BWW Interview: Seattle's AS ONE Tells Transgender Story Through Opera
On Nov. 11, 2016, Seattle Opera will present the Seattle and west coast premiere of a thoroughly contemporary work in a historical venue that recently has been contemporized.
As One, conceived and composed by Laura Kaminsky, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, follows the journey of a young man who battles with gender identity, leads a divided existence, and ultimately resolves his inner and outer conflicts by becoming a woman.
The work, which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music in 2014, will be performed at historic Washington Hall, an intimate venue long associated with Seattle's vibrant multicultural arts scene. The cast consists of just two singers, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano playing a single protagonist, accompanied by string quartet. Singers Jorell Williams and Taylor Raven, composer Kaminsky, award winning librettists Campbell and Reed, conductor John Keene, director L. Zane Jones and set designer G.W. Mercier all will make their Seattle Opera debuts.
In a recent interview, Barbara Lynne Jamison, Seattle Opera Director of Education & Community Engagement and former manager of the company's youth programs, shared her insights on this groundbreaking project and the social issues that it raises.
EM: Barbara Lynne, you are clearly multitalented: a performing soprano, conductor, and music educator, and now a recipient of Opera America's coveted Leadership Intensive Fellowship in the field of opera administration. I'm so impressed.
BLJ: Thank you! I stay busy [Laughs].
EM: I can see that. How did Seattle Opera make the decision to produce this groundbreaking work? Did you have a role in bringing it to Seattle Opera?
BLJ: We are doing this through our Community Engagement arm. I had been looking for some works that I thought would resonate with our community, particularly our younger, social justice oriented community members. We know that opera is thought of as a historical art form but we forget that it's a living, breathing art form, which I think has led to its longevity. We do a lot of historical works on our stage and wanted to look at doing a few more updated works, particularly ones with social justice themes that could tie to new members of our community who might not see themselves in works on the stage of McCaw Hall at a "grand" level. We have a lot of Fringe Theatre lovers in this town, and there's also a similar type of opera - chamber opera - a little more "fringe-y." As One is quite a beautiful work. It's short, it's got very small forces, and it deals with themes that can help our audiences today relate, learn more about the community in which they live, and the other people that we have in our community.
EM: I've only been living here a few months, but that's my impression of Seattle, that it's very alternative, very forward looking. I think you're right that the opera company should reflect that demographic.
BLJ: It's part of our new mission that we've just adopted. The core of that mission is to reflect that community and be an integral part of it This work is part of that initiative, to take that very seriously and make sure we're reflecting the entirety of our area and meeting those needs in an artistic way. I also hope it will find some empathy and feeling for our community in certain ways. I know our city has not been as painfully impacted by some divisive issues as other cities, but we do feel the pain of our country. We feel this kind of work can also bring us together. The arts have a way of doing that so powerfully.
EM: What you're describing is very forward looking, because it's important to be looking to the future as far as opera is concerned. I've read that As One has been described as "a different kind of opera experience." What are some of the characteristics that make this opera stand out from other operas?
BLJ: Part of it is how we're producing the opera. It's not in McCaw Hall. There is no proscenium stage. We'll be producing this in an environment that's in a different part of the city that we at Seattle Opera have not served as much as some other areas. It will be at newly renovated historical Washington Hall, with the ghosts of Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald - that very rich culture of jazz in the Central District, which historically has been a predominantly African-American community. Central District is undergoing quite a lot of gentrification right now, so it's having some of its own difficulties, but we wanted to bring Seattle Opera into it, not in our typical way, but in the round. The action will be in the center of the hall, not on the stage. We'll have seats all around and everybody will be very close to the action on the stage, only a few rows from it at the most. It's a different way to think of opera, which we think of as this big, long stretch away from us, with an orchestra pit before we see the action. We don't really get to see faces. Opera singers get to wear their hearts on their sleeves when opera is done in this intimate way. It will give us a different perspective on how music and drama play together to tell a story in an intimate way, not only a grand way as it does in Verdi, for instance.
