"As One" opera explores a trans woman's journey to find her true voice
Those who don't closely follow the opera world may not think of the artform as a medium that addresses issues any less than a century old. But the 2014 opera As One, which will run April 6-7 at the Kerrytown Concert House, addresses one of the biggest social issues in our current public discourse: the experience and rights of transgender people.
As One depicts one trans woman's journey by employing a baritone and a soprano to respectively sing the parts of "Hannah before" and "Hannah after," with both characters remaining onstage throughout the performance. The audience sees Hannah change, struggle, and grow through the experience of coming to terms with her gender identity and the unexpected, sometimes deeply unsettling responses it provokes.
Jonathan Lasch will portray Hannah before and Jenny Cresswell will portray Hannah after in the Kerrytown performance, which is presented by ÆPEX Contemporary Performance. As One has proved popular since its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and by the end of this year it will have logged two-dozen productions across North America.
As One is the product of a rather unlikely collaboration between composer Laura Kaminsky, who had never written an opera before; co-librettist Mark Campbell, a widely acclaimed figure in the opera world; and co-librettist Kimberly Reed, previously best known as a filmmaker. Reed, who is transgender, partly based As One on her life experience and also created a projected film that accompanies most productions of the work.
We chatted with Kaminsky via email about the unique collaboration between herself, Campbell, and Reed; her journey into the opera world; and what she's got planned when she visits Ann Arbor for As One's presentation here.
Q: How did you, Mark, and Kim come together to develop this idea in the first place?
A: As One is a story of “not-the-norm in getting an opera born.” And finding Mark and Kim was also not a typical story of how a creative team comes together. Initially, I had a broad concept for an opera about a transgender protagonist, someone on a path to self-actualization. After a lot of consideration and a number of fortuitous experiences, I identified a cast, the instrumental ensemble, and a design concept, but I had no commission, no company, and, worst of all, no librettist(s), which meant there was no story to tell, only a general idea for the opera. But slowly the pieces fell into place.
After producing a concert at New York’s Symphony Space, where I was the artistic director, on which mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Kelly Markgraf performed some unknown arrangements of opera arias and folk duets by Shostakovich, and being totally moved by their artistry and their humanity, I had the revelation that I wanted two voices (Sasha and Kelly) to share the lead role in my opera; they would, as one, represent both the male and female aspects of the protagonist, and would, together, reveal the inner dialogue of a person seeking their personal truth.
After getting an agreement in principle from Sasha and Kelly to share the role of the opera’s protagonist, I also realized that this piece needed to be on an intimate scale throughout, so no other voices would be employed, and the "orchestra" would be a string quartet. I had just composed my sixth quartet, Rising Tide, for the remarkable Fry Street Quartet, and, having had an incredibly rewarding experience working with them thought perhaps they might be part of this project. I reached out to them and secured their agreement to participate in the opera should it ever come to be. I knew then that my incipient opera had the perfect group of individuals to inspire my composing it. At the same time, I knew that nothing would ever happen until I found a specific story to tell. I needed a librettist. I needed a story.
In my search for that story, I encountered Kimberly Reed’s film Prodigal Sons, thanks to my wife Rebecca, who was helping me search for possible ideas and came upon Kim’s film. After we watched it, I said to Rebecca, “I have to find Kim; she must be involved.” With Kim on board, the broad concept of a story of self-discovery was agreed to, and the film element was cemented, but still not the actual story.
Then Mark and I met adjudicating grants on a panel at Opera America and I told him about our project. He was intrigued, and I invited him to join the team as librettist, sharing that credit with Kim as co-librettist, who was also our filmmaker. The pieces had finally fallen into place and American Opera Projects joined as our commissioner and developer, and finally producer, in a partnership with BAM, with a plan to premiere the work in 2014. We are now, just three seasons after the premiere, experiencing a flood of new productions, and As One is currently the most produced contemporary opera in North America, with two-dozen productions by the end of this season.
Q: You've noted in many interviews how important it is to you that both "Hannah before" and "Hannah after" are on stage for the duration of As One. How did that part of the concept come about?
A: It was integral to the original concept. Remember, Hannah is, whether "before" or "after," one. Conceptually, it was necessary for the two performers to participate fully in the storytelling by being on stage, in character, whether singing or not.
Q: How closely did you work with Mark and Kim on the project? What was your working relationship with them like?
A: Much of this was answered in your earlier question, but let me add to that response: Building the team for As One was a slow process that resulted in a collaboration with Kimberly Reed and Mark Campbell that has persisted; we are currently working on our third opera together. Working with both Mark and Kim is exhilarating in every way. They are smart, sensitive, funny, exacting, relentless, open, persistent, lyrical, declamatory, and bursting with energy at every moment. We have built a profoundly satisfying “ménage à trois,” a three-way creative relationship where we all respect each other, challenge each other, and help each other to find the best expression of our idea(s) in the work we do together.
