James Kicklighter raises the curtain on a transgender opera star in ‘The Sound of Identity’

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Director James Kicklighter

James Kicklighter insists he knew nothing about opera before his newest film.

The Georgia-born director made his cinematic debut with the film Di passaggio in 2009. He followed up with Desires of the Heart in 2013 before a long hiatus, in which he directed short films and commercials. Now, after a seven-year hiatus, Kicklighter wades into the world of opera with The Sound of Identity. 

The Sound of Identity, which arrives on VOD June 1, chronicles a Tulsa production of the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. Playing the title character: Lucia Lucas, a classically trained vocalist. Lucia enjoys playing video games and throws herself into the role with all abandon, and with good reason. As a transgender woman stepping into a male role, she’s put her career on the line, along with the credibility of the Tulsa Opera.  Kicklighter’s film follows Lucas from rehearsal to opening night and she endures the physical and psychological stress of the role…and the pressure to succeed.

We caught up with Kicklighter just ahead of the film’s arrival on digital services…and even managed to nab an exclusive clip to boot. The Sound of Identity arrives on VOD June 1.

So my first impression: this is a great-looking film. I loved the photography.

Thank you. My director of photography, Jonathan Pope and I were college roommates. We met our first week in college and 15 years later, we’re still working together. That was one of the first conversations we had about this film: even though it is a documentary, we felt that because it was about the heightened world of opera, the film really needed to look like a narrative feature. So that’s the approach we took.

It’s a beautiful one. I love the way it brings out colors in—I don’t know that we should call them “production numbers,” because that’s not exactly right…

That’s a fair term I think.

Lucia Lucas

Awesome then. Now, this is your first film in seven years—a feature film. Why so long?

I will say two things. First of all, I had a very challenging experience on my film seven years ago in which I didn’t get to finish it the way I wanted. The producer kind of ran off with it for months, then gave me 72 hours to edit it. This was not an experience that was really familiar to people until recently with the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League.

Which is awesome. Continue.

So it’s something I’ve not said much about. I believe in supporting my films, but that experience was extremely traumatic for me. I felt we made a great film, and the film that came out was not the film I wanted to make. So it took a couple of years to get through that. I spent time doing short films to really ask myself I really wanted to say as an artist. This film came across my desk, and when the producers came to me with The Sound of Identity, I was intrigued. Not only was it about a social issue that I thought was important, it was also a film that asked a question about what it meant to be an artist.

Yes.

That, to me, felt like the right story for me to jump into after my experience seven years ago.

How did Lucia Lucas come to your attention?

I met the producers a couple of years ago, and they were interested in my work and the work I’d been doing. So they said they had the rights to a documentary about a trans singer making history in opera. What did I think about it? So I said, “First of all, I know nothing about opera, so I don’t know if you called the right person.”

[Laughter]

“Second, I need to talk to the subject. I know nothing about opera.” So they connected me with Lucia. As soon as we had a couple of meetings, and I began to understand her story, I was intrigued with her as a person. Also, the idea of voice and gender—that she transitioned and maintained her baritone voice. That’s something really unique to this story. I felt that question of voice and gender would be fascinating to explore in the context of opera, especially in a production of Don Giovanni. It’s all about toxic masculinity.

Yes.

That triangulation compelled me to make the film.

Rehearsal for Don Giovanni

The juxtaposition of Don Giovanni is an interesting one, in that his identity is a very fluid one. That’s also a theme in Lucia’s life, which is kind of cosmic.

There is. It is cosmic—that’s a great way of putting it. Right now, I feel there’s such a strong emphasis on identity and the types of stories we can tell. For example, if you’re a gay director, you can only tell “gay” stories. If you’re a person of color, you can only tell stories about people of color. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using our identity and experiences to tell authentic stories.

Absolutely.

It’s a good thing. For so long, that was not the case. But I was interested in the idea of using that identity as currency. Is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I think in this dialogue we’re having about representation, it’s important to ask that question as well. What’s the line between authenticity and exploitation? I felt the dialogue between Lucia and Tobias Picker of the Tulsa Opera had on that was something I wanted to lean into with the film.

