Interview: Composer Nicolas Repetto On Scoring The Sound of Identity

The Sound of Identity, from documentary filmmaker James Kicklighter, is the story of one remarkable individual—Lucia Lucas, the American transgender baritone who made history in March 2018 when it was announced that she would become the first female baritone to perform a principal role on an American operatic stage. The performance on May 3, 2019 in Tulsa, Oklahoma saw Lucas playing the starring role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni with the Tulsa Opera. The Sound of Identity also examines Lucas’s drive to prove herself to skeptical audiences and Opera houses all over. With Tobias Picker, the composer who is Tulsa Opera’s artistic director, backing Lucas every step on their historic endeavor.

Guiding Lucia and Kicklighter along this journey is Argentine-born composer Nicolas Repetto who provided the film’s score. For this interview Repetto discusses incorporating music for Lucas’s reflective introspection with moments of Mozart’s opulent works.

Jason: What interested you in wanting to become a film composer?

Nicolas Repetto: I was interested in music since elementary school where I had a teacher named Miss Love and she instilled a great love of music within me. That transitioned later into middle school where I picked up the violin and I think clarinet as well so I was interested in orchestral instruments at that point. In high school we were looking at James Horner’s Braveheart and that planted the seed of what I wanted to do. I watched a lot of movies growing up and would rent VHS tapes and spend weekends watching them at home rather than playing outside. College is when I was thinking about becoming a violinist in an orchestra and I was practicing eight hours a day.

Jason: Were you listening to other types of music?

Nicolas Repetto: Since I grew up in Miami, I was listening to a lot of Latin music and I took this introduction to composition class and learned how to analyze pieces; I came back to the movies by James Horner. I think it was House of Sand and Fog which instilled more interest in that. But I wasn’t thinking about it until I saw Lord of the Rings at the cinema at the university and I think watching those images and the music and everything together solidified that, ‘okay, this is what I want to do’ and I think that same night, I ran home and started composing something that sounded similar, but was crappy. I was trying to exert my musical muscles. I did further study and worked on those things until I got a teaching job. I taught music for 10 years but still was composing on the side.

Jason: When did you move from Miami to LA?

Nicolas Repetto: I think it was 2012 I moved to LA to pursue this because I also took how Hummie Mann’s class in the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program to see if I wanted to do it. And that helped solidify the interest. I started scoring jingles and then transitioned into films and other projects until The Sound of Identity, which is the biggest project that I’ve done so far.

Opera performer Lucia Lucas crouches on a stage in front of rows of empty concert seats
Opera performer Lucia Lucas in The Sound of Identity (STARZ and Shout! Studios)

Jason: How did your involvement in this project come about and what was your approach to it?

Nicolas Repetto: I was introduced to the director James Kicklighter through a composer friend ten years ago. I scored a few shorts for him, notably A Few Things About Cancer, using different styles of music. When it was time to score The Sound of Identity he approached me and told me it was about the first transgender opera singer performing a world premiere and I loved it because I studied opera in college. On top of that it was Don Giovanni and Mozart, so that was very interesting to me. James shot it in eight weeks and when I saw it I felt it was shot like a narrative film because of how he set up the shots in terms of lighting and the textures he used were fantastic. His cinematographer Jonathan Pope really provided that element. His eye was fantastic, and that inspired the identity motif for the piece. When I saw the first images I was hearing a violin doing these arpeggiated things with strings. The image of Lucia standing on the stage with that lighting I felt called for that singular sound.

Jason: Is it easier or harder to compose for someone that’s more introspective than it is for a larger-than-life on-screen character?

Nicolas Repetto: For Lucia and those moments which called for a more introspective inward looking feel, that came fairly quickly to me. I knew I would not use large musical gestures. We wanted it to be a more intimate score for those moments especially with Tobias and Lucia because those two showed their vulnerability throughout the film. I relied on orchestral colors, keeping it lighter to support what was on screen. It wasn’t something that was difficult. The difficulty was in finding the right balance to use. I think using soloists is how I created the music for the more intimate moments.

Jason: Is it true you only had three weeks to write 45 minutes of score?

Nicolas Repetto: Yes. It was pretty intense. Once James edited the film, it was scheduled to appear at a film festival so the deadline was super short. I started early before the film was locked, which helped a little until I reached a point where I had to expand my music team a bit. But yeah, it was three weeks and in the last days it was a scramble to get it all done. We had a big recording schedule set which was on my birthday. Despite the pressure, it was a fun day. I enjoyed working on my birthday and of course the orchestra performed “Happy Birthday” which lifted the stress.

Jason: Had you met Lucia prior to starting this project?

Nicolas Repetto: I did not meet her in person; I met her through the film and the edit that I saw so I got to see her as James captured her. James would tell me about her, but it was from watching the film. I met her later when we appeared on panels together and now we’ve become friends and she messaged me regarding to soundtrack. I think she’s a brilliant singer and an amazing person and love that she overcame trials and tribulations, especially stuff with her family, and became a star.

