By: Adam Buchsbaum
Opera conjures up images of flamboyant costumes, star-crossed lovers and romance languages, but opera is a mode of theatrical music, not just an exotic fantasy– and there’s plenty of room for it in the modern era. As One’s composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed imagine opera as a tool that allows more naked emotional expression in their story about a trans woman, Hannah, and her quest for self-acceptance.
As One ciphers its main character Hannah’s journey through two actors on the stage– a man, Hannah Before (Lee Gregory) and a woman, Hannah After (Danielle Marcelle Bond). Hannah Before is the outward, male-presenting face that hides Hannah’s inner female self. What follows is her journey through childhood shame, adolescent self-discovery and eventual self-love. She must learn to reconcile her outward and inward selves so they are, fittingly, as one.
Writing about trans media is a fraught issue for someone not within the community. As much as non-trans liberals like to consider themselves on the cutting edge of progressivism, that is no substitute for lived experience. That being said, As One does appear rooted in a lived and specific sense of place and time– perhaps it is thinly veiled autobiography. This lends a humanistic legitimacy to a story about a historically poorly represented community. Hannah’s jumps from self-loathing to self-acceptance seem rooted in her specific sexuality, but still deal in universal human questions about identity and love that the audience can relate to. When Hannah describes the illicit thrill of reading secretly about transgenderism at the library, it evokes the feeling of discovery from reading, say, Our Bodies, Ourselves.
As One strips away the showy conventions of classic opera. There are no lavish sets. It’s just a chair, some well-placed light cues, the two actors and projected images at the backstage for suggestive imagery. A string quartet sits right by the stage, in plain sight, and plays beautifully. The opera format shakes up our engagement with the piece– one finds one has to watch and listen differently than is typical, and this encourages a closer viewing. This puts the weight of the show entirely on Gregory (Hannah Before) and Bond (Hannah After), which they carry admirably. Operatic singing permits their voices to be lush with meaning and feeling in a way that musicals can’t ever tread. While this lends a gravity to the serious subject matter, thankfully As One has its moments of humor– which, yes, is also part of the human experience.
As One plays out as a loose series of self-contained song vignettes from Hannah’s childhood to early adulthood. Certain songs are particularly standout. “A Christmas Story” captures the hazy glow of harmless and lazy flirting with a cute coffee-shop boy, a feeling wholly new to the now female-presenting Hannah. “Out of Nowhere” is a gut-wrenching account of a violent assault by a man screaming “What are you?” at Hannah, and intersperses news reportage on the disappointing abundance of violence– and often murder and mutilation– against trans people. “Norway” glides smoothly between Hannah’s expectations and reality in a relatable way, while not glossing over how her thoughts are specific to her trans identity.
Trans media is hard to look at in a political vacuum when trans identity remains so deeply politicized– one need only look at the ongoing fights on bathroom usage. We can’t forget that media depicting gay identity as incidental is fairly recent, as gay characters were always capital-G Gay historically. As One isn’t going to thaw the heart of your average transphobic person and is, by necessity, preaching to the liberally minded choir. But its authentic spirit and artistically daring use of opera for its story make it worth a look, and– who knows?– maybe it will open your mind.
As One continues at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 300 East Ocean Blvd., with shows on Saturday, May 20 and Sunday, May 21 at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $49-$150. For reservations and information, call (562) 470-SING (7464) or visit longbeachopera.org/tickets.