In the 400 years that operas have been produced, precious few queer narratives have emerged.
The genre, known for its dramatic, hyperbolic flair, is often steeped in the travails of love and romance—and typically only between a man and a woman. That antiquated idea of finding oneself in the "true love" of another is slow to get a rewrite.
But with Portland Opera's new production of As One, the process of self-discovery is focused inward on one character, Hannah, a transgender heroine who offers a much more radical message of love.
Throughout the opera's 15 songs, composed by Laura Kaminsky, the audience watches young Hannah, a high school class president and quarterback, grow up. In the song "To Know," she discovers, thanks to a book at the library, that there are other trans women like her. She begins taking hormones and changing the way she dresses. In one scene, she flirts with a man at a coffee shop for the first time.
As One, which first premiered in Brooklyn in 2014, is now one of only two contemporary operas that tell LGBTQ stories. An opera based on Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" debuted in 2014 in Madrid. The production also comes about six months after Portland State University's smaller-stage, inaugural Queer Opera Experience performance of scenes of La Bohème with reimagined, queer roles.
While As One is groundbreaking in substance, Portland Opera's presentation of Hannah's story is somewhat confounding. It doesn't actually cast transgender singers, but rather two cisgender singers, one man and one woman, telling Hannah's story "as one." Throughout the opera, the voices of mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn as "Hannah after" and baritone Lee Gregory as "Hannah before" merge to trace Hannah's journey from childhood in a small town to college and beyond, while she grows and discovers important truths about herself.
The story is based loosely on the real-life experiences of Kimberly Reed—the prominent transgender film director and producer behind Prodigal Sons and Dark Money—who, along with Mark Campbell, wrote As One. Reed also produced a feature-length film for the production, which screens in tandem with the performance as a backdrop for the story taking place.
In an interview with Stingray Music in 2016, Reed says the story is not so a much a narrative about a transition but, more accurately, a tale of emergence. "I think a lot of times when people talk about the transgender journey, transition is the word a lot of people use. It kind of makes it sound like you are going from one place to another," she says. "I usually think of it differently—like stripping away layers of artificiality until you get to what you really are. That's something trans people go through. It's something non-trans, cis people go through as well."
Andreas Mitisek, director and conductor for Portland Opera's rendition of As One, says he was drawn to the production for its ability to "connect to issues of our time, to expand the horizon of our personal experience and to challenge perspectives." He says he hopes audiences will walk away from the opera "respecting, understanding and supporting diversity."
Of the decision to cast "before" and "after" Hannahs rather than one, transgender opera singer, Mitisek says, "Even though it would be ideal to have As One cast with transgender singers, it's a story about a transgender person, not a transgender story."
So while telling a transgender story in operatic fashion throws open a door of opportunity by being the first and only of its kind, few transgender performers have yet to cross its threshold.
That could be because Campbell, As One's co-writer, or co-librettist, says he and Reed were striving for universality, rather than individuality, in the narrative they created. "We wanted to make sure this character was accessible, that everyone in an audience could identify with Hannah," he told Stingray Music. "As a gay man, I find that moment where you're young and you realize that everyone around you is not heterosexual and that everyone around you who's beating you up are wrong—when you find out there are other people out in the world that are gay or transgender—you understand you can go forward with who you want to be and who you are."
Representation is crucial in any medium, and As One should be lauded for doing what nothing before it has done. It should also inspire more opera creators and producers to cast transgender opera singers.
For the Portland production of As One, Portland Opera's director of external affairs, Sue Dixon, coordinated with local photographer Gia Goodrich to create a photo gallery called As I Am, which features portraits and interviews with transgender Portlanders. Mitisek, the opera's director, says he hopes the performance and photo gallery will work together to "connect and introduce the real faces of Portland's transgender community."
"Portland is on the pulse of our times by bringing [As One] to its community and creating a wider conversation with and about it," he says. "What makes us different can unite us."
SEE IT: As One is at Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, portlandopera.org. 7:30 pm Friday, March 22, Tuesday, March 26, Thursday, March 28, and Saturday, March 30; 2 pm Sunday, March 24. $35-$200.