Kimberly Reed: Always in Transition

Filmmaker's life story inspired libretto for Portland Opera's 'As One'

When Kimberly Reed was growing up in Helena, Montana, “it was hard to be an opera fan,” she remembers. There were no major opera companies around, but she did have one portal to opera.

“My father listened to the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday on Montana [National Public Radio], and I was right there with him,” Reed recalls. “My dad loved Turandot. He was a farm boy who went to school in St. Louis and saw a couple of operas that changed his life and that got passed down to me. [Opera] was always there — it was part of me growing up.”

‘As One’ film designer and co-librettist Kimberly Reed

Reed, who’s co-librettist and video projection designer for Portland Opera’s As One, now playing at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, didn’t grow up to be an opera singer. Instead, she gravitated to filmmaking — which “just seems like the same discipline as opera — the roots are apparent if you go back in history. Film grew out of theatrical presentation.”

Now, with her chamber opera As One (inspired by her life),  and other projects, Reed is making the transition from filmmaker to opera maker — the latest in a lifetime of transitions that inspired As One, which the Chicago Tribune called “the hottest new American opera of recent years.”

Named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” Reed has used her position as the first commercially released transgender filmmaker to tell compelling stories onscreen rather than onstage. After college at the University of California-Berkeley and earning a master’s degree in cinema at San Francisco State University, she worked as film and video editor in San Francisco, and an editor at Digital Film Magazine before moving to New York to make her own films. Reed’s work has been featured in national outlets such as the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, NPR, and the Moth Radio Hour, leading to fellowships with New York Foundation for the Arts, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Yaddo Artists’ Community. Her recent documentary Dark Money earned wide accolades for its portrait of how corporations corrupted her home state’s democratic elections.

Reed’s acclaim as a filmmaker emerged after her award-winning 2008 autobiographical film Prodigal Sons, which told the story of Reed’s return to Montana, where her great-grandparents had homesteaded the family farm. It shows her attending her 20-year class reunion at the high school where she’d starred as a quarterback — as a trans woman. It also depicted family drama like her turbulent relationship with her troubled brother, the surprising discovery of a family connection to Orson Welles, and much more.

‘As One’ creative team: Reed, Campbell, Kaminsky.

Composer Laura Kaminsky approached Reed with the idea of creating a film based on her life that Kaminsky would score. But Reed wanted As One to be different. “Prodigal Sons was autobiographical, and I was tired of talking about myself,” she explains. “I was wanting to move in different directions, thinking of creative ways to abstract my personal experience out of the foundation of what became As One.”

As the project evolved into an opera, they brought on renowned librettist Mark Campbell to co-create the text with Reed, who’d never before written an opera libretto. Kaminsky then composed musical settings for the 15 scenes.

The story traces the journey of its fictional protagonist, Hannah, from her small town origins to college to various encounters (some dangerous) and finally to a new country, where she arrives at crucial realizations about her own life. Two singers share the role, a baritone playing pre-transition Hannah and then a mezzo-soprano. Her transitions in space and time are depicted in Reed’s films, projected across five screens that transport the character to different settings.

Visual Storytelling

Telling such an intimate, single character story posed a dramatic challenge in a genre known for melodrama, political and military conflict, and other splashy subjects. The team wanted to avoid making a “message opera” — the word “transgender” never appears.

“In some ways, the subject matter is not operatic,” Reed acknowledges. “There aren’t these characters that are larger than life, emblematic, working out these huge battle with enormous stakes. We both had a sensibility grounded in the real, accessible, modern day, quiet dramas we all go through in our lives. The challenge of finding the drama in these quieter scenes was what we were up against in this piece. It breaks some rules in that so much of the drama is internal.”

Over a year of discussions, Reed and Campbell ultimately developed fifteen scenes “that felt like arias” to comprise Hannah’s character arc. Reed’s stylistically varied projections — sometimes realistically depicting a place, sometimes surreal, sometimes abstract— serve different functions. “Sometimes they underline a time and place realistically,” she says, “other times they operate in more surreal fashion, and in others, the role of the video is to provide commentary — other ways of elucidating the music and text you’re experiencing. The artistic design of the visual elements of the production have a shifting and transitioning role from scene to scene.” Reed strove to make the visuals not distract from the onstage action.

One scene, “Cursive,” depicts abstract representations of handwriting whose style becomes increasingly free over the course of the opera, following Hannah’s own liberation. “In ‘Paper Route,’ the idea is for people to feel like they’re riding a bike,” Reed explains, “in that innocent frame of mind.” “Sex Ed” uses archival footage to spoof the educational films of the 1950s. The visual and musical freneticism of “Perfect Boy” reflects how “the perfection that Hannah is trying to attain in the aria is unattainable, for good reason,” Reed says. “It’s designed to be almost impossible to sing right.”

“Cursive”

Reed traveled to Norway to film the sequence of that name, and shot “Two Cities,” in which a drive between two metro areas becomes a metaphor for the experience of gender, on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Using video rather than props to set the scenes is “much more flexible creatively,” than fabricating sets and employing standard props, she says. “If you were building sets, you’d find yourself more constrained because of the practicalities of production.” They also make As One portable and affordable to smaller companies — one reason why, since its 2014 premiere, it’s become the most produced new opera in North America, and a comfortable fit in Newmark Theatre.

Self Reflections

Despite As One’s intimate storyline and 21st century projection tech, Reed believes it’s ideally suited for opera.

“I think that opera lends itself to self reflection,” she muses. “Think of almost any aria where the scene clears out and the world drops away and we have one character expressing their emotions in song and text. That’s almost always self-reflective —and that’s what Hannah’s journey is all about.”

Creating As One and Prodigal Sons has certainly provided Reed herself with important self-reflection. “Each of us has own experience and it’s the only one we know, so it feels like your world must be the world,” she says. “The process of going through this a couple times — one nonfictional, one fictional — I think I learned how to take a little bit easier on myself during those bumpy years, to have a little compassion for myself and for other folks going through transgender transition. Just to go through it can throw you for a loop.

“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s always this harrowing thing. But it is at a certain level something all of us go through: the transition from being young to being old, and going through stuff — and then laying the complicated prism of gender on top, it gets pretty complicated pretty quick. Looking back on my life and how I dealt with my journey, it just made it easier to forgive myself for not understanding some stuff right away — to give myself a break.”

Hannah Penn and Lee Gregory star in Portland Opera’s production of ‘As One.’

As One has inspired audience members to similar insights. The opera has earned critical raves from the New York Times, LA Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Washington Post, Seattle Times and more. Though revolving around a single character’s gender transition, As One’s diary-like monologues use general emotional language that makes the story relevant to anyone going through significant life changes. Reed has seen its effect on audiences in previous productions.

“My favorite part of this whole process is seeing people are affected by this art,” she says. “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.”

Reed’s transitions continue as she moves into other roles — as producer, writer, director, librettist — in productions with Houston Grand Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and San Francisco Opera, and Santa Fe Opera. Her next project with Kaminsky, with San Francisco’s Opera Parallele, has a title that seems perfect for Portland. Today It Rains, inspired by the colorful life of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, opened in San Francisco this month.

Maybe one day, some kid growing up outside of America’s major metropolitan communities will hear one of Reed’s operas on the radio, and another life will be transformed.

Portland Opera’s As One runs March 22-30, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland. Tickets online or 503-241-1802. A version of this story also appears in Portland Opera’s magazine Toi Toi Toi.

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