As One

A Change Like No Other

“As One” is aptly depicted as a chamber opera for two voices.  The instrumental foundation of the opera is carried by a traditional string quartet, which suits the intimacy of the story.  Uniquely, only one person is represented by the two vocalists.

The poignancy of this new piece, recently premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is its concurrence with the recent media frenzy over the gender transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner.  “As One” deals with the before, during, and after transition of Hannah on one of life’s smaller stages – and three decades earlier, an eternity before the more accepting era we are in now.

“As One” is one of the three operas produced for the West Edge Festival, which takes place over three short but glorious weekends in Oakland at three different site-specific locations.  This production is at the Oakland Metro, a warehouse-like performing arts venue near Jack London Square that is usually home to high energy rock and related concerts.

The concept and music come from Laura Kaminsky, a versatile composer who writes in the modern, post-minimalist dissonant idiom.  She partnered with Mark Campbell, an accomplished librettist, and co-librettist Kimberly Reed, a transgender woman, whose life experience is the basis for the narrative.

The live action takes place on a spare, elevated stage, with the two singers always present, even through long musical monologues by one or the other.  They are occasionally joined by up to ten supernumeraries, who act as witnesses or silent participants to the action.  The visual simplicity of the staging is matched by the costuming, in which the singers are both in white t-shirtish tops and blue bottoms, and the supers are in white.  The effect of the simplicity on stage works well in contrast with the five video screens behind the stage that run film associated with the character’s life.  The films are designed by Reed, whose career is in that medium, notably, the documentary “Prodigal Son”, which is also autobiographical.

The story arc is almost necessarily non-linear.  Otherwise, the early section of the opera would be exclusively in the male voice and the latter in the female.  Appropriately, the voices align with the apparent gender at the respective time of each vignette, but several duets reflect the inner conflicts and transition.  Although there are light moments, Hannah’s stress during her youth as a boy predominate – from learning to write like a boy, when it is natural to write like a girl, to the confusion in watching circa ’50s-’60s sex education films.  And the violence that is disproportionately felled upon transgender people is addressed when Hannah begins to face the world as a young woman.

Both singers have rich, round voices.  Though each would seem well suited to the melodious world of 19th Century opera, mezzo Brenda Patterson specializes in new vocal music, while Baritone Dan Kempson is the more traditional.  Whatever acoustic deficiencies the site may have are overcome by the power of the vocalists.  Their portrayals are both so sensitively drawn and so in concert with one another, that it seems right to address their performances as one – as ethereal aspects of the same underlying character they represent.

“As One” opens a new page in the opera catalogue.  Dramatically, it is a sensitive depiction concerning a corner of humanity that has undeservedly been misunderstood, bullied, and deprived human rights.  The music is often harsh, as is appropriate to circumstances, but with softer edges as needed.  It is a very well spent 80 minutes.

The final performance of West Edge Opera’s “As One” is at the Oakland Metro, 522 2nd Street, Oakland, on Saturday, August 8 at 2 PM.