One character, two performers. Confusion, worry, shame, yearning, relief, uncertainty, acceptance, courage, loneliness, joy and fear—not necessarily in that order. Finally, integration (more or less) into one person, inside and out. This is the 90-minute opera about the transgender journey, As One, presented by Seattle Opera at the renovated Washington Hall.
Music and concept are by Laura Kaminsky, head of the music department at Cornish College of the Arts from 1994–2004, now composer-in-residence for American Opera Projects. The libretto is by Mark Campbell, librettist for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, also for The Manchurian Candidate and others, together with Kimberly Reed, award-winning filmmaker and herself transgender. The opera made its debut in New York two years ago and has so far been produced five times before Seattle, both nationally and internationally, with more to come. Small wonder. Transgender issues are in the news and this work is compelling.
The two characters are Hannah before transitioning, sung by baritone Jorell Williams, and Hannah after transitioning, sung by mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven. However, there is no clear-cut division. Hannah after appears frequently in the first half with Hannah before, and Hannah before is always present, though increasingly on the periphery, when Hannah after is taking precedence. Kaminsky wanted to make it clear that there is fluidity between genders.
Before the opera, two transgender people, a man and a woman, came out to tell their stories to the audience, setting the mood, and there was room and time for discussion both before and after in the Hall’s big space downstairs.
As One opens with Hannah before at 12 years old, with a paper route, a secret pink blouse and a pressing need to be the perfect boy. At 14, he is subjected to sex ed at school; girls in one room, boys sniggering in another, and all he wants is to be in the girls’ room. He learns the word transgender, looks it up at the library and is thrilled to find he is not alone.
Part Two has Hannah at college, crossing a bridge to dress as a woman in one city, returning to a male persona back across the bridge. Hannah begins taking hormones and worrying about appearance, and tells her parents she won’t be able to come home for Christmas. She’s thrilled when a man flirts with her, but isn’t sure how to do it, and is terrified when she narrowly escapes assault outside a coffee shop. At the side of the stage, Hannah before quietly but audibly recounts the long list of murdered transgender people. In Part Three she has fled to a remote cabin in Norway where she gradually comes to terms with her new persona. And then decides to go home.
It’s not all serious. There are lighter moments of humor throughout the opera. Kaminsky has composed this for string quartet, here excellently played by the St. Helens String Quartet. She creates the musical backdrop with a score that reflects the quiet internal turmoil. At one time the music slides all over the place, matching the sliding reality under Hannah’s feet.
In this small theatre, no audience member is more than a few feet from the performers, both of whom get deep into the skin of their character. Williams’ extraordinarily expressive face shows every emotion, including when he is quoting the suspicious librarian who finds Hannah before reading, as he thinks, about the Transvaal. Feelings show on Raven’s face likewise, and in both performers' body language.
These singers are new to Seattle Opera, but Williams already has a solid career under his belt, both in opera and as soloist with Wynton Marsalis. Raven joined Pittsburgh Opera this season after participating in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program. Both are fine singers to would be good to hear more of, though Raven could have used a little more nuance in her dynamics.
The simple set included two door frames and two chairs, moved as needed. Both singers wore grey pants and tops with sandals, but Hannah before had a blue school jacket and the pink blouse, more a prop than clothing, made graphic sense, while Connie Yun’s subtle lighting varied between lilac, pink, blue and very occasionally clear. Melanie Taylor Burgess designed the costumes and G.W. Mercier the set, while L. Zane Jones stage directed superbly well, and John Keene conducted.
As One runs Nov. 17–19. Don’t miss it.