Rarely do the words “intimacy” and “opera” historically appear together. Staged in gilded halls with larger than life sets, opera has long been associated with the grandiose in terms of both production size and storytelling. However, the Boston Opera Collaborative (BOC)’s performance of Laura Kaminsky’s As One at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge on January 27, 2018 proved that a more economical approach to opera can yield highly successful repeat performances of new works.
Since its premiere in 2014, As One has become one of the most produced new operas in the United States and Canada, and this is largely due to the smartly conceived packaging of the work: a cast of just two singers, an accompanying string quartet, minimal staging, and a pre-recorded video element. While simple production values make As One easily adaptable for different venues and performers, the unpretentiousness of Kaminsky’s score coupled with a highly-personal libretto from Kimberly Reed and Mark Campbell make As One accessible for audiences, as well.
In the program notes by the composer and the co-librettists, they write that it is gratifying to see “how an opera’s message about human rights is reaching so many people—especially at a time when leadership in this country wants to dehumanize trans people and strip away their rights.” However, As One premiered in 2014—in the days before the “bathroom bill” and an administration that essentially encourages hate speech—and thus does not attempt to elicit sympathy for trans rights through an emboldened political statement driven by current events. Instead, As One capitalizes on opera’s ability to explore inner emotions, and the result is a genuine personal journey grounded in universal human experiences.
Two singers comprise the role of Hannah Before and Hannah After her gender transition, performed by baritone Scott Ballantine and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Krouner at the BOC’s January 27th performance. The two characters, different parts of the same whole, are both on stage together for the entirety of the opera; Hannah After is present from the beginning, and Hannah Before remains even after transitioning. As One presents as a series of strung together arias that capture snapshots of Hannah’s life from early childhood to young adulthood, including public school sex ed class; hearing the word “transgender” on television and looking it up in the library card catalogue; the decision to not travel home for the holidays; a violent encounter with a stranger; and finally, a resolve to go on and be happy.
Kaminsky’s score ranges from energetic and jubilant to discordant and strained, but never contradicts or overpowers the libretto. The driving syncopation and fluttering tremolos of “Sex ed” evoke adolescent nervousness and uncertainty; the soaring and floridly ornamented aria “Three Words” captures Hannah After’s blissful reaction to the words, “Pardon me, miss;” the constantly fluctuating pulse and harmony of “Close” reflect Hannah’s mixed emotions as she transitions; and delicate pizzicato articulations sprinkle sustained cello like falling snow in the tender Hannah Before aria “Home for the Holidays.” The libretto features extended solos for both Hannah Before and Hannah After, but the passages that are sung together are brilliantly set in homorhythmic harmony by Kaminsky.
The most powerful creative contributions to As One arguably come from co-librettist Kimberly Reed, a documentary filmmaker and transgender woman whose life story served as inspiration for the libretto. Reed’s DIY, home video-style film projections that accompany the action on stage create an enhanced sense of first-person perspective throughout the opera, and though Mark Campbell is one of the most prolific contemporary opera librettists, it is Reed’s personal life experiences that are deeply felt through the candid and uncontrived libretto.
Ballantine and Krouner gave committed performances, easily carrying this 80-minute “chamber opera for two voices.” Ballantine’s baritone was bold throughout despite faltering in some of the more rhythmically challenging passages. Krouner’s silky mezzo was the highlight of the evening, displaying both richness and agility. Students from the Longy School of Music made up the accompanying string quartet, and with the exception of some intonation issues, gave a well-prepared performance of Kaminsky’s score. Stage Director Greg Smucker convincingly linked Ballantine and Krouner’s movements and facial expressions, which they truly performed “as one.” It is encouraging to see contemporary music initiatives presented in conjunction with local music schools, and the Boston Opera Collaborative’s mission to connect more meaningfully with audiences is worth following in subsequent seasons.