitely were a factor.

“Choosing to play in Sacramento, (Sacramento State) did factor into that decision. I looked up the engineering program and looked up the schedule and the type of classes that were offered,” he said. “I liked how they divided up the coursework into different subcategories, and I could focus on one or two categories that were interesting to me.”

For Cohen, that meant focusing on automation and mechanical design. He enjoys building devices and machines, and says he enjoys working on side projects, such as the 3-D printer he made last year and continues to improve.

Though he hopes to continue playing soccer professionally for as long as possible, he hopes to work as an engineer when his playing days are over. And while his undergraduate education was focused on theory and seemingly on preparing people for academic careers, he says he appreciates Sacramento State’s focus on real-world education, something he knows will make him a more valuable employee whenever he does enter the workforce.

“My interest has always been more in the nitty-gritty, industry, getting-my-hands-dirty side of things,” Cohen said. “And I feel like here, I get a lot of experience.”