First performed in October 1787, Wolfgang Mozart’s Il dissoluto punito; ossia, il Don Giovanni (The Libertine Punished; or, Don Giovanni) has since been performed countless times around the globe. Like other pieces of art, it’s been recreated and recontextualized to accommodate shifts in location and time, though never adjusting any of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Italian dialogue. Though interest in opera remains fairly strong in other parts of the world thanks to governmental support of the arts, there’s less and less interest in the United States each year, partially due to waning general interest, far more options for entertainment, and reliance on patronage to fund any show. Documentarian James Kicklighter only tangentially touches on the seemingly dying art (in America) of opera in The Sound of Identity, which tracks the 30 days preceding the opening of Don Giovanni in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May 2019. Though Kicklighter does shed light on the nuances of bringing opera to the American masses, the focus is specifically on Lucia Lucas, the world-travelled American-born opera singer who is the first transgender woman to play the titular role. In so doing, Kicklighter presents a tale that’s about as operatic as Mozart’s via intrigue, love, passion, and a bit of madness.
Consider the following:
You’re a well-respected member of your artistic community to the point where you consistently work, even if you’re not a household name. You’re invited by a close friend to perform one of the biggest roles in opera and be the first member of the transgender community to do so. This job will provide an opportunity to take on a high visibility role in an area not as well-regarded as New York or L.A. (thus making a success even grander), potentially providing a springboard for future opportunities for yourself and your community. Most terrifyingly, you’ve been living overseas for the past 10 years and this may well provide an opportunity to see family members in the flesh you haven’t since (a) you left and (b) you transitioned. All of this is what makes The Sound of Identity so enthralling and emotionally powerful. The play is the easy thing insomuch as Lucas knows exactly what to do as a performer. The difficulty and the real drama of the documentary is how Lucas balances her role as ambassador (which she mostly takes on to the detriment of herself) with an estranged past she felt she’d had control over by setting the terms.
In a conversation with Lucas and friend/Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker, the phrase “freak show” is used to describe a manner of marketing their upcoming rendition of Don Giovanni. They each recognize the uniqueness of the situation (her being the first transgender woman to take on the role) and each have their own feelings about the marketing. It’s complicated, of course, but interesting to hear Lucas’s thoughts on why she’s ok being presented as a performer (with no mention of her orientation) or as a transgender performer. Their conversation, though taking place in a restaurant, is intimate in nature, attempting to unravel the “right approach” for marketing a production that’s considered one of the greats in an industry with a dying audience. What’s particularly striking is that, in the middle of their conversation, Lucas stops a waitress to ask if people are wondering what’s going on (referring to their recorded meal) and proceeds to explain to the uncertain waitress so that she can then tell others. This conversation and this moment exemplifies the whole of Kicklighter’s documentary as it showcases both the balancing act between making the private public for the sake of selling tickets, as well as the willingness of Lucas to push herself beyond her responsibilities in order to have the show succeed.
Allow me, for a moment, to offer some context. The arts are often derided for being softer than, say, sports, and have, for more than one generation, been considered to be for the “fairer sex.” Given the amount of versatility it requires to make it as an actor (tapping into emotions, playing with the imagination, utilizing the strength of the physical and emotional varieties), being an actor isn’t something only one gender or another can or should do. The truth of the matter is that acting has always been a bit of a men’s club, where men often played women’s parts by dressing in the clothes and makeup befitting the role. When or why there was a gender flip to where it wasn’t considered “manly” to explore the arts is currently beyond me, but it became such a rarity for women to take part in acting as a profession that it gave rise to terms like “trouser role” or “breeches role.” It’s the name for a woman who portrays a male character. For a role like Don Giovanni, one which requires dressing as a man and a woman given his status as a “master of disguise,” it’s interesting that no female opera singers have taken on the role until now. The fact that Lucas *happens* to be transgender is just something more. Truly, the gender of the performer shouldn’t matter beyond, perhaps, tradition. Good art transcends its confinements and the right performer should help escape them. Kicklighter, however, appears less interested in whether or not Lucas is the right performer, agreeing with Lucas’s personal position as a qualified talent through the editing and structure of the documentary, and more interested in the cross-section of this moment in her life with this play. It’s because of this that The Sound of Identity only presents the play via glimpses of rehearsal or final performance where it intersects with significant moments for Lucas. How Kicklighter doesn’t offer much beyond the surface may frustrate some who don’t know much about the specific opera, but this documentary is deceptive in that way. To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that Kicklighter is in anyway manipulative in the presentation. Audiences may just presume that they’ll receive an education in opera by way of Don Giovanni, but the lesson they’ll receive is instead the complicated nature of humanity.
Something which helps create the atmosphere of drama amid real life stressors is how well Kicklighter incorporates Mozart’s music into the production. It serves as a lovely through line, underscoring everything from talking head interviews set up in non-traditional places (like the stage of the Tulsa Opera, inside an antique store, in a restaurant), to public appearances, play rehearsals, and private moments. There is little about The Sound of Identity which requires any kind of false drama, so let’s be clear that the music does not do this in the slightest. Instead, it just makes the ordinary struggles feel a tad more extraordinary. It’s a testament to Kicklighter’s editing that there’s little that feels false or put-on throughout the documentary. In fact, the closer the film gets to show night, the more things fall away and become clear. The Sound of Identity reveals itself as the rare documentary which evolves as it goes, taking the audience on a journey of the soul, uncovered piece by piece, moment by moment, conversation by conversation.
Available on VOD and digital June 1st, 2021.
For more information on the film or where to watch it, head to The Sound of Identity’s website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.