There was an elbow-to-elbow crowd on hand in the George R. White Opera Studio at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters last night for the Pennsylvania premiere of As One, including the composer, Laura Kaminsky, and co-librettists, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. They must have been pleased with the reception their work received, for it was a favorable one, and hopefully the performers realized that a large share of the enthusiasm was for them, as well, because the two singers delivered trying music quite excellently, as did the string quartet conducted by James Lesniak (a name we’re used to seeing on the programs as “coach or pianist,” but last night in his first conducting assignment). The audience was as diversified as could be imagined, which somehow, considering the topic of the chamber opera before them, offered encouragement and hope for a sense of peace and unity in these days of bombastic division.
In less skilled hands, the subject matter of the emotional struggles and inner turmoil of a transgender person trying to find peace and a sense of being in a vast, confusing and sometimes hostile universe offers every opportunity to go awry. But the librettists manage to remain focused on providing just enough every day, “real” experiences in the life of Hannah, from her youth, to college years, to “finding herself” in young adulthood, to make her seem like a real, plausible character, and, along with Kaminsky’s effective and appropriately shaded score, charged with drama, empathy, and, when needed, a touch of humor, makes no attempt to demand sympathy and acceptance from the audience. It simply and quite effectively tells the story of a portion of one person’s life – a person who happens to be transgender.
While the characters are nominally identified as “Hannah Before” and “Hannah After,” for the most part they are on stage together. Through a series of sung pieces, they either individually narrate the story or interact with each other as separate parts of a yet inseparable “whole,” and the concept works. As might be expected, there are parts that are emotionally harrowing, such as when Hannah writes a letter full of excuses for why she won’t be coming home from college for Christmas this year, and the episode in which she relates her narrow escape from an attacker who demands “What the fuck are you!?” The piece leaves the impression that the action takes place in the not so distant past, as there are references to yellowing library card catalogs, pen-to-paper letter writing, and looking things up “online.”
Historically, operas that rely principally on “psychological” drama tend to have a tough go of things. But since As One was premiered in 2014, it has been performed in the better part of a dozen venues, with at least one more to come next month. Whether it will endure due to its musical and artistic merits, rather than as a timely curiosity, only the future will tell.
A string quartet serves as a perfect accompaniment to the story – much more would be excessive for the complex yet sometimes simple psychological drama taking place on the stage. James Lesniak did an excellent job of maintaining a proper sense of balance, proportion, and volume, and the players, Charles Stegeman (Concertmaster and Violin I), Rachel Stegeman (Assistant Concertmaster and Violin II), Jennifer Gerhard (Principal Viola) and Kathleen Melucci (Principal ‘Cello) never wavered in their playing of the score, sometimes intricate and prominent, sometimes an appropriate whisper.
As far as a vehicle for the display of the vocal talents of two members of the Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program is concerned, a better choice than As One can hardly be imagined. It seems as if had the standard pairing of a tenor and soprano been chosen by the composer, the work would have lost some of its effectiveness. The unusual opportunity of hearing such sustained singing by a baritone and mezzo-soprano was not only a rare treat, but the voice types more effectively add to and color the drama of the story.
Brian Vu, as “Hannah Before,” was given the opportunity to display his vocal abilities here as never before. That he had a baritone voice of quality in its lower register was already well known from his appearances in various smaller roles this season and last, but the strength and brilliance of his upper register came as a revelation. He sang the difficult music of the part with a ringing resonance that thrilled throughout, and he acted the role with an engaging sprightliness and a fine sense of pathos by turns.
He was partnered perfectly by Taylor Raven as “Hannah After.” Her mezzo-soprano voice is of a lovely timbre and wide range, and she, too, acted the part appropriately and with a varied assortment of moods and emotions. The role is not new to her, as she has sung it with Seattle Opera, but it was clear that she and Mr. Vu had spent many hours working together to achieve optimal results with “Hannah,” and their work paid off well. “I have come to really connect with the character of Hannah,” Ms. Raven shared with me a few days ago. “I’m inspired by her honesty and bravery and I feel very honored to tell her story.” Vocally and dramatically, she tells it very well, indeed.
The opera will be repeated on February 21, 24 and 26. For tickets, performance times, a complete synopsis, and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera. It’s highly recommended that those wishing to hear the work not waste time in securing tickets, as seating is limited and they are moving at a brisk pace.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for the two complimentary press admissions.
The “Artistic Team” for As One –
Conductor, James Lesniak; Stage Director, Frances Rabalais; Set Designer, Chen-Wei Liao; Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Stage Manager, Attitra Lelahuta.
Photography: David Bachman