West Edge’s Bold New Transgender Opera Opens in Oakland

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In recent weeks, news headlines have been filled with stories about Caitlyn Jenner, who, as a celebrated former athlete and reality television star, has become the world’s most famous transgender person. Her highly public transition has sparked national and international conversation that is by turns jubilant, impassioned, enraged and abrasive. In this light, it seems that there is no better time for West Edge Opera’s production of As One, concept and music by Laura Kaminsky, which deals explicitly with the experience of a male-to-female transgender protagonist named Hannah. While gender-swapping has been a staple in comic opera for centuries, As One treats the subject with great seriousness, humanity and sensitivity.

The text is a collaboration between eminent librettist Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed, creator of the poignant documentary Prodigal Sons, which chronicles her own youth and transition. The story is organized episodically, with various “chapters” such as Cursive, in which Hannah as an ostensibly male child attempts to make her handwriting look masculine to pass under the scrutinizing eye of the teacher, and Out Of Nowhere, in which, years later, she is violently assaulted by a stranger while passing as a woman. Taken together, all the chapters form a kind of primer on the transgender experience. This approach is remarkably clear and instructive at times, and slightly disorienting as others, for example, the lack of a traditionally dense and linear narrative makes a climax unusually hard to pinpoint.

The opera is scored for the sparse ensemble of two singers and string quartet. Baritone Dan Kempson and mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson portray Hannah Before and Hannah After, respectively. Other characters are referenced in the text, or appear in the tasteful accompanying film projections by Reed, or in the ghostlike, mostly-silent cast of background actors, but Hannah is the lone tangible character. Kempson and Patterson form a good physical pair and are confortable and expressive together onstage. Kempson’s voice is strong and crystal-clear, whereas Patterson’s is more varied and pearlescent. Both are first-rate.

Kaminsky’s music is energetic, fluid, consistent, and at times Copland-esque. Above all, it is approachable—for the theorists out there, there are more modal melodies, major seconds and minor thirds than one might typically expect from a newly-composed score—and this fits with the piece’s intent. The straightforward, relatable music emphasizes the fact that Hannah’s story, though drastically different from those of many audience members, taps into a deep vein of shared human experience: confusion, isolation, and the struggle for authenticity. Music Director Bryan Nies conducts the wonderful Friction Quartet.

The opera’s punchy episodic format, accessible music, and intimate ensemble are both a point of strength and a point of vulnerability. The ethos of directness gives rise to many strikingly profound moments, but, failing occasionally at this, smacks of over-simplicity. Overall, however, its virtues far outweigh its flaws and As One is a timely, affecting winner. West Edge and Director Mark Streshinsky are to be commended for hosting such a bold new work. Tickets for the remaining two performances are available at www.westedgeopera.org.

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