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Male and Female Join in As One

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
05/30/2019 -  & June 1, 4, 6, 2019
Laura Kaminsky: As One
Michael Kelly*/Jorell Williams (Hannah Before), Blythe Gaisset*/Briana Elyse Hunter (Hannah After)
Andrea Shultz, Yana Goichman (Violin), Daniel Panner (Viola), Mark Shuman (Cello), Steven Osgood (Music Director)
Matt Gray (Stage Director), Ron Kadri (Set Design), Michael Baumgarten (Lighting Design), Barney Fitzgerald (Costume Design), Kimberly Reed (Video Design)

As One, a chamber opera by Laura Kaminsky, is the most produced opera in North America. Premiered in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it is part of New York’s celebration of Stonewall and the LGBT movement across the country. Its territory is surely operatic, exploring the emotional depths and heights of sexual identification. In Tulsa, Oklahoma a transgender singer just performed as Don Giovanni. The opera stage is a good place to place an audience on the cusp of a new world. Gillette Razor Blades has just launched an ad featuring a transgender shaver.

As One is both extremely bold in its proposition and also extremely carefully-crafted. Like the classic play Overtones, the protagonist Hannah is played by two people, her interior self and his exterior self. Who is who changes as the story progresses. We meet Hannah performed by Michael Kelly, a big rich baritone, who is pedaling around on his delivery bike tossing newspapers on doorsteps. He shows us the soft silky blouse with a bow that he wears under his masculine windbreaker. From time to time, as he sings, he stuffs socks where his breasts should be. His wish fulfillment, the female Hannah, circles around him, sometimes sitting near and sometimes insistently hovering. Blythe Gaissert’s large, sweet mezzo presses to come out.

This is truly a monologue, the story of one person, but the emergence of Hannah from her male cocoon offers a wealth of opportunities to which all the artists involved in the creation of this work contribute. Duets can be on one note, when both parts of Hannah are in unison. Harmonious duos suggest that these parts can at times joyously live with one another. The struggle of the ‘real’ part to come forward can be dramatic in Ms. Gaissert’s wide ranging leaps and even harsh notes she sings signifying the painful process she undergoes. In one particularly effective moment in Part II, Hannah the male walks around the theater reading news headlines from around the world which tell of the mauling and murder of transgenders in every country. These notices are dropped on the auditorium floor, inescapable.

Ron Kadri’s set design is spare, and spot on. Doors are also mirrors and passageways, indicated by two vertical supports of a lintel. This structure can tip to horizontal to form a boat. Cars are formed from chairs, but driven by moving a steering wheel of air. While videos enrich the background, giving us school rooms and parking lots as well as Norwegian mountains, it is the suggestiveness of the wooden outlines which define the space and arrest our eye.

Using a string quartet to accompany and underline the work was a stroke of genius. A small group of string players converse among each other with their instruments. While the whole may be greater than the parts, each part is important. From time to time, the viola takes up a sad and lonely mood, the violin is tipsy and disturbed, the cello anchors. Each of their roles is in concert with the other. The music moves parallel to the stage action, in which the parts are also important as they struggle in conversation. The whole triumphs ‘as one.’

Some contemporary composers create tone poems in their orchestration, such as Missy Mazzoli’s water in Breaking the Waves, or Lembit Beecher’s Alzheimer’s mind in Sky on Swings. Huang Ruo and Kevin Puts are more interested in drawing character in the orchestration. Ms. Kaminsky lofts a dual picture in music and dramatic singing in which the orchestra becomes a story telling (or conversing) character to accompany and highlight the story unfolding on stage. It is an unusual and satisfying construction in As One, an intriguing opera.

Susan Hall



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