Artist Spotlight – Brian Vu on “As One”

As One HeaderAs One, the second of Pittsburgh Opera’s two Resident Artist Program productions for this year, opens next Saturday night, February 18, at the company’s headquarters in the Strip District. This modern “chamber opera” requires only two singers, with a string quartet accompaniment, and since seating at the venue is limited, those interested in seeing the production are encouraged to obtain tickets as soon as possible.

As One, as has been widely publicized, tells as much as it can in seventy-five minutes about Hannah, a transgender woman “before and after.” Two voices, “Hannah Before” (baritone) and “Hannah After” (mezzo-soprano), share the role of the opera’s sole character. The three-part work traces Hannah’s life from her youth in a small town, to her college years, and finally to Norway where she learns surprising things about herself. The music and concept for the opera, which is said to tell the tale with both empathy and a touch of humor, are by Laura Kaminsky, composed to a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed.

Brian Vu, the gifted baritone who will appear as “Hannah Before,” recently took the time to share some thoughts regarding his part in the upcoming production.

“Hannah is a deeply complex character, emotionally and musically,” was his response to my question about the challenges facing him in the role, which, in hindsight, seems like a somewhat rhetorical question, indeed. “I think two obvious challenges are the sheer difficulty of the music and the many layers of the character. It’s interesting to have both ‘Hannah Before’ and ‘Hannah After’ onstage, because you can really get a mental and emotional picture of how both evolve over the course of her life, from her youth to her eventual transition. Her feeling of being aligned with herself are heard through the musical landscape and libretto.”Brian Vu - Karli Cadel Photography

A native of Los Angeles, Mr. Vu is a graduate of the Yale School of Music and U.C.L.A. He is a First Place Winner of the Lotte Lenya Competition, as well as a recipient of the Sullivan Foundation Award and a Grand Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Additional prizes he has won include the George London Foundation’s, the Gerda Lissner Competition, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Competition, and the Opera Buffs of Los Angeles, among others. He has been a Young Artist at the Glimmerglass Festival, a Vocal Fellow in Marilyn Horne’s Music Academy of the West and is a former member of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio.

On the concert stage, Mr. Vu made his Carnegie Hall debut singing Mitch Leigh’s Impossible Dream (with the composer in attendance), and returned there in December 2014, performing songs from the Frederick R. Koch Collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library. He has sung selections from The Merry Widow with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and as the baritone soloist with the Yale Glee Club and Yale Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem.

Some of the roles he has performed with Pittsburgh Opera to date include Baron Douphol in La Traviata, the Second Nazarene in Salome, Berardo in Richard the Lionheart, John Brooke in Little Women and Leo Stein in 27. He will appear as Calvin Griffith in the company’s world premiere of The Summer King, and future engagements elsewhere include his debut with Houston Grand Opera.

It appears that a number of opera companies agree with Mr. Vu that As One is a musical experience of merit. With few exceptions, “new” operas tend to receive their premieres and then sink into oblivion, whether they deserve to be neglected or not; but this work, since it premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space in 2014, has been produced at Seattle Opera (where Pittsburgh Opera’s Taylor Raven sang “Hannah After”), Urban Arias at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (Washington, D.C.), West Edge Opera (Oakland, CA), and several other venues, and early next month will be performed by Denver’s Opera Colorado. Review “bites” and a brief video/audio clip are available at “As One” in the News.

Taylor Raven and Jorell Williams in the Seattle Opera Production of As One - Photo by Rozarii Lynch
Taylor Raven and Jorell Williams in the Seattle Opera Production of As One – Photo by Rozarii Lynch

Taylor Raven, mezzo-soprano, will appear as “Hannah After,” as she did in the Seattle production. Unfortunately, her schedule did not allow time for any comments on the upcoming performances here in Pittsburgh.

“I think everyone has dealt with feelings of not belonging, and of doubting their instincts and impulses,” Mr. Vu added. “And this beautiful story really took me down memory lane to all the times I’ve felt alive doing something that was right for me and ‘wrong’ to the world – feelings of loneliness, rejection, then reconciliation with myself, and all the other things that come with ‘growing pains.’ Just imagine the growing pains of a transgender woman!

“And I think audiences will really empathize with Hannah and better understand a bit of what a transgender woman or man must endure and overcome throughout their lives.”

For performance dates, times, tickets, a complete synopsis and more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.