As One stakes a claim as the first chamber opera to consider a “transgender experience”. Presented by Gertrude Opera at Midsumma 2020, this is the work’s Australian premiere season.
The work shows us the progression of a character from “Hannah Before” (baritone Joshua Erdelyi-Götz) to “Hannah After” (mezzo-soprano Morgan Carter). The roles are a consequence of how, as a male tween in a small town, Hannah began to suspect that this gender wasn’t the right fit for her.
As One, commissioned and developed by American Opera Projects, premiered in 2014 in Brooklyn, New York. The music and concept are by Laura Kaminski, with libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberley Reed. Reed also contributed the video projected behind the stage, and served as inspiration for the work, having made her own transgender journey.
The fifteen songs of As One are grouped into three parts. Part 1 begins with Paper Round, where the twelve-year-old Hannah Before begins to explore aspects of femininity, finding in Cursive that expressing this side at school might lead to a rebuke. The video, tempo of the musical offerings, and lyrics worked together well to establish Hannah’s growing awareness of her difference from the other boys.
Less successful was an attempt to encourage audience participation. Despite conductor Alexandra Enyart’s visit to centre stage to prompt us with No man is an island, most punters didn’t read the snippet from Meditation XVII by John Donne placed on our seats. The sentiment was (sort of) a motif in the work, but the segment seemed worse than unnecessary. Regrettably, this wasn’t the only questionable choice in As One, which could come across as somewhat uneven.
Part 2 of the work sees Hannah in college, maintaining a masculine image there, and exploring her feminine side in neighbouring San Francisco. The video footage of crossing the landmark Golden Gate Bridge to sanctuary was appropriate in heralding Hannah’s discovery of a place to be her real self. Other images were less effective, and at times the libretto could be quite prosaic.
Whilst this might be appropriate for the functional task of writing home to estranged parents, in other settings it seemed a missed opportunity to explore inner space. It was also quite unsatisfying (and unedifying) that matters such as the emotional changes brought on by the start of hormone treatment, or an existential crisis, were dismissed in a few lines.
A string quartet competently performed musical offerings, which could convey a manic feel. This was appropriate for when Hannah was attacked in a car park, and less so in other scenes. The general sameness of some sequences detracted from the work. This, coupled with curious decisions (like Hannah’s abrupt move to rural Norway in Part 3, away from her support network), created an impression that a clutter of ideas might have prevented the better ones from being advanced over the 75 minutes.
This was unfortunate, as there were some effective scenes in the work. Carter often had the better of the material. An account of the pleasure of flirting in a coffee shop with an attractive man communicated the human need to be seen and connect, as well as celebrating a milestone in their transition.
Perhaps moments such as this will give some audiences enough of a payoff. Others might have hoped for a deeper insight into the challenges faced by the transgender community.
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 23 January 2020 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 1 February 2020
For more information, visit: www.gertrudeopera.com.au for details.
Image: Gertrude Opera presents AS ONE – photo by Sarah Clarke
Review: Jason Whyte