“As One,” Laura Kaminsky’s beautifully articulate opera had an all too brief production run at Merkin Hall, in the Kaufman Center, at the end of May, thanks to New York City Opera, helping kick off the biggest Pride season New York City has seen so far. Kaminsky’s work as the composer, as well as devising the concept for the work, along with Pulitzer Prize winning librettist Mark Campbell and librettist and filmmaker Kimberly Reed, take us with Hannah on her journey from the boy she was born as to the woman she has always known she could be. I attended the world premiere in September 2014 and, in the ensuing five years, the work has developed even greater beauty and depth. This is a multi-media presentation, and the 27th production in five years, and Kimberly Reed’s atmospheric video adds even greater gravitas.
Musicians were located to audience left: Andrea Shultz and Yana Goichman on violin, Daniel Panner on viola, and Mark Shuman on cello, conducted by Steven Osgood, who had conducted the world premiere in 2014. They were concertedly present, and very much part of the richness of the experience.
Ron Kadri’s set provided versatile pieces that add to the world of imagination. They suggest, rather than depict, and I especially enjoyed Hannah before on the perennial paper route–the exhilaration of riding a bike was fully evident, even while the bike was not. Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design enhanced and Barney Fitgerald’s costumes gave us the flavor of the fluidity of Hannah as she emerges from her chrysalis, recognizing the man she was and the woman she becomes.
Kaminsky developed this work while Composer-in-Residence at American Opera Projects (AOP) and we can feel the America where Hannah grows up. We are drawn into the world of Hannah before’s adolescent wonder and confusion. The cognitive dissonance of being separated into a group with the boys for sex education, punctuated appropriately with sevenths, as this interval and the one that Hannah is enduring are fear-provoking. And all of our 12-year-old selves were vibrating in sympathetic anxiety and joy at the memories these gifted artists evoked.
Michael Kelly is Hannah before, Blythe Gaissert is Hannah after, and the two of them, under Matt Gray’s expert direction, gave us the full measure of a soul. We are not seeing halves of a person, we are seeing different aspects of a person, who struggles against the conflicting signals of the world. When Hannah before is delivering newspapers, and performing the boy-task perfectly, we see the scintillating lightness of being felt in the tactile satisfaction of a job well done at a beautifully lonely time of day, even while tasting the forbidden fruit of what she knew she must become. Masterful use of the spare set pieces–a chair becomes a bicycle, a mirror frame becomes a boat–and the mirroring of some costume pieces all make powerful statements. Yet subtle interactions as described in “Sex ed,” where there are some scary sevenths, put all of our hearts aquiver. In one section, a character onscreen is seen running toward a rainbow, a harbinger of the discovery Hannah will soon make about herself. And when the library opens vistas she has never imagined, both Kelly and Gaissert show us the anima and animus coming together in wonder and realization of self.
The special challenges of becoming that authentic self is explored in Part II. The “Two cities” section gives Hannah the burgeoning fruition, even as we see Hannah as pensive and joyful. “Close” is so beautifully done and in the Christmas suite, “Home for the holidays,” “A Christmas story” and “Dear son,” I feel Hannah experiences herself as a holy trinity–but this time, the Maid, the Matron and the Crone: very different from her early life. In “Out of nowhere,” Hannah realizes that community is survival after an encounter more threatening than any before. Rounding out the section, “I go on to…” goes from jangly sevenths to sonorous beauty and lush sensuality, as Hannah leans in.
Part III, Norway, is Hannah’s luminousness coalescing into her fully integrated self, celebrating what she was, laughing at herself, and excited about what is to be. And we are together with her, “As One.”
While this production lasted only four performances, there will be opportunities to see it again. After all, it has become the most-produced modern opera and it is a must-see. For more information, visit www.asoneopera.com