A Transgender Woman’s Operatic Path to Self-Acceptance

A Transgender Woman’s Operatic Path to Self-Acceptance

Kelly Markgraf & Sasha Cooke share the role of the transgender protagonist in 'As One' | Photo by Lynn Lane

Often, as queer folks, our stories are told as reactions to those around us. Coming out tales generally revolve around how that act is received by ________ [Fill in the blank: friends, family, religion, community, etc.] and the suspense is whether they will accept us. We’re just American Gladiators navigating an obstacle course of bigotry, bullying and rejection. In a theatrical or literary context, this makes some sense: Coming out provides conflict; it makes good drama.

But the brilliance of As One, the new chamber opera that had its world premiere this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is that the drama is (mostly) internal. With only one character, Hannah, that choice allows for a complex and nuanced portrayal of the coming out experience on stage. There are no “there’s something I have to tell you” scenes, no dramatization of strained relationships. Hannah doesn’t have to justify her identity to the outside world. Instead, drama is wrung from the obstacle course within, where she must scale mountains of confusion, transverse gulfs of isolation and dodge bullets of self-doubt.

The story of Hannah is inspired in part by the story of Kimberly Reed, a filmmaker and Out100 honoree, whose 2008 documPresented by American Opera Projects. Photo by Ken Howardentary Prodigal Sons explored her transition from male to female and the strained relationship with her adopted brother. Reed is a co-librettist here, sharing the writing credit with Mark Campbell. The simplicity of their language gives the opera a stream-of-consciousness ease and accessibility; they prefer small, sometimes humorous, personal observations to the sweeping pronouncements often favored by opera librettos.

Asone Trans Opera
As One is, wisely, not a biography. Hannah has just enough specific experiences to come across as a real person. But the world around her is painted in broad brushstrokes (no other character is given a name or makes an appearance), which allows her story to feel universal, even archetypal. The biggest coup is the double casting of Hannah, portrayed by the baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (an actual husband and wife duo off-stage).

Voice is often a signifier of gender but the opera’s creators potently play with it here as a more symbolic marker of identity. The split-role also uniquely illustrates the transgender experience in a fresh way by giving full autonomy to the character of Hannah throughout the spectrum of her transition.

The most poignant moments of As One are when these voices meet: the low and the high, the masculine and the feminine, trying to relate and find peace with one another. The device cleverly and effortlessly reveals the duality of someone grappling with gender identity, a concept difficult to represent in a theatrical (or cinematic) setting.

Composer Laura Kaminsky, who first conceived of the project (her first opera), has created a musical world that captures both the discordance of Hannah’s struggle and her growth toward personal harmony. Moments of playfulness, innocence and discovery — Hannah as a young boy on a paper route, hearing the word “transgender” on TV, being called “Miss” for the first time — are tempered by moments of fear and loneliness: as a physical attack in a dark parking lot; the first Christmas away from home; a solo trek to Norway. Kaminsky swirls all of these experiences together in layers of competing sounds and rhythms, revealing a complex emotional portrait of Hannah’s inner world. Her score and the Fry Street Quartet (placed center stage and subtly integrated into the opera’s staging) are, in many ways, Hannah’s soul.

Opera is usually associated with its epic scale — large choruses and orchestras, opulent sets, grand historical settings — the success and beauty of As One is that it reveals epic emotions within an intimate frame. In doing so, it also reclaims the coming out story as a personal one that relies on no one’s acceptance but our own.

Pictured Above: BAM production photo by Ken Howard

For more information on As One, visit OperaProjects.org

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