‘As One’: e pluribus unum

Portland Opera production dramatizes inner journey to self-knowledge

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland Opera’s As One is, on one hand, about one type of transgender experience (there are many); on the other hand, it’s not really about being transgender, any more than the Barber of Seville is about being a barber. The story—yet another hero’s quest—traces a journey to self awareness; it’s a story about how we integrate the disparate elements of our fragmented selves into a unified personal identity.

The idea has deep roots in esoteric philosophy. Alchemical traditions around the world speak of uniting the various parts of the initiate’s fragmented soul, and we hear echoes of the same idea in Whitman‘s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Lilly’s “Responsibility starts with a satisfactory coalition between one’s self and the demanding 10 trillion cells of one’s own body,” and in headier science fiction such as Gene Wolfe’s sci-fi puzzle box Book of the New Sun, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Jungians call it individuation.

Hannah Penn and Lee Gregory star in Portland Opera’s production of ‘As One.’ Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

The libretto by Pulitzer-winner Mark Campbell and documentary filmmaker Kimberly Reed (who also contributed filmed backgrounds in lieu of backdrops, a practical and entertaining staging strategy that should become the norm in these pocket operas) presents a raw and honest and refreshingly subtle series of vignettes exploring one modern woman’s journey (fictional, but inspired by Reed’s life). As One is fundamentally a coming-of-age and coming-out story, so the hero’s journey encompases not only youth-to-maturity and closet-to-pride but also male-to-female: Hannah is transgender, and the two singers portray her before and after her transition. Local mezzo Hannah Penn (whom we last heard as The Fox in Opera Theater Oregon’s production of The Little Prince) plays Hannah After; bass-baritone Lee Gregory plays Hannah Before.

Composer Laura Kaminsky writes in a vivid, plain-spoken American idiom that reminds me of Caroline Shaw and Lou Harrison: the music flows and surges and is generally quite tonal and beautiful. When it gets scary, it gets really scary; when it gets funny, it doesn’t get too funny. Her score for As One is theater music as much as it is opera, and as much a song-cycle as either: a dense 75-minute coming-of-age story scored for two singers and string quartet and an occasionally singing conductor.

Universal Experience, Personal Journey

Hannah’s journey is a hero’s journey—complete with familiar exile-crisis-triumph arc—and it would be tempting to say that As One is not about being transgender at all. But that would be disingenuous; after all, Barber of Seville and its prequel, Marriage of Figaro, very much are about the experience of servitude, dramatizing the lives of barbers and other servants (same goes for La Boheme and bohemians, etc. ad infinitum). One desirable outcome of such visibilization is certainly greater compassion for servants and bohemians and transgender people. But no less significant is the ritual of the transcendent human spirit, a ritual older than the oldest human stories, a ritual that encompasses coming-of-age and coming-out and all the rest, a ritual to which opera—with its roots in literature and medieval psychodrama—is especially well-suited.

The enduring value of opera lies precisely in this power to uncover the universality of human experience, elevating the unique experiences of an individual or community, writing them large across the canvas of grand musical theater and—hopefully—helping to close that empathy gap that other present-day composers like Lang, Kahane, Mazzoli, Wolfe (etc. ad infinitum) so eloquently confront in their work.

This universality is the reason As One is the most-produced new opera in the country: it’s a fresh, contemporary opera about personal transformation. Anyone who’s ever joined the military or a religion (or left one), or gone off to (or back to) college, or quit drinking, or left an abusive partner, or moved to another country, or even done some therapy or changed careers already knows a lot about Hannah’s story. Reed, upon whose life the opera is loosely based, is worth quoting in full (from her recent ArtsWatch interview):

“This story about growing and changing is a very fundamental human story that so many people relate to. Some people relate to it on the plane of gender, sometimes they don’t, but we all go through that process. In the processing of As One, hopefully what happens is that audiences replicate the transformation that Hannah undergoes. To watch that happen, to see it in people’s eyes after they experience it is a tremendous joy. That’s why we all made the piece.”

Composer Laura Kaminsky

And if you’re familiar with opera, you also already know a lot about Hannah’s story. Tamino, Orpheus, Siegfried, et al —all engage in mythic journeys with that same basic shape. The big difference here, and the reason it’s more than a little about being transgender, is that it is overtly an inner, personal journey. The enchanted princess whom Hannah is sworn to rescue—the beautiful woman lost in darkness, guarded by dragons and a ring of fire—is her own true self.

And here’s where it gets all mythopoeic and universal: that’s all of us! We are all that lost princess. Jung called it the anima; occultist Lon Milo DuQuette called it the oldest fairy tale in the world. We are all sworn to rescue the princess and become her; it’s just that Hannah, transitioning from male boy to female woman, undergoes this myth in her own body.

Mythic and Quotidian

For all this mythic vastness, As One is really just a harmless and enchanting chamber opera. The music is pretty. The singing is lovely. It’s funny. Actually it’s really funny, and I think we can thank the entire creative team for that: Penn and Gregory’s performances; Campbell’s witty libretto and Reed’s ear for personal detail; Kaminsky’s almost filmic sense of pacing, space, and emotional shifts.

