Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Making of As One

Seattle Opera presents As One, a transgender story, at Washington Hall. In the role of a single protagonist are two singers: baritone Jorell Williams (Hannah before) and Taylor Raven (Hannah after). 

By Jessica Murphy Moo  

The concept for As One began with composer Laura Kaminsky. She wanted to explore universal questions of identity through a transgender protagonist. How do we become our true selves? What sacrifices must we make to get there? How to portray that internal dialogue—that journey—onstage? Her idea, to use two people to voice the inner thoughts of a single character, percolated for two years before she moved forward.

American Opera Projects pledged their support, and two singers who had previously worked with Kaminsky also signed on. During this time Kaminsky watched the documentary film Prodigal Sons, by transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed. Kaminsky reached out to Reed to see if she would want to collaborate and create an original film for the work. What they still needed, however, was a story. So they brought librettist Mark Campbell on board.

During the creative team’s first meeting, Campbell turned to Reed and asked her if she would share any experiences in her life.

The creative team behind As One: Kimberly Reed (co-librettist), Mark Campbell (co-librettist), and Laura Kaminsky (composer). 
Reed remembered having a paper route. One time, she recalled, she did the route in a blouse she stole from a neighbor’s clothesline.

Campbell believed that story could turn into a song.

Campbell came up with the idea of creating an original story that would spring from some of Reed’s experiences and invited her to co-write the libretto. But many of the experiences of Hannah, the main character in the opera, are not Reed’s firsthand experiences. Campbell and Reed were more interested in abstracting that experience into a personal journey that could be both specific and universal.

Kaminsky wrote music for an intimate string quartet and for the voices of her original cast, baritone and mezzo-soprano. “Those voices don’t have a huge number of notes in common,” she says. “But I wanted there to be unison at critical moments in the story."

The original cast of As One included baritone Kelly Markgraf (Hannah before) and his wife, Sasha Cooke (Hannah after). Cooke most recently sang at Seattle Opera as Hansel in Hansel & Gretel. 
“We wanted to merge male and female voices,” says Campbell. “We didn’t want the boy to do only boy things and girl to do only girl things, but to prove that there is fluidity between genders.”

And they had to navigate around potential misperceptions. Two people onstage did not mean Hannah was two separate people. “The fact is that we all have this gender dialogue going on in us,” says Reed. You’ll hear in the music, for instance, that the story doesn’t start with only Hannah before. Hannah before and Hannah after are always present. “The transfolk I know have to figure out a way to incorporate that past expression of self with who we are now,” Reed says. “We all have to calibrate that. It’s an internal dialogue, whether we’re trans or not. So we are trying to depict that dialogue with two singers. It’s an abstract move. We’re speaking metaphorically."

Director L. Zane Jones in rehearsal with Taylor Raven (Hannah after) and Jorell Williams (Hannah before). Genevieve Hathaway photo
And the abstract, of course, is where music can shine. Consider, for instance, that Kaminsky chose the viola, the middle voice of the string quartet, to be the surrogate for Hannah’s soul. Prior to Seattle, As One has been produced five times, including in Berlin. Next year it will go to Pittsburgh, Denver, and Long Beach, CA, with more productions scheduled after that.

Why aren't the singers in this opera transgender? 
So far, all productions of As One have involved cisgender singers, meaning the singers identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. This casting raises an important question. If this opera is about the experiences of a transgender protagonist, why weren’t transgender singers cast in the work? One reason is availability of highly-trained professional opera singers. “There are not a lot of trans opera singers,” says co-librettist Kimberly Reed. With growing awareness comes a growing body of sound pedagogical practice and a growing number of classically trained transgender singers. But there is still work to be done. Reed hopes, for instance, that As One productions “can lead to that pipeline for training for trans opera singers.” To read a profile of a German transgender baritone (pictured below), Lucia Lucas, click here.

Baritone Lucia Lucas says:“I came out to the opera community at a ball with my wife — she wore a trouser suit and I wore a dress. People didn’t recognize me at first — they recognized my wife, then looked at me and eventually they figured it out. Being able to see their genuine reactions was helpful; I came out the next week. I told the intendant that I liked my job and hoped I could continue to do it, but this was something I had to do for myself; it was something I’d been putting off forever. He said: ‘OK, how does this work?” I replied: “Well, nobody’s ever done it before.'” [ Photo by Alice Neale, Accent magazine ]

About the Venue: Washington Hall 
Washington Hall is a registered city and national landmark, a status it earned for its historic role as the nerve center of Central Seattle’s art, culture, and community. Since 1908, when the Danish Brotherhood opened the doors to Washington Hall, it has been a place where people could live and socialize and perform. It began as a boarding house for new Danish immigrants while doubling as a performance space for a Sephardic troupe and dance hall for Filipino American youth. Washington Hall opened its doors to iconic performers Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and Ella Fitzgerald, among many other jazz greats. Jimi Hendrix played here. Martin Luther King spoke here. For many years Washington Hall served as the home for the contemporary performance organization On the Boards. Historic Seattle acquired the building from the black Masonic group Sons of Haiti in 2009. Renovation.
An opera for our community 
As One reflects Seattle Opera’s commitment to creating a safe and welcoming space within the arts. Moving forward, the company’s work will reflect the diverse communities of the Pacific Northwest in terms of age, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and cultural/multicultural background. Seattle Opera is working to reduce barriers that have historically made the art form inaccessible to certain groups. Our version of this important new opera is meant to be both an experience, and a vehicle for meaningful conversation. The company is proud to partner with LGBTQ, transgender, and social justice organizations (full list below). Representatives from these organizations will be available to the audience in the lobby prior to the show, and will offer resources on how to become allies and activists for transgender rights.

Full list of As One Community Partners 

Tickets & Information:
Nov. 11, 13, 17, 18, & 19, 2016
Washington Hall
153 14th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122
Tickets: $25* & $40
seattleopera.org/asone