‘As One’ Delves the Complexity of Transgender Life

Lyric Opera Production Will Feature the Fry Street Quartet and a Film by Kimberly Reed

“As One” is the story of one soul torn between two identities, a story of courage, of truth, of searching and of self-discovery.

It is the story of Hannah, in her journey to realize herself as a young transgendered woman.

“As One” is a chamber opera composed by Laura Kaminsky, with co-librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. (Campbell is familiar to LOKC audiences as the librettist for Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, “Silent Night,” presented in 2015.) The opera premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents this work as part of its Explorations Series on Jan. 27 and 28 at the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building.

Throughout her career, Kaminsky’s work dealt in socially relevant issues, with social, political, spiritual and psychological themes, but she primarily created abstract instrumental music. She said, “it just hit me that I had to tell this story of a transgender person on a quest for self-actualization as an opera. This was a piece I knew needed to be told with words.”

“But I didn’t want to write grand opera in a traditional construct . . . I wanted to break down some of those conventions around opera,” she explained.

Though Kaminsky had the original concept, she collaborated with Campbell and Reed, a filmmaker, to create the story. Reed’s documentary “Prodigal Sons,” about her own transgendered journey, resonated with Kaminsky, and the opera is grounded in real events from Reed’s experience for verisimilitude, though the work is not autobiographical.

“One of the things that was really important for all of us,” said Kaminsky, “was that this character would be fully realized as a whole human being, would not be an archetype, would not be symbolic, but have her own personality. Part of that personality is quirky, humorous, filled with self-doubt, kind of frozen a little bit, generous of spirit for herself, but questioning.”

Two voices share this character, Hannah, played simultaneously by two singing actors as Hannah Before and Hannah After. Though Kaminsky developed the work with specific singers in mind, the roles have been performed over a dozen times now with different casts and various productions (10 since the 2014 premiere, 11 slated for this season and more planned for 2018 and beyond). For LOKC’s production, mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert plays Hannah After (in her fifth production) and Wes Mason is Hannah Before.

Bringing Hannah to life

After establishing their premise and parameters, Campbell and Reed worked together to write the text. “I didn’t know what they were going to give me, so when I got the libretto I had to live with it for a while; it was so beautiful, real, and full of great images in its storytelling that I knew I could bring Hannah to life. Before I started to compose, I memorized it. I needed to physicalize it. I was speaking it to myself, and that led me to find the right musical language,” said Kaminsky, “to create a sonic landscape that would be supportive of the telling of the story.

“This is a piece about somebody on an odyssey of self-discovery, questing to find themselves, so there is ‘motion music’; the opening of the piece is about a bicycle ride, and that perpetual motion of the bicycle returns throughout the opera at all the critical moments of discovery or searching. There’s also a lot of water imagery, so I needed to create a flowing quality. Again, it’s all about movement, forward motion. But there’s also introspective and reflective moments for Hannah, and some of those scenes related to each other in the storytelling, so I built a musical vocabulary for them that connected them, and provided a sonic reality that was specific to those incidences.”

In writing, Kaminsky also had a specific ensemble in mind, the Fry Street Quartet, who join LOKC for this production, conducted by Robert Wood. The quartet is integral to the performance, sonically and visually, on stage and interacting with Hannah. The viola, especially, has a significant role, cast as the soul of Hannah, since the instrument’s range falls within both voice types.

Reed also created a feature-length film to serve as the original production’s scenic design. In fact, five feature-length films, as they created Hannah’s world through images projected on four panels and even the floor. “We consider (the film) a tapestry of the whole,” said Kaminsky. The Lyric Opera’s production, directed by Mary Birnbaum, incorporates the film into its version, harkening to the original concept. Productions have veered from minimal to robust (full sets, costumes, with and without the film) depending on the vision of the director, but Kaminsky respects the imagination and validity of these versions, which speak, too, to the timeliness of the content and versatility of the score.

The opera also addresses the very real issue of violence against trans people, but does not dwell on it in a tragic sense — it is instead an opportunity to remember and honor those who have suffered. “We realized that we did need to address the prejudices in the world and the incredible vulnerability of trans people, which led to the ‘Out of nowhere’ scene,” said Kaminsky.

“We wanted to make a piece that was actually affirming, but we had to acknowledge that it’s not an easy road,” she explained. “Some of the personal struggles of Hannah as a young person are presented with humor; remember, young people are uncomfortable in their own skin no matter what. Hannah, in a way, is an ‘Every Kid,’ and while confronting that one is trans is not an issue that ‘Every Kid’ faces, every kid has issues — so Hannah becomes someone we all can identify with; she is essentially human.”

The final scene takes place in Norway (emulating Reed’s experience) and she and Kaminsky (and their wives) traveled to a remote island owned by the family of a friend to film. While the rest were out shooting footage, Kaminsky wrote the rest of the music. “It’s possible for an artist to just go into his or her imagination and create . . . but when you are physically in the space and you see the shimmering of the light the way it really is, and you feel the breeze the way it really is, and you smell the air the way it really is, and you’re setting a line about the way the water is, and you’re on the water — there’s a vibrancy and veracity that is powerful.”

Since its premiere, the opera has garnered exceptional critical acclaim and has found new audiences. “The education and the enlightenment goes in both directions . . . opera lovers thinking about trans issues and newcomers, likely from the LGBTQIA community, hearing opera for the first time.”

Most productions include outreach events involving local advocacy groups. These engagement activities are incredibly meaningful to the creative team, as well, who attend productions and auxiliary events when they can. “We’re putting (this) into our community and we’re honoring the wholeness of this story,” said Kaminsky. (See www.kcopera.org for details on events.)

The visibility of the trans community has only entered the broader social consciousness in the past few years, though recent events, like the historic elections of openly trans individuals, further raise the profile. Art, too, helps increase awareness, stimulate conversations, and, as with “As One,” share the experiences, complexity and wholeness of the transgender life.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City Explorations Series presents “As One” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 and 2 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, 712 E. 18th St. For more information on events and tickets, visit kcopera.org.

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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