Nothing like art to stir conversation and dialogue!
Opera companies around the world are performing a chamber opera (As One) that premiered in 2014 exploring the life of a transgender woman. The libretto was co-written by Kimberly Reed, drawing from her own experience as a trans woman. In the original production, the lead role was played by two friends of the composer, a cisgender man (baritone) and a cisgender woman (mezzo). These two voices represent the lead character before and after transition. While this is an intriguing concept, there is one glaring problem. Generally speaking, when a person who is assigned male at birth transitions, their voice range does not change! In fact, for our singers this is a real challenge. Many individuals spend years re-training the characteristics of their speaking voice.
One might argue that the composer was writing for friends, but what kind of misconception about voice and transition does this convey to the many audiences who will see the opera? And what does it mean for the performers to themselves be cisgender? As performances continue, hopefully opera directors are casting the net more broadly to bring in transgender actor/singers for these roles.
As One is a good reminder for artistic directors and leaders within GALA choruses to research and explore repertoire carefully before we program it. Is it written authentically? Are we selecting soloists, instrumentalists and guest artists that fully represent the gender spectrum present in our choruses?
For those interested, here is more about As One:
The composer, out lesbian Laura Kaminsky, is composer-in-residence at American Opera Projects. After marrying her wife in Canada and becoming casually involved in the marriage equality movement here in the states, she became fascinated with a New Jersey supreme court case, where the husband in a heterosexual marriage was transitioning from male to female, and there was a big question about what rights the couple would have after his transition was complete. “Oh my God,” Kaminsky thought, “this is such an opera.” And that was the spark.
She was already beginning to work on a piece featuring chamber orchestra and voice for two of her friends—baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo Sasha Cooke, and the three of them hashed out the idea of using two voices to depict the protagonist in “As One.”
The plot is based very loosely on some of the experiences the librettist, trans-woman filmmaker Kimberly Reed, who gained some fame when she produced and directed the film Prodigal Sons, which tells her own story of Kimberly returning home to a small town in Montana for her high school reunion, and her attempts at reconciliation with her long-estranged adopted brother. Kaminsky reached out to Reed to brainstorm the plot.
According to the American Opera Project’s website:
In this chamber opera for two singers and string quartet by composer Laura Kaminsky, librettist Mark Campbell and librettist/filmmaker Kimberly Reed, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone depict the experiences of its sole transgender protagonist, Hannah, as she endeavors to resolve the discord between herself and the outside world.
As One is described by the New York Classical Review as “everything that we hope for in contemporary opera: topical, poignant, daring, and beautifully written.”