BWW Interview: Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed Are AS ONE, Showing More Lives than a Cat with Opening at New Orleans Opera
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.
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.
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.)
How did the co-librettists work together? I asked. "We started with an involved interview process, since the opera would be based on her life--tell me how this happened, how that happened, etc.--but then it took on a life of its own, as the structure took form and the character took life. One thing I love about working with Kim is that she calls me on my worst writing habits. At the same time, I tend to be really driven to get something done; so I keep her on deadline. Reed, in turn, particularly admires Campbell's ability to "stay tightly focused on character."
They worked closely for two months to come up with the libretto that Kaminsky could begin translating into musical terms. "Early on," says Campbell, "besides making sure that this character, Hannah, was accessible, that everyone in an audience could identify with her, we also wanted there to be a great deal of humor. We didn't want to present it as a torturous journey, like something you would see in 1950s-60s films, but as a 'becoming.' A clearer way of saying it is 'emergence'--the emergence of her true self, not replacing one person with another but becoming herself."
(NB: I knew the opera first from the libretto--before seeing a performance of it--and the story that Reed and Campbell crafted is incredibly moving, incorporating what every person goes through in finding themselves. The addition of the music only made it more vibrant, more touching, more real.)
Indeed, all the creators agreed that they didn't want their character to be "an archetypal figure at a distance"--that, if Hannah was going to be "someone who 'sticks,' someone people relate to," says Kaminsky, "she had to be a little doofy, nerdy, a little off." Recalls the composer, "I was nervous about that because, as a composer, writing humor is much harder than writing romantically or angrily or fearfully. I hadn't done it--when we started this, I hadn't written a lot of vocal music. But I think that where the levity and goofiness have been brought to the front, it has made Hannah increasingly lovable."
"Kim and Mark wrote the most beautiful libretto, which gave our character humor and poignancy and anger and confusion and honesty all at once," says Kaminsky. "So, my job was to find the right music to support their work--and I felt that if I couldn't find a great way to set their text with music, I'd have failed."
One of her favorite moments (Campbell's too) is the aria "To know," which she describes as "a beautiful moment of discovery." "It starts out 'Then I see her on TV, there she is' and all of a sudden this little kid realizes there are other trans people out there and races to her public library. She starts searching through the card catalogue." Searching alphabetically, she finds topics like Transylvania, Transatlantic, but can't find transgender. "Finally, there it is and she discovers she's not alone," the composer explains.
"It's a complicated business, telling stories through song and hoping you get there," says Kaminsky. As anyone who takes in AS ONE will see, Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed have, indeed, "gotten there."
AS ONE has become a touchstone in outreach to the trans community in its many venues, with visits to every one of the productions by one or more of the creators. Most recently, the opera was part of the Pride Celebration in Long Beach, California, with grants from Opera America and Long Beach Pride to support audience engagement, helping Long Beach Opera partner on events with the Long Beach LGBTQ Center, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and The Trevor Project.
Prior to its opening at the New Orleans Opera, AS ONE participated in an opera LGBTQ teen event for transgender awareness, a presentation to the Veterans Transgender Support group (the first gathering of this type), and as part of the LSU Medical Center's first LGBTQ health symposium, among other activities.
New Orleans Opera's production of AS ONE is being performed, June 2-4, at the Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand Street, New Orleans, LA 70117. See the website for details.
AS ONE was supported in part by funding from OPERA America's Opera Discovery Grants for Female Composers Program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Art Works, Bronx Council on the Arts, Purchase College Development Fund, Tanner Fund, Jeremy T. Smith Fund, Dr. Coco Lazaroff, Lynn Loacker, Judith O. Rubin, and many generous individuals.