modern opera

‘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.

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