Growing up as an unambiguously heterosexual cisgender male, I had the luxury of not being compelled to consider how I fit into any of these categories or how they set me up to fit into society. I did, however, wonder what it was like for others.
The arts can be especially helpful for such imaginings. Art is an empathy factory, with its products being potential little empathy machines. Kaminsky/Campbell/Reed’s chamber opera As One is designed as just such a machine, trying to do for the transgender experience something like what Black Boy and The Feminine Mystique did for other marginalized experiences in the United States. Unfortunately, despite being a laudable attempt with a couple of particularly poignant moments, As One is probably too small for its subject.
As One is not what you generally get at a night at the opera. For starters, this is a work for two voices and a string quartet, and the presentation is as minimal as the orchestration. The set is bare bones. There’s no costuming to speak of (unless you count that the singers are barefoot). Video projections and (good) lighting—that’s about all there is to see.
The scope of story is similarly restrained, happening entirely inside the opera’s only character, Hannah, whom we meet a preadolescent boy (outwardly) with a paper route, pedaling from house to house with secret: underneath his shirt he wears a blouse stolen off a neighbor’s clothesline. At school his cursive is full of big, unmanly loops. When sex ed rolls around, he badly wants to be in the girls’ class. He tries to be a perfect boy, but when he first hears the term ‘transgender’ and learns that he is not alone in feeling he was born into the wrong sort of body, an internal transformation begins in earnest. Later, once Hannah crests adulthood, he/she begins hormone-replacement therapy and shuttles across the Bay Bridge, continuing life as male on one side but exploring her femininity on the other. The first time someone says, “Pardon me, miss” is thrilling (“Pretty dull as words go, but…”), as is a Christmas Day coffeehouse flirtation. She narrowly escapes a hate-based attack, takes a trip to Norway, then gains a sort of peace as just Hannah, having learned to relate to herself as an individual, no longer caught in the tension of the binary.
With the story confined to Hannah’s mind, almost all of what we get is how she feels. But rather than creatively representing the profundity of Hannah’s psychical struggle (the human psyche certainly doesn’t lack for scope), we get only straightforward narrative of external events—the opposite of “show, don’t tell”—paired internal monolog that doesn’t venture far beneath the surface. Although there are a few clever lines (“I devise corporeal version of ‘A watched pot never boils,'” she says of waiting to see results from her course of hormone therapy), Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s words are clunky (though not more so than the average libretto. For my sensibilities clunkiness seems to be an occupational hazard of the librettist).
Musically, look, while my taste in music doesn’t automatically bar my enjoyment of the art form (I adored Long Beach Opera’s production of Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, for example), opera composers have an uphill battle with me. Unfortunately, Laura Kaminsky does not get over the hump, as she employs one of the opera conventions that I find most opaque: vocal lines that often are only tenuously attached to the music that’s happening beneath. At several points I quite appreciated the string parts in their own right, but the singing seemed just kind of there.
That’s not casting aspersions on the work of baritone Lee Gregory and mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond. Billed respectively as “Hannah Before” and “Hannah After” (which is misleading, since they’re completely co-present expressions of Hannah’s psyche for almost the entire opera), Gregory and Bond are well enmeshed, with Bond in particular doing some great work.
As One‘s best moments come during its last one-third. By grounding the music of “A Christmas Story” on “The First Noel” and other traditional carols without simply parroting them, Kaminsky transports us to a particular day and place, and we feel that story rather than simply hearing it told (a sense undoubtedly helped by video projection of Hannah’s interlocutor). The subsequent hate crime against Hannah (“Out of Nowhere”) is even better, with Bond getting to deliver some powerfully compressed emotion over Gregory’s effective recitation of a list of transgender victims—their names, locations, and manner of their murder.
But the last one-third also features As One‘s biggest misstep: the trip to Norway. Whether or not this is the longest song in the opera (I’m pretty sure it is), it definitely feels like it. Ostensibly Hannah goes to Norway to get as far away as possible from where she was attacked, but even in the context of the performance, director David Schweizer and Bond acknowledge that there’s something a bit ridiculous about suddenly shifting our ground to Scandinavia. (To be fair, so does Hannah.) It seems Kaminsky/Campbell/Reed felt the need to close with some sort of resolution (never mind that at this point Hannah is probably not yet 30 and only starting to get comfortable with herself), and so they took the easy route: girl goes to nature, girl has epiphany. Hannah even mocks the idea of looking for a metaphor in nature—then, boom, nature gets all metaphoric on us.
Although two decades ago Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! was almost as decorated as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, one of the reasons L!V!C! is proving to have nowhere near AiA‘s staying power is their difference in scope. McNally wasn’t wrong to explore the gay male experience in late 20th-century American by confining his story to a group of friends who meet up at a vacation home, but scope—including its characters enmeshment with society—is why Kushner’s masterwork will be forever felt as a far more definitive chronicle, even on an individual level.
One day there may be an opera that takes on transgender issues with enough breadth to feel like more than a character study. Although As One isn’t that opera, it may be a step on the journey to normalizing the transgender experience. Normalization of otherness is a worthy goal for any work of art—and is really terribly little to ask of those of us lucky enough already to be normalized. After all, why should it be harder for transgender folk to get along in the world? “It just feels so right,” sings Hannah of wearing that hidden blouse as she bikes down suburban streets, “and the papers still get delivered.” One day people like Hannah will be able to wear their identity on their sleeves openly and proudly as they move through life, and society will get along just fine.
AS ONE LONG BEACH OPERA • BEVERLY O’NEILL THEATER (300 E OCEAN BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.432.5934 LONGBEACHOPERA.ORG • SATURDAY–SUNDAY 2:30PM • $49–$150; STUDENTS $15 • MAY 20–21
(Photo credit: Keith Ian Polakoff)