Cincinnati Opera’s 'As One' Sings the Journey of a Transgender Woman

This intimate, relatively short contemporary work that uses just two voices and a string quartet is being presented in the new Wilks Studio space at Music Hall

click to enlarge Cincinnati Opera's "As One" illustration - PHOTO: Provided
PHOTO: Provided
Cincinnati Opera's "As One" illustration

Opera has embraced gender fluidity since its founding in the mid-17th century, with men singing women’s roles and, starting in the late 18th-century, women portraying adolescent boys (e.g., Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier).

But no opera took on gender fluidity as its subject matter until As One premiered in September 2014, telling the story of a transgender protagonist, with music by Laura Kaminsky, a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed and a film by Reed. Commissioned by the Brooklyn-based American Opera Projects, the 75-minute piece was written about a single character, Hannah, using two voices to represent her. There is also a string quartet.

Cincinnati Opera is presenting As One for five performances in the new Wilks Studio Space at Music Hall, beginning Wednesday (July 25) and continuing through Monday (July 30). Seating is limited to 190 people.

Kaminsky, who is also credited with the opera’s concept, is a composer inspired — “provoked,” she says — by social and political issues. In her career, she has composed for string quartets, solo piano and orchestra. Working with co-librettists Campbell and Reed, she was the composer for the opera Some Light Emerges, which celebrates the (Mark) Rothko Chapel in Houston and was given its world premiere by Houston Grand Opera in 2017.

She says she was motivated to compose As One after watching states wrestle with ratification of the Marriage Equality Act, which would legalize same-sex marriage. She read about a New Jersey family in which the husband was transitioning to a woman and the family planned to stay intact. If ratification failed, the couple would no longer be married. (The Supreme Court preempted that battle when it ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage must be legal in all 50 states.)

“I said, ‘Wow, this is opera,’ ” Kaminsky says. “What happens when human beings try to find their truth and society creates blockages?”

Part of her research included watching librettist and filmmaker Reed’s 2008 documentary, Prodigal Sons, about her return to Montana as a transgender woman. It details her struggles for acceptance after her own transition.

Kaminsky recruited Reed to create film elements for the opera project, and then turned to Campbell, a prolific librettist whose works also include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, which was presented by Cincinnati Opera in 2014.

“I was interested in it, but I knew I was walking into a minefield as a white, cis-gender homosexual male,” Campbell says. “I invited (Reed) to co-author with me and it was a good decision. She’s a brilliant storyteller.”

Reed says, “I wasn’t daunted by writing my first libretto. Screenwriting is also a compressed form, and Mark and I write in a style I call ‘unpretentious realism.’ ”

Campbell and Reed crafted a three-part sequence about a character named Hannah: youth, middle years and the decision to transition. Reed’s story inspired the plot, but she insisted that it not be autobiographical. And everyone agreed that Hannah would not be politicized.

“We wanted this to be accessible, and there’s a lot of humor in her story,” Campbell says.

Kaminsky loved the libretto from the moment she read it, and was thrilled with the presentation of Hannah as a single character in dialogue with herself. The part of Hannah is sung by a male baritone and a female mezzo-soprano — the only such role in all of opera. And the word “transgender” is never used.

The constant intertwining of vocal parts determined the structure.

“I didn’t want the male voice singing the first half, and the woman the second,” Kaminsky says. “I could hear it right away — the humor, the awareness of danger that trans people face, and the joy when you realize there are people like you.”

Instrumental support is provided by a string quartet, and the viola takes on a leading role. “The viola is Hannah’s soul,” Kaminsky says.

Director Robin Guarino recruited Sawyer Pardo, a young playwright and recently transitioned man, as her assistant director. Pardo says As One is like finding a friend and hearing his own voice. “There are times when I almost laughed out loud during rehearsals — that was my life!”

Baritone Matthew Worth, who sings Hannah Before, adds that working with Pardo helped him and mezzo Amber Fasquelle better understand the emotional arc in the words and music.

“Those of us who have always felt that we are in the right gender can never understand what Sawyer went through,” he says. “This is something that needs to be talked about and the libretto is so beautifully nuanced.”

Since its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, As One is now this century’s most-produced contemporary opera (with 22 productions, including Cincinnati’s), and not just for economic reasons (hiring two stars can be more economical than paying a larger, traditional operatic cast). Cincinnati Opera’s production comes under the CO Next: Diverse Voices initiative, which presents new works focusing on issues that are “timeless and timely,” according to the Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director, Evans Mirageas.

Cincinnati Opera is also partnering with local organizations to present panels on trans identity as well as a discussion with the creative team and talkbacks after each performance.

And as efforts ramp up to push back the legal advances for trans people, works like As One take on increased urgency. “With art, there’s a trajectory that you can’t go back, and that’s what keeps me going,” Guarino says.

As One will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on July 25, 27, 29 and 30 and at 3 p.m. on July 28 at the Wilks Studio inside Music Hall. Tickets: cincinnatiopera.org.

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