When you walk into the newly renovated Washington Hall to see As One, which is something you're absolutely going to want to do, you'll likely experience an evening of heart-rending/heart-lifting opera that will make you think you actually like opera.
After the show, you're going to walk downstairs, get a drink, and then have some brass tacks conversations with representatives from Pride Foundation and the Greater Seattle Business Association about how to be a better advocate for LGBTQ issues, with a special emphasis on that T.
The opera is a pretty straightforward coming-of-age story about a trans woman named Hannah. Two musical actors play the one role: a baritone plays Hannah before and a mezzo-soprano plays Hannah after.
Hannah grows up a star football player in a small town, experiences a period of self-discovery and community-building at college, encounters violence during the dramatic climax, and then finds (some) clarity in an unexpected place—Norway.
With six productions since its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, As One is on its way to becoming one of the most-produced contemporary American operas. This is according to Patricia Kiernan Johnson, director of marketing and communications for OPERA America, who adds that 2012's Pulitzer Prize–winning Silent Night is the only other opera that's ahead (by one!) in terms of productions during that three season time frame.
The opera's success is due in part to the talent at the heart of the playbill. Librettist Mark Campbell, who has 15 operas under his belt (including Silent Night), cowrote the piece with Kimberly Reed, a first-time librettist but a seasoned storyteller and filmmaker. Former Cornish music department chair and current composer-in-residence at American Opera Projects, Laura Kaminsky, composed the music. Both the composition and the libretto draw on real events from Reed's life as a trans woman growing up in Montana, which you can learn more about in her autobiographical documentary, Prodigal Sons.
Another part of the show's success might be due to its portability. The opera is only 90 minutes long and requires only two singers, a string quartet, and a projector, so producers don't need much scene setting—or really even much of a stage—at all. This was by design. "We envisioned a piece that could be performed at high schools and community centers," Campbell says. Reed agreed: "The thinking was that we wanted this piece to be seen in a lot of places."
Portability seems to be one of the keys for Seattle Opera. Director of education Barbara Lynne Jamison says As One is the first show they've staged outside McCaw Hall, and it likely won't be the last. Seattle Opera plans its main stage shows four years ahead, Jamison says, but producing smaller-scale operas allow it to be "more nimble and have a little more flexibility to respond to community messages as we hear them."
"We have an obligation to make a civic impact," she says.
When I press Jamison about who she thinks the opera will impact civically, she imagines a mix of young people who are interested in becoming better trans advocates but who maybe haven't ever seen an opera and stalwart opera-goers who might know the word "transgender" but not what it means.
The Seattle production marks the first time Hannah will be played by African American singers (and also the first time the opera will run without Reed's film—there was a problem with the walls). Taylor Raven plays Hannah after and Jorell Williams plays Hannah before.
Raven's vocal and acting abilities are impossible to overstate, and they work well in concert with Williams's talents. Her soprano is soul-piercing, and his tenor, the few times he employs it, is likely to jerk a tear. Though their faces and bodies obviously look different, they both move similarly and project the same wide-eyed sunburst smile, so it's as if they were, you know, as one.
Heartwarming fun fact: Williams studied with Kaminsky when she was the dean at SUNY Purchase, and now the two are working together professionally. "I've loved this young man from the time he was a sophomore, and now he's singing Hannah before!" she says. She also used to write work for the string quartet playing that evening. "I think it's going to be a beautiful homecoming in Seattle," she says.
Confusing fact: Though co-librettist Reed is a trans woman, there won't be any transgender people onstage or backstage during this performance—at least not during the show proper.
The show's creators, Seattle Opera, and director L. Zane Jones are all very much aware of this fact.
As far as trans representation goes, Campbell says he would "love nothing more" than to have transgender people playing these roles. "We haven't found the properly trained singers to do that. The second we do, we will," he says.
"We should have as many different combinations of representation and diversity that we can," Reed says. "But I'd underline that I'm very much looking forward to that production that has all trans actors."
Though Williams and Raven are cisgender, casting (very good) black singers in an opera about a trans woman for a venue where Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald have sung might resonate with a hard reality. The trans community, and especially the black trans community, according to the Advocate, is mourning the killings of 24 trans people this year alone, the vast majority of whom were black trans women. And the fact that trans people of color in general experience high rates of violence isn't lost on anybody who is working on this production.
As Jones directed the opera—her first—Marsha Botzer, founder of the Ingersoll Gender Center, and Breanna Anderson (both of whom are trans women) worked with her as community consultants. They read the libretto, expressed some concerns, and offered some thoughts about the piece, Jones says. They've been involved with rehearsals, and they'll lead a pre-show presentation and a post-show conversation with the audience.
As for the piece itself, Jones was ecstatic to work on the project. "You don't see opera—or at least I've never seen an opera—about anyone who is queer. To have it centered on the journey of trans woman is cool," she said. As a queer woman, Jones says she sees herself in Hannah when Hannah sees a transgender woman on TV talking about being transgender and then goes off to the library to learn more. "That moment of seeing yourself when you haven't before—and you think something's wrong because you don't see yourself anywhere—that's a really important moment. It's when you don't feel alone."
Reed echoes this sentiment a little. She thinks art's political possibilities lie in the connection between audience members and the characters onstage. "It's not about making general philosophical statements about how the world needs to change in a really didactic way," she says. "But if you create a character that people can really connect with and humanize, they'll see the world in a way that they haven't seen it before." She adds, "That's where the real power of art to affect politics comes from. That's what we aimed to do in As One, it's what I aim to do with my films, and to me that's the most effective way to affect political change."