Two voices share transgender story in opera ‘As One’
Even the smallest of operas typically are not written for a single voice, much less for a bifurcated one. But there are quite a few elements of Laura Kaminsky’s new chamber opera, “As One,” that could be considered rule-defying.
Its subject, for a start. “As One,” produced by Long Beach Opera (LBO) in its Southern California premiere, focuses on the journey of a transgender person who transitions from man to woman. The two characters — Hannah (Before) and Hannah (After) — are sung by a male baritone and a female mezzo-soprano. Composer Kaminsky, whose body of work primarily is not for vocal performance, developed the concept and created the piece with librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, a transgender filmmaker whose life “As One” partially is based on .
The resources and production values also are decidedly nontraditional. Instead of a full orchestra, the 75-minute “As One” utilizes a string quartet and film footage. Hence, the production’s director, David Schweizer, believes “As One” has found the right home for its Southern California debut.
“Opera theaters are becoming more adventurous about programming new work,” said Schweizer, who has worked extensively at LBO. “There are certain trends which Long Beach Opera has been doing for decades — the idea of doing opera in alternate spaces and new works on more of a chamber opera scale so they’re not quite so expensive to produce. These are more intimate works that open up new opportunities for storytelling.”
“It’s been a transformative piece for me,” added the New York-based Kaminsky, who traveled to Long Beach to attend the work’s opening performance on May 13. “Working with Mark and Kim to create Hannah, we have touched not just people in the trans and LGBTQ community but general audiences, who have had to think about what does it mean to be a fully realized person. This has been a joyful experience for me and it has led to other opportunities.”
In the spirit of unconventional journeys, Kaminsky’s arrival at “As One” came through a couple of separate “aha!” moments.
Having married her wife in Canada before same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States, Kaminsky tracked the issue in the news as state after state voted on whether to legalize same-sex marriage. As the New Jersey vote was approaching, a New York Times account of a New Jersey husband and wife with two teenage children caught Kaminsky’s attention. The father was transitioning to a woman and the family was planning to stay intact, even if the vote went the wrong way for them and the pair would no longer be considered a legal entity once his transition to being a woman was complete.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is an opera,’ ” Kaminsky said. “You’re asking the question, Who are you at your core? Who are you if you are about to change to become more than who you are, and what does that do to your relationship? What does society and its rules and expectations and demands do to that transformation of a person?”
Kaminsky filed the idea away on her creative to-do list. A year later, she received a fellowship to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, to seek out Soviet-era music that previously had not been heard in the United States. Among the music she brought back was a series of Yiddish propaganda songs for Lenin and Stalin, some jazz tracks and some newly discovered operatic arias that Dmitri Shostakovich had written to sing to soldiers on the front lines during the siege of Leningrad.
Kaminsky invited the husband-and-wife singers Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke to perform the Shostakovich works. The experience was so fulfilling that Kaminsky returned to her idea for a transitioning-themed opera, envisioning the same character being played by a man and woman.
“That is not typically how operas happen,” she said. “There was a concept, but there was no story, no opera company, nothing. There was just this persistent idea that crystallized that they would be one person.”
After seeing “Portable Son,” Reed’s documentary about her return to her hometown as a transgender woman, Kaminsky knew she had found her collaborator. Reed and Campbell wrote the libretto and “As One” had its premiere in the fall of 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Cooke and Markgraf singing the roles of Hannah.
Schweizer interviewed to direct that production, but the assignment went to a director the two singers had worked with previously. Eight productions later, when Long Beach Opera decided to stage the work, Schweizer was delighted to be asked to direct it. The LBO production features mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond and baritone Lee Gregory, with the music conducted by LBO General and Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek.
Schweizer, who has a lengthy career working in both opera and live theater, calls “As One” “a very striking marriage of content and creative form.”
“Laura has done a remarkable job of both voicing the characters and sending out a musical message that also kind of transcends the situation,” Schweizer said. “There are very lyrical rapturous moments where the characters make certain discoveries along the way. There are very witty, eloquently scored exchanges where the character is undergoing awkward situations. The music for the piece has a flow and it feels like you can recognize her voice throughout.”
The daughter of a New York-raised father whose ancestry is Belarusian and a British mother, Kaminsky grew up in a liberal Jewish household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her diverse career includes multiple academic appointments, artistic directorships and a stint as the associate director of humanities at the 92nd Street Y, where she coordinated the film and lecture series.
Jewish audiences have embraced “As One,” according to Kaminsky, who recently saw excerpts of the work performed at the Jewish Theological Seminary along with selections of Gerald Cohen’s Holocaust-themed opera, “Steal a Pencil for Me.”
“We performed it for the cantorial students and the general public,” Kaminsky said, “and entered into a conversation about spirit and meaning and a human message through music, all of the things that good art does.”
“As One” will be performed May 20 and 21 at 2:30 p.m. at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. For tickets and information, call (562) 470-7464 or longbeachopera.org/tickets.