As composer Laura Kaminsky tells it, the idea came suddenly and unexpectedly. She called it an “aha moment.”
“I read an article in the New York Times about a married couple with two adolescent children,” she started. “The husband was in the process of transitioning, and the couple was going to remain together.
“But if the marriage equality vote in New Jersey did not pass they would no longer be married legally. They would lose all the rights and protections that marriage afforded them.”
This was 2008, seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a nationwide right. After reading the couple’s story, Kaminsky turned to her wife, painter Rebecca Allan, and said: “This is an opera. I need to tell the story of a transgender person.”
New York-based Kaminsky premiered “As One” in September 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a venue known for presenting progressive new works. The opera immediately struck a chord.
It tells the story of Hannah, a person transitioning from male to female. And it uses two singers — a baritone and mezzo-soprano — to capture “before” and “after” versions of the central character. It’s an approach, Kaminsky said, that teases out the psychological nuances of Hannah’s transgender journey.
“While there are two singers who play Hannah Before and Hannah After,” Kaminsky said via e-mail last week, “Hannah is always one person, and so they are always in character, as one.
“The internal dialogue that we all have going on in our head is represented by the two Hannahs and their two voice types.”
With this unusual approach, “As One” broke ground as the opera world’s first depiction of a transgender person. There have been more than a dozen new productions of “As One,” making it one of America’s top contemporary operas. Skylark Opera Theatre presides over this week’s Minnesota premiere, opening this weekend in St. Paul.
For Skylark artistic director Bob Neu, “As One” seemed the perfect fit for his lean company, which specializes in presenting opera in intimate Twin Cities settings.
During an interview last week, he rattled off the work’s many practical virtues for a small operation like his: “A string quartet accompaniment, two singers, no specific sets that you need. And it’s got contemporary and social relevance. You’d have to be a little bit of a fool to not pay attention if you’re in the opera business.”
In addition to practical considerations, Neu finds himself attracted to the opera’s narrative themes.
“There’s some sly humor in it,” he said. “It’s not sentimental. It’s my kind of storytelling, more of a character study with lots of subtext.
“It really is a story about anyone finding one’s true self,” he continued. “Hannah’s true self is to be transgender. But I think any of us who hasn’t been sure about who we are deep down — and how comfortable we are presenting that — that’s what ‘As One’ is about.”
The opera owes much of its story line to transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed.
Reed’s 2008 documentary “Prodigal Sons” charted her own gender-transition experience. The film was a major inspiration for Kaminsky and directly informed the “As One” libretto, which Reed co-wrote with Mark Campbell. (Campbell is best known for the libretto for Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning“Silent Night,” premiered by Minnesota Opera in 2011.)
Reed also created video projections for the original “As One” production, taking the place of a traditional set. According to Neu, the projections play a crucial role in framing interactions between Hannah Before and Hannah After.
“They appear almost throughout,” Neu said. “They do everything from suggesting a mood to literally suggesting a place.”
For example, one scene finds a school-age Hannah Before fielding criticism about her writing style, “which is accused of being too flowery and too big,” Neu said. That scene is accompanied by projections of her “too feminine” handwriting.
While Kaminsky’s score for string quartet is “very accessible musically,” according to Neu, the composer also made some unorthodox choices.
“One unusual decision was to have the string quartet not only play, but also sing at times,” Kaminsky said. She also gave a speaking part to the conductor. “So they are all actively engaged in Hannah’s universe,” Kaminsky said.
She also wrote a special part for one of the instruments in the quartet. “The viola represents Hannah,” Kaminsky explained, “and the viola has a theme that recurs throughout the piece — it’s bluesy, soulful, ruminative.”
Neu knows Kaminsky’s opera will raise provocative questions with its Minnesota premiere. That’s why Skylark will host post-concert conversations after all six performances, featuring a rotating cast of speakers including transgender author, activist and attorney Ellen Krug and One Voice Mixed Chorus assistant conductor Erik Peregrine.
“ ‘As One’ is about society’s reactions to something that’s not black or white,” Neu said. Hannah knows she’s living in a gray area, the way we all do, he continued. “This opera is about accepting the differences we all have — the gray areas we all have.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.