Kaminsky’s transgender opera “As One” makes a poignant and remarkable premiere

September 06, 2014
By Eric C. Gibson
Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke star in Laura Kaminsky's opera "As One," which premiered at BAM Thursday night. Photo: Lynn Lane

Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke star in Laura Kaminsky’s opera “As One,” which premiered at BAM Thursday night. Photo: Lynn Lane

American Opera Projects has produced a number of significant new pieces in its twenty-five-plus years, and the company’s latest does not disappoint. Premiered on Thursday night in the Fishman space at BAM’s Fisher building, As One, a ninety-minute chamber opera, is a rich addition to the repertoire.

As One tells the story of Hannah, a transgender woman, following her experiences as a questioning boy in grade school, her decision to undergo hormone therapy and distance herself from her family during college, and finally a soul-searching trip that she takes by herself to Norway (the libretto cheekily asks “where else?”) after a traumatic confrontation with a threatening stranger.

The piece itself is formidable on all fronts, starting with an unassuming but nonetheless powerful libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. There are no hackneyed attempts at rhyme, no self-conscious use of flashy rhetorical device. This is keen, expressive writing, poetic blank verse with great freedom. The text is playful at times and heart-rending at others, without ever losing its larger focus. Indeed, the libretto draws a great deal of strength from what it leaves unsaid—the moment in the final scene in which the main character chooses her new name is a dramatic climax, but no name is ever uttered (the two voices are referred to simply as “Hannah before” and “Hannah after” in the playbill).

Everything about the opera is spare in its inaugural production. The score calls only for string quartet (the excellent Fry Street Quartet, under the direction of AOP music director Steven Osgood), a baritone (“Hannah before”), and a mezzo-soprano (“Hannah after”). Director Ken Cazan centers the action around the quartet, on a bare black box stage with uncomplicated lighting. Reed’s videos added occasional color or explanation—such as the attractively animated pen strokes during Hannah’s description of a cursive writing class—but mostly the film stays out of the way.

AOP’s composer-in-residence Laura Kaminsky is responsible for both concept and music, and her remarkable score always seems to be in perfect harmony with the libretto. The music fits naturally onto the text, her lyrical vocal writing giving the words room to expand.

Hannah’s story is one of dizzying emotional and psychological turmoil, which is reflected in the astonishing variety in Kaminsky’s vocal and instrumental writing. “Perfect boy” finds Hannah trying to demonstrate feats of male physical prowess, sprinting through a breathless series of commands: “Achieve—Accomplish—Perform—Run—Scramble—Run—Scramble!” In “Close,” as the lighting shifts to a pale, sickly yellow, the quartet’s playing becomes a lazy, disoriented limp and the vocal parts reach and crawl uncomfortably around, approximating for the audience the physical disorientation brought on by the start of hormone therapy. An extended closing aria, “Norway,” is itself a microcosm of the opera’s ups and downs, but features some of the score’s most vast, soaring lyricism, as Hannah finally becomes completely at ease with her identity.

Jointly playing the role of Hannah are the baritone Kelly Markgraf and the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Both proved themselves to be polished and sensitive singers, Markgraf with a spacious, chocolate tone, and Cooke with an edgy yet  inviting sound. Her pitch sometimes strayed in relation to Markgraf’s and her tone sounded a little hard in the Fishman’s dry acoustic, but her voice displayed suppleness and glow nonetheless.

Minor vocal quibbles notwithstanding, Cooke is a spellbinding interpreter. Her singing was full of energy and sensitivity, and she was a captivating presence, full of emotional life. The one scene in which the video projections intruded was her chance coffee shop meeting with a cute boy. Reed projects said boy onto the screens, serving only to take our eyes away from Cooke’s stunning work onstage. Later, as she sat at home after being accosted in a parking lot, we got an up-close look directly into her eyes; the clear anguish in them was wrenching.

Markgraf, too was well grounded in his character, showing awkward physicality early on but becoming more and more comfortable in his skin as the story progressed.

As One is a remarkable piece, dealing with difficult and sensitive subject matter (even in a progressive city like New York, the topic of gender dysphoria still feels somewhat taboo) but showing not a hint of animus. There is no preaching here, only honest, earnest depiction of an experience. Obviously, the idea of gender identity is central to the work, but this is not a piece about gender identity, per se. It is rather a piece about a human being, Hannah, and her journey, her doubt, her fear, and eventually her joy.

As One is BAM’s single live opera presentation of the season, and runs only through the weekend. But even with just this production, the institution has made its mark on New York’s 2014-15 opera season. As One is everything that we hope for in contemporary opera: topical, poignant, daring, and beautifully written.

As One will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at BAM Fisher. bam.org

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