Jason: Can you talk a little about how over time you and director James Kicklighter, along with his production team developed trust with you?

Nicolas Repetto: That’s super important in this line of work. They spend months working on a film, everyone including editor, production, cinematographer, producers—they’re all this unit and then this lonely composer comes in later and is supposed to take all that camaraderie and then they work alone, well that director better trust that composer to handle their baby. In the beginning it was like going on a date, trying to figure out what he liked, what he didn’t like, that kind of thing. On our third film things began loosening up and he started trusting me in terms of my suggestions. For this film we were at a place where I would say ‘can I try this?’ and he would say ‘sure, go ahead, let’s see how it works.’ Most my ideas were accepted. He allowed me this freedom that was exhilarating and refreshing and that’s the best way to be creative in this kind of work.

Jason: Has your personal style of composing changed since you began and if it has, how?

Nicolas Repetto: When I began I relied a lot on my classical training but later on I started involving different styles of music and sampling distinct sounds. I went to a junkyard once and recorded metallic objects just to create a unique sound template. I love orchestral things but I enjoy expanding my palette. My style continues to evolve. The cool thing about being a composer is you can be a chameleon with all these different styles.

Jason: Do you feel audiences are embracing more unique sounds and styles in scores today? Take for example Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for Joker which won the Oscar last year.

Nicolas Repetto: I think the pendulum swings in different ways. The score in Joker works fantastic just as Guðnadóttir’s Chernobyl music was fantastic for that story. Audiences are catching up to that unique way of scoring. Same thing with Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin which was a unique score. It expands the audiences ears and I think it’s here to stay but also stuff like our traditional Star Wars type scores with themes is also here as well. When you go to a live music concert, what do you hear the most? You hear Star Wars that bring audiences to the theatre so that won’t be going away either. We’ve entered that stage where we’re straddling between thematic and textural stuff.

Jason: Is the process of composing for documentaries different than it is for scripted features?

Nicolas Repetto: It’s no different other than there is more dialogue in documentaries while narrative features have sound effects such as explosions. It’s not different but you have to know your craft and know when to get out of the way and make the information that is presented interesting for the viewer. It also depends on how it’s shot because James shot The Sound of Identity in such a cool way that was informative and beautiful to watch but the essence of both is you’re just trying to tell a story with music.

Photo of composer Nicolas Repetto
Nicolas Repetto Photo Credit: ALLEN REPETTO

Jason: Do you have personal favorite scores of all time?

Nicolas Repetto: I think the first one that comes to mind is John Williams’ Superman. I would listen to that and just get super excited and put a pretend cape on me and start running around like a crazy kid. Same thing with Raiders of the Lost Ark, we used to sit down and watch that with my family. I would say Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings music was the one that got me going in terms of film scoring. I also have to mention James Horner’s Titanic. That one I saw alone in a theatre when I was in high school and it was such a brilliant film and score and all that led me to pursue this because it was such a great marriage between image and music. Newer composers such as Bear McCreary and Gustavo Santaolalla are great for modern takes but those core people, the ones I enjoyed growing up, along with Jerry Goldsmith of course.

Jason: What would you like viewers and listeners to take away with them after they’ve seen and heard The Sound of Identity?

Nicolas Repetto: Just to be true to yourself. That’s the message that comes across in the film. Love who you are, love your identity, knowing what you’re good at and what you want to do. In Lucia’s case she was great at opera yet there were obstacles getting in her way but she forged forward anyway. So I think being true to that is the best thing. If you’re honest with who you are I think that will resonate the most with audiences.

Jason: Have you received any feedback from listeners of the soundtrack?

Nicolas Repetto: A few people have mentioned my music is great for relaxing. One reviewer said it was music worthy for a feature film so it’s been very positive, so that’s great for myself and the film, which itself has been getting great reviews especially with this being Pride month it’s been resonating in the gay and trans community. It’s something I think was needed and now is giving a spotlight on trans issues but, it’s a story about an individual’s life and they happen to be trans. And singing opera. Starz has been great marketing this film which has been wonderful.

Jason: What projects do you have coming up?

Nicolas Repetto: I have a fantasy movie I’m working on called Empire Queen: The Golden Age of Magic directed by Chris Dane Owens whose music videos were viewed a million times on YouTube. He made this movie full of dragons, wizards, and magic and all that stuff and now he’s just waiting for the music to be done (laughs). That will be thematic orchestral stuff which composers love to do. I’ll be doing James’s next movie The American Question which is about value systems in America throughout history and then I’m doing an indie horror-thriller called Spider which I’ll use a lot of experimental sounds for.

Jason: Thanks for speaking to us and I’m glad we’re able to help get word of this project out.

Nicolas Repetto: Thank you. It’s been wonderful scoring The Sound of Identity and I’m glad it’s getting the warm reception its getting and it was a labor of love. We’re proud of the work we did and I hope it shows.

The Sound of Identity is now streaming on STARZ in USA and Canada, Purchase The Sound of Identity soundtrack by Nicolas Repetto on Amazon and iTunes.

Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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