‘As One’ opera tells a universal story about a transgender woman
Most new operas are never performed again after they premiere, but Laura Kaminsky’s “As One,” the story of a transgender woman, has already played at several different opera companies since it opened at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in New York City in 2014.
It will have its Pittsburgh premiere at the Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters from Feb. 19 to 26.
While the work focuses on the struggles of the transgender protagonist, Hannah, its popularity may be due to the universality of its themes, according to Kaminsky, the composer of the contemporary chamber opera written for two voices and a string quartet.
“The thing that I think is important for [co-librettists] Mark [Campbell], Kim [Reed] and me, from our perspective, is this is a really universal story,” said Kaminsky. “And while it’s particular to the transformation of Hannah into her fully realized self — and it is a trans story — it is in effect a metaphor. Everybody is constantly transforming themselves over the course of their lifetime, and there’s struggle around that, and there’s humor around that. While people see the specificity of it as a transgender story, they immediately grasp the universality of it.”
Kaminsky, a first generation Jewish American from New York, was raised a Jewish humanist and is driven by the notion of tikkun olam, which she said is reflected in much of her work.
“Every day, you have to wake up and try to make the world a better place; it needs help,” she said. “I think a lot of my work does speak to social, political injustice against other people, and against the environment.”
“As One” traces Hannah’s experiences from her youth in a small town to her college years on the West Coast and finally to Norway, where she is surprised at what she learns about herself. The opera stars Pittsburgh Opera’s resident artists Brian Vu as “Hannah before” and Taylor Raven as “Hannah after.”
The medium of opera, which allows an audience to enter into a character’s innermost thoughts as well as follow that character through a realistic narrative, provides a perfect vehicle to tell the story of Hannah, said Christopher Hahn, general director of Pittsburgh Opera. Hahn is bringing the work to the Steel City as part of Pittsburgh Opera’s Second Stage Project.
“I was looking for pieces of contemporary American repertoire that spoke to issues of contemporary concern, and I was looking for pieces that work in an intimate space,” Hahn said, adding that contemporary works set in smaller spaces for a smaller audience serve as a counterpoint to some of the larger operas the company presents.
The topicality of the subject of transgender individuals was another draw of “As One,” Hahn said.
“It’s our duty, frankly, to look at subject matter that some people find confusing and difficult,” he explained. “What could be more enigmatic than the topic of gender change? And opera is the most successful way for people to encounter something they might not otherwise comprehend.”
“As One” is based loosely on some of the experiences of co-librettist Kimberly Reed, who produced and directed the film “Prodigal Sons,” which shows her returning home to a small town in Montana for her high school reunion and her attempts at reconciliation with her estranged adopted brother. It was commissioned and developed by American Opera Projects.
The opera has played in Logan, Utah; Oakland, Calif.; Washington, D.C., and Seattle, Wash., as well as in Berlin. Following its performances in Pittsburgh, it will open in Denver, Colo., before moving on to several other venues. By the end of this season, it “will be the most performed contemporary opera in the last few years in this country,” according to Kaminsky.
The name of the protagonist, Hannah, is a palindrome, Kaminsky noted, which works well for the character and better suits her than a gender neutral name, or one that changes from male to female after her transition.
“The whole point of ‘As One,’ is that this is one person,” Kaminsky said. “We didn’t want it to be the male and the female. Throughout this opera this character is integrated and is struggling with finding a way to be fully realized. We didn’t want it to be a before and after change of name. It’s spelled the same way backwards and forwards, which is kind of a nice metaphor for the character.”
Kaminsky was inspired to write “As One” after reading a story in The New York Times written before marriage equality became federal law. The story was about a married couple in New Jersey that potentially would have faced finding their marriage illegal after the husband transitioned to a woman.
“I said this is almost like an opera, and it just stuck with me,” Kaminsky said.
The simple set is augmented by a film depicting scenes from Hannah’s life, split into five different screens surrounding the space.
“It creates almost a cubist landscape in which Hannah’s story unfolds,” Kaminsky said. “It’s very beautiful.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached by email@example.com.