Q: Critics have described your score with terms ranging from "post-minimalist" to "fiddling and Americana." How would you describe the sonic palette you were working with on this piece?
A: Hannah’s personality dictated the musical language. Hannah’s story is a journey, so there is “travel” music that is propulsive and energetic, but part of the journey is ruminative and internal, so there is soulful, “interior,” reflective music, represented by a bluesy viola solo, the viola serving throughout the piece as the representation of Hannah’s persona.
Recurring motives give Hannah’s odyssey a musical throughline. There are also bits of Christmas carols during the three-scene-long holiday sequence and a snippet of Grieg heralding Hannah’s decision to go to Norway to seek fulfillment. There is also some harrowing music during a scene in which Hannah is attacked.
One unusual decision I made was to have the string quartet not only play but also sing at times, and the music director to speak. Also recited, not sung, by Hannah before, is a list of names of victims of violence against transgender individuals around the world -- an unspeakably sad list to have to include and to have to continue to update with each performance -- during the scene in which Hannah after is attacked.
Finally, it was of the utmost importance to me that the vocal lines would both support and spotlight the beautiful text. I wanted Mark’s and Kim’s words to be clearly understood, so most of the setting of the libretto is direct, with melismatic passages used only to express emotion, not to obscure the actual words.
Q: As One was your first opera. What expectations did you bring with you going into that experience, and in what ways were those expectations either fulfilled or challenged?
A: I didn’t have any expectations. I just wanted to make this opera and then assumed I would need to return to my "normal" life. I had recently resigned my position at Symphony Space when I began working on it, and I gave myself that spring through the premiere in September to commit to it fully. I planned to look for another job after the premiere. I assumed we would have our run at BAM and that would be that. But it wasn’t, and I’ve not considered another full-time artistic director position since. I am now able (almost) to sustain myself as a composer, with composing occupying the majority of my time, and the rest spent as head of composition at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase, and as composer-in-residence at American Opera Projects.
Q: You've worked on another opera, Some Light Emerges, since As One. Are you interested in continuing to work in opera?
A: Some Light Emerges, also with Mark and Kim, premiered just over a year ago at Houston Grand Opera. Since then, Mark and Kim [and I] are on our third opera together, Today It Rains, for San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle in spring 2019 and American Opera Projects in New York in the 2019-20 season. It is a chamber opera inspired by an event in the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The opera takes place on the four-day train trip that she took in 1929 from New York to Santa Fe. We recently came away from a successful first workshop in January in New York and will have our second workshop in San Francisco in May.
Additionally, Kim and I are writing an opera, Postville: Hometown to the World, inspired by the largest workplace raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency at a Kosher meat-packing plant in 2008. Postville looks at the intersection of race, religion, ethnicity, and culture in America’s heartland. It is one of the first of two commissions for the Opera For All Voices consortium, led by Santa Fe and San Francisco Operas, and will premiere in 2020. I am in discussion about three new projects, which, if they all come to pass, will keep me busy in opera until 2023, but I am also composing a piano quintet for the legendary Ursula Oppens and the Cassatt Quartet that will premiere in early 2019 in New York City. I still want to write instrumental music, as well as opera!
Q: As One has already been staged numerous times across the country. Have there been any unique interpretations of the material that you found particularly striking?
A: It is always a joy to meet a new director and see his/her vision for the piece. There have been very stark productions and quite elaborate ones. There have been colorful ones and monochromatic ones. There have been productions that are almost balletic, and others that are more static. Some productions have the string quartet front and center, with the Hannahs circling them. Others have the quartet off to the side or hidden. Some have actively involved the audience. Some have employed supers to create a tangible world in which Hannah’s story plays out. There are things I like better and less so, but I appreciate all of the different approaches because each gives a new view into Hannah’s world.
Q: I hear you'll be in Ann Arbor for events around this performance. Can you tell me more about that?
A: I am delighted that there has been a connection made between the ÆPEX production and the university, so I will be able to spend time on campus working with the composition department directly as well as participate in public events relating directly to the production at the Kerrytown Concert House. I look forward to working with Kathleen Kelly, a veteran of the Washington National Opera, Vienna State Opera, and Kerrytown Concert House's new artistic director, who directs the production, and ÆPEX's Kevin Fitzgerald as music director.
Q: Is there anything you're specifically looking forward to with regard to the Ann Arbor performance?
A: Everything. For starters, I’ve never been to Ann Arbor, and look forward to seeing the city, the university, the Kerrytown Concert House, and to meeting the cast and quartet members, and seeing what Kathleen and Kevin have created. I can’t wait!
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
"As One" is at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor, on April 6-7 at 8 pm. Visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com for tickets.