“As One” from San Diego Opera has harmony and heart

As contemporary topics go, “As One” by the San Diego Opera could not have picked a more timely one.  The discussion about transgender people continues to come up in 2017 with varying extremes.  The beginning of this year saw roll backs in transgender  protections, and this week we saw a Transgender woman be elected to the Senate.

“As One” is a chamber opera created through the American Opera Project follows the story of Hannah, born a boy who is transgender and trying to figure out what that means for the life she wants to live.

(L-R) Baritone Kelly Markgraf (Hannah Before) and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert (Hannah After) in San Diego Opera’s AS ONE. November, 2017. Photo by Karli Cadel.

The key here is the characters, Hannah Before played by baritone Kelly Markgraf and Hannah After played by mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert.  Never really far from another, they are a symbiotic pair both supporting and encouraging, as they play the same person.

Hannah Before is supported by the feminine as he tries to grapple with these strange feelings and experiences.  Hannah After is able to express how freeing and true it feels to write in cursive that is more girlish in a loopy, and curled way, while Hannah Before tries to control that urge into more precise handwriting befitting a boy to fit into the societal norms..  As Hannah’s transition progresses, the male becomes more of the support to the female Hannah, encouraging her to do more daring things to explore this new sense of self.  They co-exist in this push pull until both are at peace as Hannah is no longer a push pull of two sides, but simply Hannah.

The music is sung in English, is sung in 16 songs over the course of three acts in 70 minutes.   Blythe Gaissert and Kelly Markgraf excel in this role, both bringing finely wrought emotion, warmth, and humor to Hannah’s experience.

Gaissert’s voice and vocal runs as Hannah After shows the joy and exhilaration of expressing herself through her flowery writing in “Cursive”, and shows the type of person Hannah yearns to be every day.  Markgraf’s Hannah Before is equally affecting when singing his argument to John Donne’s “No Man is an Island”.

The vocalists are supported by San Diego’s Hausmann Quartet, a strong quartet which provides some gorgeous accompaniment and covers a range of emotions from romanticism, to showiness, to the distressing with ease.  Like the Hannah, the music won’t settle for being cookie cutter character sameness, it will be simple be what it needs to be.

Directed by Kyle Lang this show chooses to have what is happening lived front of you, instead of gestured or fully acted out.  This helps create the emotional connection with the audience and leads to a truly empathetic experience for all. The occasional video projections augment the experience as shot from Hannah’s point of view, but Lang wisely uses this sparingly to keep the focus on the emotions being lived at the moment instead of on the actions themselves.

“As One” is an opera that eschews most of the trappings that people automatically assume about opera.  There is no giant and intricate set; instead there is an open stage, with some platforms, two sets of stairs, and a lot of open space.  There is no huge cast and assemble of characters; there are only two singers, and a strong quartet.  There is no comic or indicative acting to help tell the story; there is only acting as these performers live the moment.  This is a personal, emotional, and empathetic piece about someone trying to find out who they really are and live that truth.

In a way this is an unconventional love story – it’s about learning who you are, then accepting and loving one’s self as a whole.  So while this piece may be about a highly specific moment in one person’s journey that becomes universal to everyone.

“As One” , by San Diego Opera is playing at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre Saturday, November 11th  at 7pm and Sunday, November 12th at 1pm.  For tickets and more information got to www.sdopera.com 

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