BWW Interview: Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed Are AS ONE, Showing More Lives than a Cat with Opening at New Orleans Opera, June 2

BWW Interview: Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed Are AS ONE, Showing More Lives than a Cat with Opening at New Orleans Opera, June 2

BWW Interview: Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed Are AS ONE, Showing More Lives than a Cat with Opening at New Orleans Opera, June 2
AS ONE recently at Long Beach Opera with baritone Lee Gregory
and mezzo Danielle Marcelle Bond. Photo: Kip Polakoff

You don't have to be transgender--or even an opera-lover--to be moved and haunted by AS ONE, the chamber opera by Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed having its local debut June 2 at the New Orleans Opera, running through Sunday the 4th. It's a work that will reach anyone who has come to terms with growing up, learning to live with themselves, dealing with the short-comings of others. In other words, all of us.

Perhaps that's why the piece is also celebrating another landmark in New Orleans: its 10th production. Originally commissioned and developed by the Brooklyn-based opera incubator and producer, American Opera Projects, AS ONE debuted in September 2014, less than three years ago, at Brooklyn's BAM and was most recently seen at Long Beach Opera, in May. With productions from Seattle to Washington, DC; Logan, Utah to Berlin, Germany--and another half dozen on the schedule--this is a remarkable achievement for a contemporary work. It has become the most rapidly accepted chamber piece at opera companies across the country.

"It's based on Kim Reed's experiences, though it's not her biography," says composer Kaminsky, who developed the concept for the piece. It was her idea to use a mezzo and baritone to sing the main character (eventually to be called 'Hannah before' and 'Hannah after' and originally portrayed in tandem by a married couple, Sasha Cooke and Kelly Margraf, with whom she had already worked); and to score it for a string quartet.

BWW Interview: Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed Are AS ONE, Showing More Lives than a Cat with Opening at New Orleans Opera, June 2
World premiere cast at BAM, baritone Kelly Margraf and
mezzo Sasha Cooke with Fry Street Quartet. Photo: Ken Howard

But she hadn't developed a storyline.

Then she saw Reed's documentary, "Prodigal Sons," which told of her experiences returning to Montana for her 20th high school reunion, as a one-time quarterback and valedictorian, and seeing friends and family for the first time since her gender reassignment surgery. Immediately, Kaminsky knew they had to meet, and the creative team started to take form.

"When Kim and I were beginning to conceptualize the work--she was going to create a film as part of the production--we were absolutely clear about one thing: that this wasn't going to be solely a transgender coming of age story. It had to be a simple, universal human coming of age story, through the filter of a transgender person," Kaminsky recalls. "What are the struggles, where are you rejected, where are you accepted? Everybody has to figure out who he or she is and how to be true to oneself. It was really important for us that it wouldn't just be thought of as 'the opera about the transgender person,'" she avers.

BWW Interview: Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed Are AS ONE, Showing More Lives than a Cat with Opening at New Orleans Opera, June 2
Left to right: Filmmaker/co-librettist Kimberly Reed,
co-librettist Mark Campbell, composer Laura Kaminsky.

As she began to work with Kaminsky, Reed had her own thoughts about what she wanted the opera to accomplish--and to make it clear that she was not "trying to tell about the experiences of every trans person, but fictionalizing and crafting a story based in part on my experiences." "Much of the world thinks of 'transgender' as an 'issue,' with our dominant culture making presumptions about people and gender--dehumanizing people who are different. By telling a very specific story, I feel you get to know that person. That's the best way to make change," she explains.

One hitch: neither had written a libretto before, though both were storytellers in other media (Reed as a filmmaker, Kaminsky as a composer dealing with issues from war to the environment). Enter Mark Campbell, who Kaminsky calls "the librettist-storyteller of the universe." (He has written a score of libretti, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning SILENT NIGHT with Kevin Puts and THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS with Mason Bates, opening in Santa Fe in July, as well as two further projects with Kaminsky and Reed, SOME LIGHT EMERGES and TODAY IT RAINS.) Kaminsky knew Campbell from judging grants together at Opera America; she described the project to him, asked for advice and invited him to meet Reed.

"When Mark met Kim, he said, 'Talk, tell us some stories.' And we found that her stories related to us, related broadly because they're human stories," Kaminsky recalls. "One was about having a paper route when she was young wearing a blouse under her jacket"--Campbell recalls it as "galvanizing"--"another about suppressing the desire to use a flowery handwriting to express herself in school."

Says Campbell, "As we talked, we went from something that was a cause into something that was very specific and personal." And the team was born. Reed would not only create a film that set the stage and illustrated aspects of the story as well as provide first-hand insights into her transgender experience, but as a co-librettist with Campbell. (Others have been crucial to the success of the performances, including the string quartets, music directors and the many directors involved, say the creators.)

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.