EM: The fact that it's accompanied just by string quartet also contributes to the intimacy.
BLJ: Right. All the forces are very small, just two singers playing one single role, two aspects of a single protagonist, and the quartet, very intimately created. We want to produce it intimately, too, and make sure everyone is really close to that story.
EM: Why is this opera so relevant to the times in which we live right now? What social issues will the work raise among audiences?
BLJ: We're all searching to find ourselves in some way, we all have a journey, an awareness of finding ourselves at different points in our lives. Life, the whole process, is a journey. I hope we can find empathy with each other and realize that we're all in this journey together. This journey happens to be represented by a transgender woman on the stage. But I'm hoping we can all be very much on that journey together during the course of this one 80-minute opera. It's a journey we can all share - representative, not of every transgender person's experience but one person's journey. Right at curtain we'll have a couple of transgender community members share their personal perspectives, so we can see that everyone's journey is different and share that experience. We did something like that with An American Dream last year, an opera we commissioned. The story was about Japanese-American incarceration during World War II.
EM: Who was the composer?
BLJ: Jack Perla. Jessica Murphy Moo was the librettist. That was a community effort we made here. We had some eyewitnesses, people who lived during that time, speak before the opera started and give their personal accounts. Again, it was based in some reality but not our reality. This is an opera. Opera takes stories that are personal experiences out of the realistic and heightens them in a way in which we can all share an understanding. It's not like a movie, where we can either fully relate or not; I think it pulls us in.
EM: That's a wonderful description of opera.
BLJ: Yes. I think opera really brings everything to higher levels. Prior to the opera, when the doors open, we're going to have some community partners' tables downstairs, to help the entire community raise awareness of how we can be activists and allies for our transgender neighbors. The Pride Foundation, Greater Seattle Business Organization for the LBGTQ community, will be there. We'll have a list of community partners that will be there with educational materials, ways to sign up and be more deeply involved in activism for our transgender and LBGTQ community. Then we'll follow the performance with a discussion of any issues other than race, any questions we have, done in cooperation with our transgender partners, so that we're not in any way presenting this work from our Seattle Opera perspective. We realize this is not our story to tell in the way I, Barbara Lynne Jamison, am not a transgender individual and cannot speak for somebody who is. What I can offer is the opportunity to bring healing and empathy to the community, that our transgender neighbors be the ones who speak for themselves and give them a voice and amplify that voice so that we can all be engaged together in a healing way. I don't mean healing by transgender people but healing for our community to come together.
EM: That makes perfect sense. Given what's been going on in our times right now, there's a lot of that to be done. I think your mission sounds wonderful. How would you describe the opera's music?
BLJ: Let me start with the libretto, the story itself. It's so beautiful, written by Mark Campbell, who's also done Silent Night. He's a really active librettist in the opera community right now. Kimberly Reed is a transgender woman and a filmmaker. I think it's important, especially for our transgender neighbors that their community be involved in the telling of the story. Kimberly was the quarterback of her football team. She's been on Oprah telling more of her story. The two of them wrote this beautifully elegant, pithy libretto. Laura Kaminsky has a Seattle history. She used to be the Dean of Music here in Seattle at Cornish College of the Arts. The music is representative. Laura has used the viola to represent the spirit of Hannah, the protagonist, so it's very symbolic in that way.
EM: How was the cast chosen?
BLJ: Seattle Opera thinks very deliberately about equity on our stage. We felt that going into Washington Hall we wanted to honor that. We wanted the two individuals to be similarly cast. So we actually did pay attention to the visual aspect, which opera doesn't always do. Our stage director also wanted to bring in some undertones of Black Lives Matter and the higher percentage of black transgender women who are victims of violence. We wanted to highlight that transgender people of color are particularly afflicted by this issue of Black Lives Matter. This opera is becoming a work that's being done throughout the country. Our singers are established, yet young. Taylor Raven, our Hannah, will be singing this role back east in February. She's in Pittsburgh right now with their Young Artists Program. Jorell is doing a lot of great work throughout the country. They were chosen because they're amazing singers and actors. We believed they would tell a convincing story and sing it beautifully. They were very eager to do it. Sometimes the acting of opera isn't always at the forefront, but being an intimate story we wanted to find great acting singers to tell this powerful story in a powerful way.