Related: A ‘Mommie Dearest’ comeback, Melissa Etheridge croons & a trans opera

You know, I’ve talked to so many filmmakers recently, and nobody can seem to quite agree on “proper” representation—what is appropriation, what is exploitation, who has the right to tell which stories. People seem to have double standards. But, there is some resentment when an artist is told he doesn’t have the right to tell a certain story because of who he is or how he identifies.

I couldn’t agree more. There’s a difference between telling a story you have no business telling, and doing the work to make it authentic. I think that it’s a really challenging conversation to have at the moment. There are stories I’ve told in my career that I tried to supplement. If it was something cultural or not in my experience, I tried to surround myself with people that could fill the gap to help me understand, and to elevate those voices. I think you can elevate people who have not been heard without negating their voices.

Well, and that brings me back to the dialogue you mention between Tobias and Lucia. It’s clear Lucia is proud of herself and her identity, and she wants people to see a transwoman in an opera performing a male role. But there’s automatically this idea that it could turn into a Jerry Springer-type freak show, certainly in the marketing. What was the most interesting part of that dialogue for you?

Well, there are several meta-narratives in the film. That’s a question being asked of Denni Sayers, who directed the show. That’s a question being asked of Tobias and Lucia. And it’s the question I’m asking myself. So there are three layers there as to how to do it in a way that makes sense. For the production itself, they need Lucia to bring in a new audience to help the Tulsa opera. Lucia and Tobias have a genuine motive for elevating her voice, though Tobias has less altruistic motives to help his job. Then I’m asking the question about representation in the show, to see how we answer a question about identity and use it so that it’s not a Jerry Springer episode. So, on some level, we’re all asking the same question in different ways.

That makes sense.

I think the answer to that is we can all be authentically ourselves in public, but who we portray ourselves as an actor, director, producer or creative in general—that identity is not the same identity. We’re playing a role. Those two things are different. We’re telling a story. And our identities get dragged into the work we do, for better and worse. So for them, it’s about how to separate those two things: Lucia the performer, and Lucia the person. That sometimes can get really messy in art. I think in the past few years with the #MeToo movement and areas of culture reevaluating itself, that line has been much harder to delineate. With our film, and with the production, we tried to explore that question.

Lucia Lucas

Your point about the separation between performer and person is a very interesting one. Lucia, in this film, also discusses her estrangement with her family.

I thought that was really important. In narratives about transpeople, I find often that the story is usually just about transition, the before and after. I felt it was so important that we need to do better as filmmakers. I think if we “other” people, no matter how we identify, it’s hard to build acceptance. We’re constantly putting people in a box.

Did the opera get any hate for putting a transwoman on stage? Did Lucia experience any?

That was not something I was aware of. I’m sure those things did happen, but I didn’t observe it. That was a conversation we had walking into the film: what if there are protests? I’m sure there are people that chose not to come to the opera because of [it having a transgender lead], but people didn’t picket. They didn’t protest. I think that speaks to the community in Tulsa. It’s in a conservative state, but it’s kind of conservative and progressive. I think we can say that of many cities, and I think that’s something we should all remember when we have these conversations. I also think it’s important this event took place in Tulsa, not New York, San Francisco, Miami, or LA. It has a much more profound impact in the surrounding area for people who need to see it.

Looking over your filmography, I was trying to find a pattern. You are definitely attracted to stories about other artists—musicians, dancers, writers. Why?

Oh gosh, I think you’re the first person to observe that. It’s a curveball question.

[Laughter]

I think that I am always interested in how people tick. The Sound of Identity is not a high-stakes story in that sense. It’s high stakes in that it’s making history and that it is the first time this has happened. It’s high stakes for Lucia, because if she fails, it will be bad for her career. One thing that is unusual about our film–and this is a risk Lucia took–there have not been many films made about opera singers in the prime of their careers. They’re always after the fact.

Right.

There are very few–if any–about people on the cusp of success. That is a major risk Lucia took in letting me tell her story.

Absolutely.