The whole collaboration had all these creative energies attuned to each other, working—ahem—as one. The libretto’s language is plain, idiomatic, present-day English—a very fine trend in contemporary opera—and Penn’s performance as Hannah After was especially charming. As she sang about flirting at a coffee shop and going through puberty a second time, Penn’s performance played with one of the dualities that run all through the work: this Heroic Transgender Woman is also a shy, awkward girl, straight out of a Hallmark Special. We’ve all felt that way, right?

Hannah Penn in ‘As One.’  Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Penn’s frank, deadpan comedic delivery was wonderful, nailing punchlines like: “And here / On my self-imposed island, I connect with the universe / And the universe tells me: ‘You are an idiot’” and “I devise corporeal variations on / A watched pot never boils” and “As if one puberty / Weren’t awkward enough” and “I’m lurching past fjords / And road signs with slashed o’s / I attempt a yodel / Then remember that yodeling / Isn’t Norwegian” with just the right amount of ironic self-effacing grace.

Later, goofy lines about failing at making jam and nearly drowning in a leaky skiff struck the same note, setting up a lovely payoff near the end, when these cute failings all fall together into Hannah’s joyous embrace of her full self. After telling her she is an idiot, the Universe tells her “It’s a very simple equation / You are not happy / You can be happy.” If that isn’t the whole meaning of life, I don’t know what is. She makes another attempt at jam, fixes the leaky boat, finally sees the Northern Lights (as do we, thanks to Reed’s film-set). Hannah is human, all too human, warts and all, and that’s beautiful, and it’s transcendent, and it’s also pretty funny.

Gregory’s performance as Hannah Before—the little boy who grew up to become Hannah—played the same balance of mythic and quotidian. His opening number, a song about his paper route of all damn mundane things, got in a ton of exposition without ever feeling tedious—it’s pure charm, with that pre-adolescent longing we all feel when we find something profoundly soul-stirring, and Gregory was brilliant in playing his rough masculinity against the character’s child-like innocence and exuberance. But there began another of the opera’s dualities: Hannah Before hides his longing, as he becomes aware that a boy in a blouse will not be accepted (even if “the papers still get delivered”).

Lee Gregory in ‘As One.’ Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

As Part One unfolds, Hannah Before grows increasingly conflicted and agitated over being forced into the wrong gender, singing in “Cursive” about practicing “A firm grip / A taut wrist / A watchful eye” and feeling “Controlled / Constrained / Constricted / Confined.” In “Perfect boy” this inner tension explodes into desperate athletic success, and in “Entire of itself” Hannah Before rejects John Donne’s “No man is an island”: “I am the lone / Dissenting voice / In the classroom / I rise and declare / To a sea of non-islanders: ‘It isn’t true, I am an island.’”

Another duality: later, after Hannah After escapes an attacker in a parking lot, she researches violence against transgender people and discovers that she is not an island after all. She is a woman, a trans woman, and she is not safe. In this moment she discovers, as all women should, that she is not alone. I was astonished by how much terror and anguish Penn put into this number, “Out of Nowhere,” the opera’s only really dark moment.

One As Two, Two as One

As One was composed for a married couple, mezzo Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Kelly Markgraf, and the relationship between Hannah After and Hannah Before throughout the opera echoes this intimacy. Reed and Campbell’s libretto and Kaminsky’s score interweave the vocal lines, deftly shifting their roles around as the story progressed, a neat narrative and scoring device that got me thinking of the Fun Home musical, in which Alison Bechdel is played by three different actors simultaneously, and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, with its countertenor and contralto duets.

This casting trick fleshed out the character considerably, giving her depth and complexity and subtlety, revealing her multitudes. Hannah After appeared in childhood scenes, singing as Hannah Before’s inner and future self; in later scenes, Hannah Before remained as the little boy whom Hannah After remembers but no longer identifies with. He’s who she used to be, inner child and shadow, the unformed and conflicted youth who grew into the mature and integrated adult.

That’s another universal human thing As One plays with: we don’t have to change genders to feel that way about our inner child. Penn and Gregory played this duality perfectly, caring for each other, evoking a tender communal continuity of self, a joyous integration of the multitudes of which we are all constructed—which is, of course, where we came in, with alchemy and St. Alia of the Knife and Lilly’s coalition. In the end, As One is not just about self-actualization, but also demonstrates a path to achieving it. Through love, acceptance, courage, and endurance, we become as one.

Musically and dramatically, As One is thoroughly on the modern end of what Portland Opera does; if you enjoyed David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion and The Difficulty of Crossing a Field summer before last, this gorgeous little pocket opera is for you. Tickets are here. It closes Saturday. If you live in Portland, you have two more chances to experience it live; if you’re willing to drive to Eugene in May, you’ve got two extra chances.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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