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Hearing Both Sides

BRIAN KELLOW speaks with American Opera Projects' composer-in-residence Laura Kaminsky about As One, her musical drama for two singers, which premieres this month at BAM. 

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Laura Kaminsky, American Opera Projects' composer-in-residence

From September 4 to 7, at BAM Fisher in Brooklyn, the distinguished commissioning organization American Opera Projects presents the world premiere of As One, a musical drama for two singers depicting the complicated path of a transgender individual from childhood to adulthood. Hannah Before and Hannah After are portrayed by two rising young American singers, Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke, who happen to be married in life. As One offers music by Laura Kaminsky, composer-in-residence at American Opera Projects. There are two librettists — Mark Campbell, who has collaborated with composers such as Kevin Puts, Joseph Thalken and Ricky Ian Gordon; and Kimberly Reed, director of the documentary Prodigal Sons, which details her return to her home town after she has been through sex reassignment surgery. Reed has also provided some of the film employed in David Jacques’s production design.

OPERA NEWS recently spoke with Laura Kaminsky about the work's evolution.

ON:  As One has the benefit of one of the best librettists now working in opera, Mark Campbell. His work on Kevin Puts’s Silent Night is superb, and they’ve teamed up again for The Manchurian Candidate, coming up this season at Minnesota Opera. 

LK: Mark Campbell and Kim Reed have made an incredible story. I knew I had to write this transgender opera for years. I got the idea in 2008 from an article in The New York Times about a sex change within a marriage. I had never really thought about writing opera, and I read this article, and it flooded out of me. I thought, I have to make this an opera. As I started thinking about it more and more, and I talked with Sasha and Kelly, the idea of the two of them sharing one person and embodying the full range of that human being, as she goes through her transition and finds herself, was so compelling to me. I didn’t know how to write a libretto, and I didn’t know any librettists. I saw Kim’s film Prodigal Sons, and I thought, I have to find this person. If she will agree to work with me, we can make this project come to life. Kim is brilliant and poetic and sensitive and nuanced and wickedly funny. We began crafting it. We could see it and hear it. But neither of us was a librettist. I met Mark, and I said, “We need help with the libretto,” and he said, “I really want to work with you. I love this.” The three of us met almost every week for several months and talked — “What are we trying to tell? What is the story? How does this character reveal the essence of the human being? Where are the conflicts? How does this person that we’re creating become full? How do we capture this childhood journey to adulthood knowing who you are and trying to come to who you are?” It’s what’s the essence of self, and how does your external self and the internal core of who you are mesh or not, and how do you find a unity? It’s a rich set of human metaphors. It’s not just a transgender story, it’s a human story. We wanted to make it a universal story — so that it can reach broadly. After all these months of listening to my own stories of feeling “other” as a young gay person, and what it took to feel comfortable in this role, they went away and wrote it. It was an amazing moment when they said, “Here’s the first draft.” I was speechless with joy.

ON: It’s amazing that transgender issues are such a part of the conversation these days. When I first moved to New York in 1982, you just didn’t hear much about it at all.

LK: My sense is that the evolution of understanding around homosexuality — that it is just another aspect of normal human engagement — took a generation. There was the civil-rights movement, and then the beginning of the feminist movement, and then the beginning of the gay-rights movement, and then Stonewall politicized people. And then AIDS really politicized people. I think AIDS made the whole world aware that gay people have loving, committed relationships just like straight people, and gay people can raise children and can be connected to their parents and their siblings, and everything is just human and normal. And then gay marriage. It just all moved in that direction, and I think the transgender community is the next level. They deserve the full rights and respect that everybody should have. I think it’s an evolutionary process. 

I remember as a little kid when James Morris became Jan Morris, and that made The New York Times. Now it’s just like this is another dimension of human beings. 

ON: How did you involve two rising young singers on the scene today, Sasha Cooke and Kelly Markgraf? 

