Two voices, one human experience: Opera at Utah State portrays transgender journey

First Published      Last Updated Apr 07 2015 11:12 am

Music » Singers share the central role in “As One,” an opera about a transgender woman’s journey.

Whether you're someone concerned with social issues who hasn't had much exposure to opera, or an opera buff who hasn't given much thought to transgender issues, a performance on the Utah State University campus Tuesday will offer a chance to expand your horizons.

"As One," a one-act chamber opera, portrays a transgender woman's journey to adulthood.

A 2008 newspaper article planted the seed for the opera. Composer Laura Kaminsky was intrigued by the story of a married father of two who was transitioning to a woman. He and his wife were committed to preserving their nuclear family — but same-sex marriage wasn't legal in their state.

"I thought, 'That is such an opera,' " Kaminsky said. "All the challenges and the courage it takes for every human being to be yourself — your sense of who you are in relation to others and how that would change if something fundamental about you changed. What would be gained; what would be lost? It's a powerful metaphor."

A couple of years later, Kaminsky saw "Prodigal Sons," filmmaker Kimberly Reed's documentary about her journey as a trans woman, and approached Reed about collaborating. Mark Campbell, who wrote the libretto for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera "Silent Night," joined the project, and the trio worked out the structure of a story.

"We spent several months creating it from scratch, identifying episodes that would be singable and reveal a beautiful story," Kaminsky said. "When we had these benchmarks, [Campbell and Reed] crafted an amazing libretto and scenes that Kim would shoot." The composer then set the libretto to music.

An onstage string quartet plays the opera's score. Kaminsky knew just the ensemble she wanted to play the premiere, which took place last September in Brooklyn. She'd written for the Fry Street Quartet as part of The Crossroads Project, the quartet's ongoing exploration of global sustainability issues, and had forged "the most fantastic relationship" with the Utah State University-based musicians. "You're very lucky to have them in Utah," she said. "They're fantastic musicians — really smart and honest."

Film footage shot by Reed takes the place of traditional scenery. Viewers will notice Logan's Caffe Ibis and a local high-school football field in the background of key scenes. "There's a lot of Utah in the film that serves as our set," Kaminsky said.

Two singers portray the protagonist in "As One." Baritone Kelly Markgraf is Hannah Before; mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert is Hannah After. That doesn't mean there's a dividing line between "before" and "after": The singers share the stage and often interact.

"When someone transitions, it's easy to think they're one person before and then everything changes," Reed said. "That's not how it was for me, and I don't think that's how it is for most trans people. Whether you transition or not, it's all a swirl of who we are now mixed up with who we were in the past and how we got here. The past and present continue to interact." And that, she believes, is something all humans can find relatable.

Reed told her story specifically in "Prodigal Sons," but she wanted "As One" to tell a universal story.

"It draws on some of my personal experiences, but the character is a fictional protagonist," she said. "That gave us more freedom to cover more ground and explore the thematic development of this opera. It was interesting to take advantage of the great expansiveness that the form of opera has."

The quartet and singers offered a preview of the work in Logan last summer as part of the workshop process. Anne Francis Bayless, Fry Street's cellist, said the response was encouraging. "It speaks very, very highly of this community, and specifically the university community, that we've had nothing but great support," Francis Bayless said. "People think, 'Oh, gosh, it's small-town Logan,' but there's so much going on here. In recent years, the arts have been very strongly promoted as part of [USU President Stan Albrecht's] mission — that plus [Caine College of the Arts dean] Craig Jessop."

She said Tuesday's audience will see "a much more intimate performance than you expect when you hear the word 'opera.' … People will be immediately drawn into somebody's search for identity. That's something most people struggle with, so it feels very universal. It's ultimately very uplifting and beautiful."




Chamber opera

Baritone Kelly Markgraf, mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert and the Fry Street Quartet will perform “As One,” a one-act chamber opera.

When » Tuesday, April 7, 7:30 p.m.

Where » Utah State University Performance Hall, 1090 E. 675 North, Logan

Tickets » $10-$15; 435-797-8022, arts.usu.edu or room L101 of the Chase Fine Arts Center