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Review: Five Years and 26 Productions Later, AS ONE Makes a Splendid Return to New York at City Opera

Review: Five Years and 26 Productions Later, AS ONE Makes a Splendid Return to New York at City Opera
Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After, Michael Kelly
as Hannah Before. Photo: Steven Pisano

The spectacularly musical, touchingly dramatic, surprisingly funny and profoundly moving chamber opera, AS ONE, by Laura Kaminsky, Kimberly Reed and Mark Campbell, made its long-overdue return to New York on Thursday.

The production by Matt Gray is part of New York City Opera's spring season (and Pride Series!), presented in conjunction with American Opera Projects (AOP)--which originally commissioned and developed the project with Kaminsky, Reed and Campbell--and the Kaufman Music Center.

From the first notes of the "overture"--really the introduction to the dialogue that we will be hearing between Hannah Before and Hannah After--we are enveloped in Kaminsky's wonderfully varied, rhythmically fascinating score. Written for string quartet (Hannah Always?), mezzo and baritone, the sometimes melodic, sometimes harrowing music provides a framework that turns the musicians into a tight ensemble, under the keen understanding of music director Steven Osgood (who also conducted the world premiere).

Review: Five Years and 26 Productions Later, AS ONE Makes a Splendid Return to New York at City Opera
Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After.

I've seen AS ONE referred to as a song cycle, but despite its episodic structure, it is no less an opera than, say, TOSCA, in telling a story that is not exactly linear. Divided into three sections that flow as one, the work traces Hannah's experiences as she learns about herself, with two voices here sharing the role of a single transgender character.

Director Gray (also AOP's Producing Director), who first created the production at Chautauqua last summer, takes a clever yet simple approach--with its modest set design by Ron Kadri, lighting by Michael Baumgarten and costumes by Barney Fitzgerald--that allows the material to breathe and speak for itself.

Review: Five Years and 26 Productions Later, AS ONE Makes a Splendid Return to New York at City Opera
Michael Kelly as Hannah Before.
Photo: Dorothy Shi

Reed and Campbell have done a superb job of dramatically externalizing the internal struggles of Hannah through drama and comedy, joy and sadness. It starts with the early realization that she is not like other boys (wearing a stolen blouse under her jacket as she delivers newspapers, suppressing a desire to use a flowery handwriting) but believing she has to be ("I must be the perfect boy").

It continues to the realization that she is not alone (hearing a news story on television that she instantly relates to herself: "The real word. The magic word").

Then, there is the first time someone says, "Pardon me miss" ("Pretty dull as words go, but they mean everything to me") and, at last, on a trip to Norway, where she allow herself to acknowledge that she can be who she really is.

There isn't a moment that does not ring true, perhaps it is because it is a fictional representation of Reed's own journey. (She is also a filmmaker and provided the film elements of the piece that change scenes and moods in an instant. I particularly liked the way she illustrated the story by combining old film footage with modern images, realistic and abstract, and stills with moving pictures.)

But, just as much, it's her collaboration with Campbell and the skills of the singers, Blythe Gaissert and Michael Kelly, as well as the musicians of the string quartet (Andrea Shultz and Yana Goichman, violin, Daniel Panner, viola, Mark Shuman, cello) and conductor Osgood (not quite out of view) that makes the piece work.

Review: Five Years and 26 Productions Later, AS ONE Makes a Splendid Return to New York at City Opera
The production of AS ONE in a slightly different
staging at Chautauqua. Photo: Riley Robinson

Both singers have performed Hannah's journey before and they seemed totally in tune with the story they were performing. Mezzo Gaissert's rich, earthy voice and dramatic skills--which I've admired previously in THE ECHO DRIFT at Prototype, and other performances--as Hannah After, melded easily with the mellifluous baritone of Michael Kelly as Hannah Before.

Both handled the difficult dramatic moments--the attack on her, the litany of trans people who have been murdered--as well as the many comic instances, such as a scene in the library ("To Know"), where Hannah is looking for books--surreptitiously--on "transgender."

She passes listings in the card catalogue for "Transatlantic Travel" and "Transfiguration" but goes too far and skips to "Transylvania." Hannah Before finally finds the books she's looking for and hides them behind something more innocuous ("To the world it might look like I'm becoming an expert on The Transvaal War") so the librarian doesn't spot the true subject of her interest.

It's been almost five years since the opera's world premiere at BAM's Fisher Theatre, but the opera's ability to move audiences with its universal story remains intact. There's no question that the conversation about trans or gender-nonconforming people has become somewhat more out in the open since AS ONE's debut in September 2014. Yet, we still live in a country where people in very high places--as well as the person in the street--feel no compunction about expressing their lack of understanding or empathy for those whose lives they "can't wrap their heads around," as Reed expressed it to me.

There are two more performances of AS ONE--at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center, 129 West 67 Street in Manhattan--on Tuesday June 4, performed by the alternate cast, Jorell Williams (Hannah Before) and Briana Elyse Hunter (Hannah After) and Thursday June 6, with Gaissert and Kelly. The world premiere studio recording is due shortly; visit for the Kickstarter campaign and other information.

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