It most senses it’s an intimate story. It’s about a moment in someone’s life and how that impacts. Artists and stories about people’s lives and how people do things are always the stories I am most drawn to. It’s the character-driven stories that say something about people and the way they construct reality, their way of life. That’s the kind of story, as a director, I’m always drawn to.

Interesting.

Exploring the emotional core of a person is something that makes me really excited creatively. You’re able to tell intimate stories that don’t have to be about the world-changing. They’re about people getting through a challenge in life. That, to me, is way more interesting. It’s psychological. It’s internal.

Excellent answer. There is also this theme of transformation in your work—changing times, changing relationships, changing people. This film is about a transformed woman, obviously, but it’s also about the transformation of opera as a medium. What fascinates you about change?

I think, for me, there’s some biography there. I believe all artists—especially directors—draw upon their life stories. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I grew up in a tiny town. I live in Los Angeles. Those two things are so discordant from one another.

They are.

I’m gay and grew up in a religious household. Those disconnects in my own personal story impact the way I think about people, change and evolution. I truly believe people, at their core, evolve with time and experience, impacted by not only the things that impact us, but also by the people we see and the places we go and the experiences we have.

Yes.

For me, going on that interior journey with characters satisfies my personal motives for telling a story. I look at my own life and journeys, and I try to reconcile some of my own internal stuff with those stories. I said it before: there are meta stories going on in The Sound of Identity. There’s the story of the show, the story of the performers, and the story of myself injected into that. This story, at its core, is about what it means to be an artist. I would be lying if I said I didn’t see myself in the story of Lucia, even if I’m not a transperson. I suspect many other artists will as well.

You also gravitated toward short films in the past few years, but I’ve heard you say making a short is sometimes a mistake if you want to make features. Elaborate on that. As an entertainment writer, as someone that lives and works in Hollywood, I’m constantly meeting people trying to do short films thinking one can jump-start a career. At what point should someone say screw it and do a feature?

[Long Pause]

This is also a new question. You’ve got all kinds of curveballs.

That’s why they hired me.

[Laughter]

I think that short films are important for artists trying to figure out what to say. As I said earlier, I had an extremely negative experience on a film seven years ago. I’m grateful for the experience because I was given an opportunity most 24-year-old directors would not have been given. I’m grateful for the producers giving me a shot. But I’m not grateful for the outcome.

Right.

However, that experience taught me so much about what to do and what not to do, and how to maneuver. So what I chose to do was go back to the drawing board and make new shorts, docs, advertising. I ran off and worked for Hillary Clinton, all to figure out what to say again. I had been making films since I was 17, and in that I knew exactly what I wanted to do in my career. At 24, that changed. I didn’t know what to do. So by coming back smaller, rebuilding, and thinking about what it was I wanted to say, I built up to the point where we are today. I think The Sound of Identity is the best thing I’ve ever directed. I believe that because I spent that time figuring out what kind of stories I was good at telling, what I was bad at telling, who I wanted to work with, and who I didn’t want to work with. So for me, short films and short-form content have to be informed by where you are in that process.

Interesting.

Once you arrive at the point where you say “I know what I’m doing, I know where I’m going, and I know what it is that motivates me,” you have to be able to transition into telling long-form stories. That’s how you begin to build longevity. I don’t think artists always look at their career in the right way. I think sometimes we look at things on a project basis—this one thing will make me successful. What I was wrong about, is that once you do that one thing—whether it is good or bad—there’s another mountain in front of you.

So true.

You climb one mountain, and then you realize, there’s a whole mountain chain in front of you. You have a new challenge to meet every time. It’s not just that you’re only as good as your last work. It’s about being consistent as you can be. It’s about constantly putting out new content. It’s about putting out things that are new, different, and fresh. So I think that for artists that think about one single project, they need to start thinking bigger—how to stick around a long time. I’ve been doing this 15-16 years, and I’m still playing the game. I hope to be here another 15-16 years. Young filmmakers always ask me about this…

Yeah?

The first thing I always say is “Nobody gives a sh*t about you or your work.” And I don’t mean to be mean, but nobody cares about your work until they do. So you have to be your own best advocate for your work.

The Sound of Identity arrives on VOD June 1. Check out an exclusive clip below.

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