BWW Interview: Laura Kaminsky Composer of AS ONE at Joan B Kroc Theatre, San Diego
As One, Laura Kaminsky's first opera, premiered in September 2014. While many contemporary operas are performed once and never heard again, it has been staged more often every year since then, and is already scheduled at nearly a dozen venues for 2018. In a recent phone interview Kaminsky and I spoke about that success, her peripatetic career, and what influences the music she writes.
As One came about because she was intrigued by the story of how an upcoming New Jersey vote on the legality of gay unions might affect a couple married for 20 years with two children. They planned to stay married as the husband underwent the process of becoming a woman, and had to face the possibility they would no longer be legally married once the transition was complete and they were living in a lesbian relationship. Although the many works she created before her first opera take advantage of what she calls the "nuance and intimacy" of creating and performing chamber music, this couple's story screamed OPERA!
Kaminsky said, "As One is a piece about identity and the journey to self-actualization." Her long-time interest in the issue of marriage equality led her "to an understanding of how people define themselves and ... how they may or may not be supported by [societal] structures. We thought things were getting calmer and more equal and, sad to say, it seems now there's a backlash." And that makes As One even more relevant today than when first written.
Its unexpected continuing success has changed her life. After leaving her position as Artistic Director of Symphony Space in New York City, she'd originally planned to find another full-time job once the opera was completed during a six-month break. Instead, part-time positions as composer-in-residence at American Opera Projects and as professor of classical composition at SUNY's Purchase College have allowed her to complete a second opera, and half of a third.
Can classical music make a difference when it comes to social and political issues? Kaminsky is convinced it can and, while As One is her first opera, it isn't the first of her pieces to bring meaningful attention to a serious problem. While teaching at the National Academy of Music in Ghana in 1992 and 1993 she was working on a commissioned piece for an AIDS benefit in Connecticut. She said, "I didn't know what the concept was going to be, only the deadline." She hadn't been aware of the AIDS crisis in Africa until she met a community of medical missionaries who were dealing with it. "There were villages I'd go through where there was nobody left." Everyone had died of the disease. She'd found her concept. "I wrote And Trouble Came: An African AIDS Diary." It has been performed many times since then to increase awareness and raise funds for treatment and research. Any money she makes for the piece she continues to send to the Medical Mission Sisters in Ghana.
Kaminsky reacted in a similar way in 1999 while visiting a war-ravaged village in Croatia. Her Vukovar Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano is dedicated to the victims of ethnic cleansing.
When I asked if she had turned to opera relatively late in life because the words enhanced her ability to communicate on the issues driving her, she said she's gotten comfortable at this point with telling a story in words, a story with characters and relationships, but has always felt that instrumental music can also tell a story. While in Seattle as chair of the music department at Cornish College of the Arts, she tested that idea with a lecture in which she asked members of the audience to react to the piece she'd written while in Croatia, without telling them what it was or what it was about. After they'd listened they said, "We can't tell what the issue is, but there's a kind of a conflict, and there's a part that's about despair, but then there's a sense of hope, and then there's fear." It was a gratifying confirmation of the music's ability to communicate without words.
When I asked which issues were currently most on her mind and likely to lead to new musical expression. She hesitated before answering, "I'm actually daunted, and feeling disdain, dismay and concern. It's horrible that there are so many choices." She then singled out the human race's impact on the environment as something that seems certain to lead to new projects.
It had already been the catalyst for one of her most often performed compositions, her sixth string quartet, Rising Tide. When I asked her to talk about some of the most gratifying experiences in her career, after citing the reaction to As One and her collaboration with co-librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, without hesitation she spoke next of her work with the Fry Street Quartet on the "Crossroads Project," of which Rising Tide is the musical center piece. The multimedia production was initiated by climate-change specialist Robert Davies who invited Kaminsky to compose the music and artist Rebecca Allan to create a series of paintings for projected background images. He believed that music and art would increase the impact of his lectures, and indeed, the result has been touring successfully for several years.
Bad experiences? We both laughed when Kaminsky said, "Nobody likes having a performance that's so bad you don't want to stand up and take a bow. I've had a few of those where I don't really want to acknowledge that I wrote the piece."
Kaminsky's career and interests have led to extensive travel. A piece called Wave Hill was written in Virginia, Paris, St. Petersburg, Russia and New York City. When I jokingly asked if she toted a piano, she said, "I write music on the subway on buses and airplanes. It doesn't really matter where I am. I carry music paper, a laptop, and a computer program with me that allows me to notate." She later uses a keyboard to check notes and harmonies.
When it comes to audiences she said, "I try to make the best and most honest music I can. If it feels truthful and complete, I just hope it will appeal to people."
A final indication of Laura Kaminsky's passions and priorities came when I asked if there was one award or commission she treasures among the dozens she has received. She chose the Polish Gold Cross of Merit presented by the President of Poland for exemplary public service or humanitarian work. In her acceptance speech she said, "For me, bringing people together across cultures to share their art is among the best ways to bridge barriers, forge new understandings, and, simply, to make the world a better place."
As One will be performed at San Diego's Joan B Kroc Theatre on November 10, 11 and 12. Visit the San Diego Opera website for times and ticket information.