Transgender opera “As One” makes a powerful Boston debut

January 26, 2018 at 2:31 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Scott Ballantine and xxx in Laura Kaminsky's "As One" at Boston Opera Collaborative. Photo: Dan Busler

Rebecca Krouner and Scott Ballantine in Laura Kaminsky’s “As One” at Boston Opera Collaborative. Photo: Dan Busler

Laura Kaminsky’s As One has finally come to Boston. A timely tale of a transgender young adult who gradually assumes and embraces her new identity, As One is currently a hot item. Since its premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, it has become the most performed opera on the new-music scene today.

Thursday night at the Longy School’s Pickman Hall, Boston Opera Collaborative presented the work in its highly anticipated Boston premiere. 

Kaminsky’s opera, with libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, unfolds in fifteen songs for baritone and mezzo-soprano that trace episodes in the life of Hannah, Before and After, as she emerges into her new persona. Hannah Before (Scott Ballantine) is a teenage boy who delivers papers while wearing a blouse underneath a flannel shirt. Societal pressures and norms cause her grief, and she is never comfortable in her surroundings. In class she questions the meaning of John Donne’s “No man is an island,” and teachers deem her handwriting to be too effeminate. Trying to be the perfect boy, she excels at sports and school in order to hide how she feels about herself.

Kaminsky’s nimble, minimalistic score for string quartet drives the story’s emotional arc and captures the heightened anticipation of Hannah’s private excitement and turmoil. Bluesy and lyrical passages for viola — which Kaminsky has described as Hannah’s third voice — wrap the drama in hushed, serious tones. 

There are also some touchingly humorous situations, as when the young Hannah sits through a sex education class and afterward quietly looks up “transgender” in a library card catalogue. Later jokes in the opera are more jarring, in keeping with the story’s more sober contemplation of the limits of tolerance.

But As One is a nevertheless a poignant story containing universal struggles with loneliness, isolation from friends and family, and gradual self-realization. These ideas are more fully explored with the emergence of Hannah After (Rebecca Krouner) as a woman, who feels a sense of freedom when someone says “Pardon me, miss” on a train and when she flirts with a man for the first time in a cafe.

Things turn harrowing when the man confronts Hannah in a parking lot and threatens to kill her — a scene that is difficult to watch for its frank depiction of the hostility and violence that transgender people encounter. Hannah flees to Norway in search of safety and peace but at opera’s end returns home, no longer an island unto herself.

The opera often features both performers, Hannah Before and Hannah After, singing simultaneously on stage together, even as the two are portrayed — at least in the beginning of the work — as separate, unreconciled entities. As Hannah Before, Ballantine sang with a boldly projected baritone, while mezzo-soprano Krouner deftly handled Hannah After’s dexterous vocal lines. Singing as one (hence the title), they delivered a searching and powerful “To know,” in which Hannah wrestles with and begins to find a newfound sense of self.

Greg Smucker’s stage direction kept the action moving briskly and effectively. Simple chairs and tables were just enough to establish scenes at home or in a coffee shop. A multi-panel backdrop served as a screen for Reed’s accompanying film. (Reed is also credited as the real-life inspiration for As One.) 

Aside from a few pitchy moments, the string quartet—Marie Oka (violin), Liubomyr Senyshyn (violin), Hayley Murks-Abdikadirova (viola), and You Kyung Kim (cello), led by conductor Andrew Altenbach—played Kaminsky’s music with direction and momentum.

With its economy and short, 80-minute length, As One is a perfect vehicle for small opera companies looking to do something new and enticing. But it is the opera’s powerful human story that makes the work such a probing and emotional experience.

As One runs through Sunday at Pickman Hall.

Posted in Performances

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