San Diego Opera Review: AS ONE (San Diego Opera)

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by Milo Shapiro on November 12, 2017

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Composer Laura Kaminsky and co-librettists Kimberly Reed and Mark Campbell’s 80-minute chamber opera, As One, is a tribute to the fact that art must keep growing with the times. We expect modern themes explored in painting, music, dance, and more, but encountering today’s issues in opera causes a little more head-cocking. This song cycle proves that opera can richly tell stories of 21st-century America just as well as it can take us to times past and lands far away.

As One, which only gets three performances from San Diego Opera, is almost entirely performed by just two performers on a very minimalist stage — three simple tiers with two staircases, all black. Baritone Kelly Markgraf plays the boy (and then young man) whose name is never given, other than signing a letter “H”. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert plays the same character, who adopts the name “Hannah” as s/he wrestles with coming to terms with feeling that her male physical body has never matched the female energy she has always felt suited her.

The story is divided into separate chronological stories told at 16 periods of the character’s life — from being an isolated boy (who felt like something was wrong with him but had no words for it) to living as a woman who still struggles to accept herself. Each segment stands alone, like a phase of life; a simple blackout and a projected title of the next story lets us know that time has passed. Frequently, the two parts of herself are both singing with each other, implying the internal struggle. As the show progresses and self-acceptance grows, we see less of Markgraf and more of Gaissert.

Numerous video screens, used to convey feelings, images, and other people, are used remarkably well to display Kimberly Reed’s videography. The silent clips add much to the storyline, visually enhancing the otherwise scarce stage as H/Hannah sings.

Musically, the program is superb. The two voices are rich and masterful. The small four-person orchestra, staged on the second tier, plays boldly; a larger group might have overpowered this very personal storytelling. It does feel odd to hear such classical operatic articulation when the boy is singing about Sex Ed class and intoning about masturbation, but one gets used to the novelty. Supertitles are helpful, but much of the time, the slower pace of the much of the singing allows us to not fixate on the printed words and just enjoy the performer.

In terms of pure entertainment value, As One has highs and lows. The story of H’s penmanship class, where he is scolded for creating sweeping wide loops that look feminine, goes on longer than needed. Conversely, a scene where Hannah describes an encounter with a cruel man who follows her to her car as he screams, “What ARE you?” was riveting as we pray for her safe getaway. There are other questions about his and her life that might have been more interesting to explore had a few of the 16 stories been shorter.

Nevertheless, As One is an important piece. Too few films or plays have tackled this theme and opera provides the character a means to sing directly to us about feelings — a candor that would be hard to duplicate in other medium.  With so many transgender issues in the news in just the last few months alone, As One is timely but it is also eye-opening and beautifully executed.

photos by Karli Cadel

As One
part of San Diego Opera’s dētour series
Joan B Kroc Theatre, 6611 University Ave
ended on November 12, 2017
for future shows, call 619.533.7000 or visit SD Opera

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