LK: I feel very lucky in a way, because all the stars lined up. It goes back to 2009, I think. I was producing at Symphony Space Wall to Wall Behind the Wall: Music from the Soviet Era. And I received a fellowship to go to St. Petersburg, the seat of great Russian music history, to try to find music or musicians that we don’t know here in New York that I could present on this festival. It was an amazing fellowship, because they provided me with access to the National Library and the Conservatory and the National Archives, and anything I wanted. At the Library, I asked if there was anything by Shostakovich that we don’t know in the States, something I could bring back and give its first performances. The librarian came back with this tattered cardboard box and pulled out this yellow, faded manuscript with faded, indigo ink. It was a score by Shostakovich — a set of opera arias and songs that he had arranged to be sung by one or two voices, violin and cello, for soldiers on the front line during the siege of Leningrad. It’s not an original composition — it’s cobbled together folk music and stuff. They had a bound version for his centenary, and they gave me the address where I should go, and I went and bought the score, and when I went back, I reached out to Sasha Cooke. Her parents are Russian scholars, and she is fluent in Russian. I said, “Would you consider doing any of this?” I made her promise she would premiere it at Symphony Space. She said, “I’d love to do it, but there are a bunch of duets in the back of the book. Do you think I could have Kelly join me?” That’s how we met. And then we began working on As One

ON: I had assumed, before I read the libretto, that “Before Hannah” would segue into “After Hannah” from the first half to the second half. But I love the idea you have all come up with — that “Before Hannah” and “After Hannah” are commenting together, throughout the action, the two different aspects of one body and one mind and heart.

LK: Early on, I had the general concept to write my opera. I told Kelly and Sasha about it, and they said, “That sounds fantastic.” They never questioned anything — “Where is it going to get done? Who’s the conductor?” They just said, “That sounds really interesting. Sign us up.”

In my original conception, I made it really clear to Mark and Kim — please do not have the first half be all Kelly, with Sasha standing in the background smiling, and the second half is all Sasha. Let’s see this chronology of a life but figure out how to have them both participate, so they can both integrate throughout — through memory and character. My conception originally was the first half is more in Kelly’s voice, and Sasha is more the inner voice, trying to find its way out, and the second half would be more Sasha, with Kelly being the keeper of memory. They said, “I think we can be even more interesting and subtle than that.” They were right. 

ON: So, as a composer, you haven’t done anything as black-and-white as veer from “masculine” to “feminine” music? 

LK: We did not want to make things obviously “girl” and “boy.” We wanted to make Hannah an integrated human being who is trying to seek truths. If I could say anything about the musical voice, what I tried to track throughout the piece is an innocent joyfulness in the youthful aspects of Hannah, and that becomes knowledgeable joy in the adult aspects. When Hanna After goes out into the world as a woman, there’s joy — underneath it is a little bittersweet spirit. There are two particularly grueling scenes. In one, “Out of Nowhere,” where Hannah After is attacked, it’s against the backdrop of transgender people globally who are attacked and killed. It’s kind of a political awakening of “I’m not alone in this.” The music in that is edgy and driven and doesn’t connect to a lot of the innocence. I was very consciously trying to find joyful and innocent music and then have music that shows her becoming more conscious of the complexity and ugliness of the world. And the last scene brings it all together in a unified voice. 

ON: It’s a great idea. Recently, I returned to my old college for the first time in a bit, and it was a funny sensation to be confronting my nineteen-year-old self as I walked along campus and around the town. So I think we do often encounter different parts of ourselves, almost side by side, in the same moment.

LK: I went to my Music and Art High School reunion this year. I realized some of me was exactly me, and some of me was, Who was that person? So it was kind of like a co-existence. 

ON: Did Sasha and Kelly bring things from their own lives to the project, to help shape it?

LK: When Mark and Kim finished the first draft of the libretto, we did a reading, so we could all hear it. After that, there were a few revisions and then we sent it to them. They just responded, as did the Fry Street String Quartet when we engaged them, with how it made them feel, emotionally and intellectually. There was no challenge about “I don’t like this character” or “This doesn’t ring true.” Now, they have a lot of questions about the emotion or the tension and release in a particular moment. We’ve had an amazingly open dialogue. That’s what I love about opera — the collaborative nature of it. I love being in a dialogue with my performers, with the lighting designer, with the filmmaker. We’re all looking to create this world together. I’m so addicted, I can’t wait to write my next opera. spacer 

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