EM: Especially in a venue where you really can see their facial expressions.
BLJ: Absolutely. It's going to be a very intimate telling. No elaborate costumes or make up. Our stage director wanted to tell it very simply, let the story tell itself.
EM: How do you think Seattle audiences will relate to Hannah's struggles and her journey of self-discovery?
BLJ: I think Seattle will relate very well. Seattle has a very long history of being very accepting and having community allied support and activism for the LBTGQ community. Every city has its own dynamic, but I believe Seattle has had this deep acceptance and support for our transgender neighbors for a long time. Our Ingersoll Gender Center has been around for about 40 years supporting our transgender neighbors. We're excited that Seattle Children's Hospital has just opened up a new wing to support transgender youth. So we have a rich history of social justice being a part of the fabric of Seattle. I think it will be very well received on that front.
EM: This is groundbreaking work that you're doing.
BLJ: Yes. At the same time I think we all have a lot of learning to do about people. In this social media age when we think we know everything about everybody because it's always popping up on our screens, we forget to just take time to reflect on the spirit of people. I think this opera will give us a few minutes to sit back and really settle with ourselves, to take us to that next level where we get to find commonality and learn about ourselves and our surroundings through the art form in a way you can't do by watching television or even reading a book. That music really enriches our experience. Having all these things together along with the learning opportunities beforehand to engage on an activist level with our community partners, filling out the evening with a community discussion afterwards, getting to have a somewhat relaxed environment - we're going to have a cash bar so people can have a drink-in-hand experience watching the opera - hopefully it will be a casual enough experience that we can let our guards down and yet let the reality of the opera and what that means for our learning about ourselves and others. I think that's what art does in a way that other entertainment does not. Opera takes us to the level of exploration. I think Seattle opera audiences know that better than most cities in the US - very rich theatre town, we understand that here. This is a new way to think about opera for a lot of our community. We're hoping that if they've been to an opera and didn't think it was for them, they can give this a try to see opera differently, maybe give opera a new reputation.
EM: I think for this century and beyond, that's the key, to make opera relevant now and for the future. There's nothing quite like opera. We want opera to be forever, and it should be. I think this new opera sounds like a great step in that direction.
BLJ: We have to realize also, that opera has been here for so long because it was willing to evolve with the people, to change. Mozart broke boundaries, Monteverdi broke boundaries. Puccini broke his own boundaries. We put them all in one big lump, we see them all as opera. But at the time they were thinking differently about the art form. I'm really pleased to see Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kim Reed thinking about opera and helping to be part of that force that moves it forward and keeps it alive. I think that's important for us to remember.
EM: What are your, and the company's, hopes for this opera's impact?
BLJ: I hope we will help people think differently about the opera and be able to relate to and find empathy through a transgender story. That's really what I want people to walk away with. It's a very limited run, only two weekends, and very small, just over 200 tickets a night, so we're not going to have very many people, but we do hope that people who wouldn't normally find themselves thinking of going to an opera will find through the music and story they have been changed in some way, walk away with a new understanding of themselves and the people around them, and relate to the humanity of it in a very real way.
EM: Barbara Lynne, this has been so enlightening. I hope you will fulfill all your goals with As One, and I wish you all the best luck with the opening.
BLJ: Thank you, Erica. That means a lot to us.
As One premieres Friday, Nov. 11, at Washington Hall, and runs through Saturday, Nov. 19. Tickets are available online at seattleopera.org.
Photo credits: Philip Newton, Seattle Opera