Long Beach Opera’s thoughtful “As One”
“As One” – an opera about a transgender journey (a review)
by Bondo Wyszpolski
I’m guessing it would be quite easy for most people to say “No, thanks” to an opera about one character’s transgender journey and experiences, even knowing it was being staged by the indomitable Long Beach Opera, one of the few companies that never blinks twice when it comes to presenting bold and striking new works as well as reimaginings (e.g., their recent “Fairy Queen” by Purcell) of older classics.
“As One” is a chamber orchestra, which makes me recall that Philip Glass once referred to “1000 Airplanes on the Roof” as a pocket opera. This means that it’s pretty much the complete opposite of grand opera, where maybe you’re sitting 300 rows back and glad you’ve brought binoculars or even a telescope. “As One” has only two performers, baritone Lee Gregory as Hannah Before and mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond as Hannah After, with a musical quartet planted up front, in the very laps of the first row audience if people had been seated there. It’s not often that an opera reviewer can name the members of an entire orchestra, and I don’t want to miss this opportunity, so here goes: Robert Schumitzky and Ann Tenney on violin, Adam Neeley on viola, and Charles Tyler on cello. Conducting with focus and energy is the always astonishing Andreas Mitisek, who as you know is also Long Beach Opera’s artistic director, and the primary reason we’ve been seeing such rare and splendid works in Southern California without having to travel to the more adventurous music capitals of Europe.
So, back to “As One.” The music as well as the concept is by Laura Kaminsky (it varies from baroque-sounding to avant-garde), and the libretto is by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. It’s Reed’s true story in many ways, in most ways, that’s at the heart of this work.
And heart is a good word, because I think that’s what this opera is about. Despite the specifics of the tale, it’s universal, meaning that it’s about someone’s growing up and coming to an acceptance of what they are and how they fit in as well as how they don’t fit in. We can all identify with that, right? I believe so.
Lee Gregory and Danielle Marcelle Bond have previously appeared onstage together, in Gavin Bryars’ “Marilyn Forever,” yet another out-of-the-mainstream piece presented by Long Beach Opera. They’re a perfect match here, with fine voices, flexible movement and grace, and both operatically quite expressive. It’s a joy to watch them.
(I should point out that they’re onstage at the same time, one persona shadowing another in a kind of whirling dance, at least until the end)
The story proceeds in snippets or vignettes, beginning when Hannah Before (we never do learn her birth name) was a boy of 12, with a paper route. However, even then, he found that he liked wearing a woman’s blouse under his regular shirt. It seems to be the first instance, at least as presented here, of the tagline: “Like every other boy. Unlike every other boy.” And what we can see as Hannah Before burgeons into puberty and his early teens is that he is a very sensitive young man. It’s an uneasy time for “normal” kids, so we can imagine the difficulties for someone who’s realized he’s different than most of his peers.
The phrase “No man is an island” also comes up, with Hannah Before reflecting that “I consigned myself to my own island a long time ago.”
In high school, Hannah Before goes to extremes to give the appearance of fitting in, even of cultivating a macho persona. He excels in manly sports. But what kind of person is he? How should he identify himself? Is there a definition for someone like him? In the library he discovers the word transsexual, and perhaps intellectually things can begin to fall into place. Even so, he realizes that he lives in two adjacent cities, metaphorically speaking.
A breakthrough of sorts comes about when someone says, “Pardon me, Miss.” Just those three words, but Hannah Before (and now Hannah During) is overjoyed: They mean everything to me.
At this point, clearly, the transition is at full-throttle. We know he’s taking pills, but I was somewhat vague on the details, to where it seemed, so to speak, that Hannah Before was a tadpole and Hannah After a frog. Did he just close his eyes one night and wake up with breasts and a girlish figure?
Meanwhile, he doesn’t go home for Christmas for the first time in his life, no doubt worried about how he will be perceived and received, although later his mother reassures him in a letter that “We love you,” although I’m not clear if this is before or after they know about the gender change.
One key scene in the unfolding story is when Hannah is sitting in a coffeeshop and a young man comes over to talk with her (I guess now I can say Hannah After). At which point a new dilemma arises: How does one flirt? It’s a riveting episode, aided by one of the many projections that accompany this production.
Well, things are going smoothly, but we all know about third acts in drama when the skies darken and a big crisis or conflict rears its ugly head. One evening, walking back to her car, Hannah After is accosted by an angry man who wants to do her great harm. He shouts, he screams, he lashes out, What ARE you? and pounds on the car as she frantically tries to get it started and drive away.
As this unfolds, Hannah Before stands in the background reading the names of real-life transgender people who were brutally murdered simply for being different. This section puts a big focus on the bigotry that never goes away, and lays stress upon the ever-present danger that a transgender person must be on guard against.
Her resolve, though? I must go on. And where does Hannah go, in a literal sense? Norway!
Why Norway? It seems arbitrary, and maybe it is, but in this case Norway stands in for a place where Hannah can do some soul-searching. It’s just me, she says, in the middle of nowhere.
It doesn’t quite go as planned. The cabin she is borrowing (from a friend of a friend) is more like a goat shed, and the skiff she paddles into the lake springs a leak. She hopes to bask in the splendor of the Northern Lights, but doesn’t see them. It’s a hard time. She’s lonely, afraid, and she asks, Why am I here?
She comes to realize that it isn’t Nature’s job to amuse or entertain us. She struggles, but the light at the end of the tunnel does appear… as do the Northern Lights. Hannah finds her freedom, her center, and at last Hannah Before and After become As One.
The danger of such a work is that it could veer off into a kind of apology or propaganda, but that doesn’t happen. This opera doesn’t preach or ask for our pity, but lures us with its compelling story of discovery and growth and even fulfillment. We feel compassion and gain a greater understanding of the human condition, regardless of who or what that person is. The stage direction by David Schweizer is nicely carried out, and helps the story flow. It’s a thoughtful piece of musical theater, which is not always something one says of opera, an art form that usually exists merely to please us and distract us from life’s demands. Not this time. This one has depth, substance, and poignancy.
As One is being staged Saturday, May 20, and Sunday, May 21, at 2:30 p.m. both days. It’s 75 minutes long, with no intermission, sung in English with supertitles. There’s a pre-opera talk one hour before each performance. Tickets range from $49 to $150. Student rush tickets are $15. It takes place in the Beverly O’Neill Theater (at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center), 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 470-7464 or go to longbeachopera.org/tickets. ER