For some, classical music is a soothing respite from the tragedy and political turmoil of the 20th century—but for many, it’s a way of addressing the social and political injustices of our world head-on. When we are willing to take time, sit down, and truly listen, classical music can be a catalyst for critical discussion, sociopolitical transformation, and meaningful change.
New York-based composer Laura Kaminsky is a strong proponent of the latter view, and has composed an entire library of musical works addressing the major sociopolitical issues of our time, ranging from sustainability and environmental issues to issues of war, genocide, and basic human rights.
November 11-19, Seattle Opera presents a new production of Kaminsky’s As One: a chamber opera about a trans woman named Hannah’s journey to self-discovery—as told through the voices of two singers.
Composed in 2014 with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, the 90-minute chamber opera traces Hannah’s experiences from her youth in the suburbs to her college years on the West Coast and adulthood far beyond.
Directed by L. Zane Jones and conducted by John Keene, Seattle Opera’s production casts baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Hannah—but audience members may be surprised to discover that one part does not end where the other begins. Rather, the two voices are intricately intertwined throughout the opera, illustrating the fullness and complexity of the trans experience—as one.
We sat down with Kaminsky for an inside look at this cutting-edge production:
Second Inversion: What were your major inspirations for composing As One?
Laura Kaminsky: I wanted to compose an opera about a transgender individual on the journey to self-acceptance/self-actualization, and decided it needed to be both an extremely intimate piece, but one that, in its intimacy, would be universal and therefore grand.
Two singers—a mezzo soprano and a baritone—share the role of Hannah, As One’s sole protagonist. The two share the singing from beginning to end, as opposed to a less nuanced presentation where the baritone plays Hannah before, the boy, and the mezzo is Hannah after, the girl.
The whole point is that human beings are on a fluid gender spectrum and by having the two voices always on stage and always being Hannah, the audience experiences her fullness as she goes on her journey of self-discovery.
The viola, the middle voice of the string quartet, represents the soul of Hannah, and has several motives that recur and are transformed throughout the work. Also, the opening music of “Paper Route” is transformed in “To Know” and again in “Two Cities,” as these are all arias about self-awareness and the joy of knowing—and being—who one is at their core, and accepting this, even with the difficulties that may be encountered.
The two scenes “Home for the Holidays” and “Dear Son”—about an exchange of letters from Hannah to Mom and then Mom back to Hannah—are poignant depictions of the time when every young adult needs to find space and to begin the separation from parents that will allow for a fully realized and independent life, and the parent knows that the child must do this, but worries. The music for these are related, and they bookend a gentle aria, “A Christmas Story,” about Hannah’s coffee shop encounter with another lonely soul on Christmas Day.
Mark and Kim and I all were very clear from the beginning of our work together on As One that we wanted to tell a specific story about one person’s journey to self-actualization from youth to adulthood. We wanted to make our protagonist fully human and relatable, so that all who encounter As One are able to identify and see that Hannah’s story is both personal and universal, that all of us need to figure out who we are, that there is some pain along the way, but that an honest journey of self-discovery and acceptance can lead to a meaningful life.
We also wanted to increase awareness of the terrible violence against trans people across the globe, and that there is much work to be done, still, to address the ignorance, fear and hatred that continues to this day. The personal is, indeed, political, and Hannah’s victimization at the hands of a menacing bully who attacks her in a dark parking lot, and her subsequent realization that she is not alone, that there are others, and that the world is not safe, is a difficult but important scene—“Out of Nowhere”—but one we all believe needs to be included.
SI: When most people think of opera, they think of 19th century Europe, historic costumes, often-outdated storylines, and 3-hour performances in Italian. What are some of the things that make As One different from (and perhaps more accessible than) your average opera?
LK: In a way, your question is your answer here! As One is under 80 minutes, no intermission; it’s in English—and clear and understandable English. The story is both current and societally relevant, but it is also universal and timeless, so it resonates on many levels. That there are only two singers and a string quartet makes for an intimate theatrical experience and, in most productions (but not this one in Seattle), the use of an original film (by Kim) for the set exemplifies the use of multimedia so exciting to today’s audiences. (Kim, Mark and I are all excited to see what Seattle Opera has decided to do in terms of staging and design given that they are not using the film.) And, again, depending on each director’s interpretation, there are often places where the audience is actively engaged in the performance, bringing it even closer to home.
SI: Many of your scores, including As One, explore sociopolitical topics—what do you feel makes opera a compelling vehicle for exploring these multifaceted issues, and for exploring transgender issues in particular?
LK: It’s all about the storytelling and the power of the human voice to touch us deeply and immediately. It is possible to write more abstract instrumental music on a socio-political theme, and I have many such pieces. Vukovar Trio is dedicated to the victims of ethnic cleansing; my percussion concerto, Terra Terribilis, and my sixth string quartet, Rising Tide, confronts issues around environmental sustainability; Transformations II, which was commissioned by the St. Helens Quartet (who are performing in As One), was composed in the aftermath of 9/11, are some of the instrumental works on sociopolitical topics—and any of these could have been operas instead of instrumental music but in conceiving them, I wanted to use instrumental forces. But for As One, it had to be an opera, not an instrumental work. It just had to be sung.
SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of composing music for two distinct voices portraying the same person?
LK: The most important thing for Mark, Kim, and me in crafting the story, and then for me to set it musically, was not to have the first half be “the boy” and the second half “the girl.” So structuring the arc of the piece to have both singers always playing Hannah, before, during and after, was a lovely challenge—determining who would sing which aria and convey which piece of the story and which parts of Hannah’s emotional journey. Technically, I had to be sensitive to the few notes that the two voice types have in common and decide how best to use them to create the unity we all wanted—the “as one” aspect.
SI: As One originally premiered in 2014 at the BAM Fisher in New York City, produced by American Opera Projects, and has since been performed around the U.S. and in Europe. In what ways will the Seattle Opera production different from previous performances?
LK: This will be the first production that will be staged without using Kim’s film for the set, so that is something we are all eager to see. Also, this is the first African-American cast, and I think that this will add another layer of complexity and nuance. African American trans women are among the most ostracized and victimized, so casting this with two black singers will be incredibly powerful. I am delighted to say that I’ve known Jorell Williams for over a decade, when he was a student and I was the dean of music at Purchase Conservatory, and so it is a great thrill to be working with him now.
SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing. How has being a woman shaped your experiences as a composer?
LK: It’s just a piece of the whole. I am a composer. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a married lesbian. I’m a secular humanist Jew. I’m a progressive thinker. Oh, yes, and I am a woman. It’s shaped everything, as have all the other parts of who I am have, and sometimes it’s been a challenge, and sometimes a blessing, but it’s all I know. This isn’t the best answer, obviously, because it really doesn’t answer anything, but I do think that the day will come when the question doesn’t even have to be asked.
However, I can say that this is a good moment for women in opera. I have been the beneficiary of two grants administered by Opera America from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation to support women composers. The first was in support of As One; the second is in support of the new opera that Mark and Kim and I have been commissioned to create for Houston Grand Opera, Some Light Emerges. And Opera America is taking an advocacy and leadership position with its new initiative, the Women’s Opera Network.
SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs?
LK: Write the best music you can. Go to concerts. Meet performers, presenters, and producers in the field. Be a part of the larger community. Be brave!
Seattle Opera’s production of Laura Kaminsky’s As One runs Nov. 11-19 at Washington Hall in Seattle’s Central District. Performances are evenings at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 4 p.m. All performances are ages 21+ with a cash bar. For tickets and additional information, click here.