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American Opera Projects
Baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo Sasha Cooke as Hannah, the protagonist of Laura Kaminsky's As One
© Ken Howard 2014
© Ken Howard 2014
Laura Kaminsky’s chamber opera, As One, had its world premiere at BAM’s Fisher Space on September 4. The draw of As One, which has a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, lies in its very human depiction of the internal and external issues faced by transgender individuals in the twenty-first century. Commissioned by American Opera Projects, As One is one of the first operas, if not the first, to address this topic; however, it is not just the “transgender opera” but a piece that haunts and challenges its audience with questions about identity, authenticity, compassion and the human desire for self-love and peace.
The protagonist, Hannah, is written to be performed by two singers. Baritone Kelly Markgraf sang Hannah Before and mezzo Sasha Cooke sang Hannah After. While one would expect that Hannah After would replace Hannah Before following her transition, both characters are present in the action from from the beginning of the piece — a device that allows us to see Hannah as she presents herself to the world and as she feels she truly is. Hannah Before remains onstage even after Hannah has fully transitioned and continues to harmonize, interacting and advising her new self. Hannah’s previous physical identity doesn’t disintegrate: it remains a part of who she is and actively guides her journey to find peace within herself.
As One is both a chamber opera and a song cycle: the score comprises fifteen songs scored for two voices and string quartet. The music is grounded by a rhythmic pulse that, like Hannah, retains its core identity but transitions through the opera from driving pizzicatos to a hypnotizing ostinato. Much of Kaminsky’s score relies on this persistent pulse and conversational melodies; it can become monochromatic, especially during the expository Part I, but successfully sets the contrast needed to charge the opera’s most emotionally piquant moments, such as the melancholic duet for violin and cello that represents Hannah’s isolation in her letter to her parents, “Home for the holidays,” or the violent angularity that races through “Out of nowhere,” Hannah’s harrowing encounter with a bigot and her subsequent discovery of the danger and animosity that transgender people encounter every day.
Ken Cazan’s production had the singers and the players of the Fry Street Quartet co-exist and interact in the same space, creating a world that was as fantastical and dreamlike as it was gritty and real. Together Markgraf and Cooke — who are husband and wife in real life — created one character with their fully committed physical and emotional connection. Unfortunately, the moving images projected onto the five different-sized screens behind them often distracted the audience’s gaze during moments when the two had their most effective, character-shaping interactions, whether funny, compassionate or anguished.
Leading with eloquence and focus was Steven Osgood, a champion of modern American opera. Kaminsky’s score seems to depend heavily on text-inflected melodies and Osgood maintained the delicate balance with ease and an ear for the musical and dramatic arc of this compelling journey.
STEVEN JUDE TIETJEN
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