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Finding They in As One, An Opera on Transgender

The world of a transgender is confusing for everyone.

o-AS-ONE-CREATIVE-570.jpgIn As One, a new chamber opera by composer Laura Kaminsky with libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, two players are scripted to represent one character that is evolving as a woman named Hannah. At the Atlas Performing Arts Center for four performances in October 2015, As One presented by UrbanArias and developed by American Opera Projects features baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco as Hanna Before and mezzo-soprano Ashley Cutright as Hannah After.

This 75-minute opera unfolds in three parts and is accompanied by an active string quartet conducted by Robert Wood, the general director of UrbanArias. The Dresser says active because the first person on stage is the lead violinist Sarah D'Angelo and at the end of the opera, D'Angelo comes back on stage. The Dresser wouldn't call her playing solos. It was more like a gesture to acknowledge the importance of the music, which is tonal, lyrical, and persistently forward flowing in the way the Dresser hears the music of Philip Glass. During the opera, the musicians are called upon to vocalize and during Part II, they sing a few phrases of "Silent Night." Wood also leads the audience in a recitation of John Donne's poem "No Man Is an Island."

The fact that Orozco and Cutright are aspects of the same character was made visually clear when the two players stand opposite each other in an opening mirror scene. A stand out scene was the luminous projection baritone Orozco effects as he delivers newspapers. His ability to mime riding a bicycle while tossing newspapers and emoting the joy of his feminine qualities is remarkable. His command of his vocal line was equally impressive. The accomplished singing and acting of Ashley Cutright also enhanced his performance.

The Dresser was impressed that the story was not sentimental or overly dramatized. Some of the themes dealt with include family issues (how to tell Mom and Dad), limited sex education, isolation, loneliness, hate-based violence, and moving away (the character takes refuge in Norway). One particularly interesting conceit applied to the story is the act of writing. Part I includes a number entitled "Cursive" and deals with Hannah's teacher who criticizes--the Dresser is going to use the plural pronoun as many transgenders prefer--their writing. In Part II, Hannah writes a letter home (instead of calling) to say they won't be going home for the Christmas holidays. Essentially Hannah is not yet able to explain the gender change. Hannah loves their parents but the parents don't understand what is going on with their child. Part III, Hannah writes a dozen postcards to the outside world and signs with her new name. She feels she has gotten beyond her teacher's criticism of her handwriting.

Behind the singers ran mostly landscape video projections by Kimberly Reed, an independent filmmaker from New York City as well as the co-librettist who contributed some of her personal story to this opera.

The production is first rate. All the parts work together. It is a moving tribute to people who go through gender transformation.

In Sue Ellen Thompson's poem "Home" from her collection They, the reader hears the voice of a mother who is parent to a transgender person. The mother is talking about herself but the edges reach out to her child in confusing ways with words like straight, endless years of grade-school, retreat, circumstances force you, they have to, and the word begins to rise from deep inside. What the straight loved ones of the transgender learn is that language and grammar have a new gravitas. This gravitas about the written word comes across clearly in As One.


The place your parents brought you straight
from the hospital, where you spent
those endless years of grade-
school. Or maybe it's the place
where you raised your own
children, where you were never alone.
The place you retreat to after the divorce,
or when circumstances force
you to go there. According to Frost,
they have to--but you know the rest.

Who can say for how many weeks
after moving you will lie awake,
staring at the clock-radio, before
you stop listening for the pre-dawn roar
of traffic down your former street--
before the word begins to rise from deep
inside somewhere as you approach
the yellow blinker at Main and Oak,
which, like the porch light your mother
flicked off and on when you and your first lover
were parked at the darkest edge of the lawn,
reminds you where you belong.

Sue Ellen Thompson
from They

copyright © 2014 Sue Ellen Thompson


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 6, 2015 9:24 PM.

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