“This project has changed me completely,” Laura Kaminsky told me, “as an artist and as a composer. It’s been an amazing experience so far. For months, I was taking Hannah’s spirit everywhere with me. She was haunting our household.”
Hannah is the protagonist of As One, a chamber opera receiving its Washington debut early next month in a production from UrbanArias (hereafter UA). That local group, which bills itself as “DC’s contemporary opera company,” will present four performances of As One, Oct. 3-10, at The Paul Sprenger Theatre in Atlas Performing Arts Center on H St., NE.
Laura Kaminsky is the composer of the piece. The former Artistic Director of Symphony Space and of Town Hall in New York City, Kaminsky is currently Composer-in-Residence at the Brooklyn-based American Opera Projects (AOP). I spoke with her over the phone and asked her about the genesis of the project.
“It’s an interesting story. I have been a composer my whole life, but not really of songs. I have primarily been a composer of instrumental music. I always wrote with a story in mind, but I wasn’t living in the world of setting text. I hadn’t thought I’d write an opera.”
While Dean of the Music Conservatory at SUNY Purchase, Kaminsky met AOP’s General Director Charles Jarden. AOP was partnering with the school on a production of two operas by American composer Lee Hoiby. “It was a lovely celebration of his work,” she said of that accomplished and admired artist, who died shortly thereafter.
As Kaminsky began “immersing myself in the production, I got to know Charles. I became drawn to the world of opera.”
At a time when so doing was not possible in this country, Kaminsky had gone to Canada to marry Rebecca Allan. (Allan, a painter, collaborated with Kaminsky on The Crossroads Project, a performance piece inspired by their environmental activism.) As a same-sex couple, they were closely following marriage developments in this country.
Enter The New York Times and an article that Kaminsky read one morning, as neighboring New Jersey prepared to vote on gay marriage. The article centered on a heterosexual couple with two kids. “The husband was beginning to transition, to become the woman she really was. If, in fact, ‘he’ became a woman and the couple stayed together, would they lose all the rights and protections they had had for twenty years? And I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is such an opera.’”
Kaminsky decided, “I had to write an opera about a transgender person and to explore, ‘What is the core of one’s self? What does the wife now feel about the transformation, as it changes many of the dynamics of their relationship? As [her spouse] is now presumably happier as a fully-realized person, what does that do to their relationship and to how they operate as a couple?’”
Enter two singers, the baritone Kelly Markgraf and the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. “I had wanted to work on a project with Sasha and Kelly, thought that it would be great to do something together. And then I had the idea for them to play one character who is transitioning, from the young boy to the adult woman she becomes. It would be the story of the whole spectrum of the person, a journey of self, sung by two voices as one.” (The singers in the UA production are Luis Alejandro Orozco and Ashley Cutright.)
“That was the genesis of the idea. And, since I’m not from the world of opera, I didn’t know quite how to begin. I mentioned my idea to Charles, who said, ‘When you’re ready, let me know.’”
Enter the filmmaker Kimberly Reed. “A year went by. The idea was percolating. Then I saw Kim Reed’s film Prodigal Sons.” Reed is transgender and her film chronicles “going back to her twentieth High School reunion, to reconnect with family and friends, now as a woman. The film was so powerful, beautiful, evocative. I said to myself, ‘I have to find this person!’”
Kaminsky, in addition to knowing that she wanted the piece to be a chamber opera employing a string quartet and a pair of voices that would become unified as one voice, “knew I wanted to use film.” The film is silent, and “creates spaces, places, and imagery that captures each of the lyrics and the journey of Hannah, from her experiences as a young boy to finding herself in Norway.” Additionally, the film operates as scenery, so the piece becomes a “portable project,” that can work anywhere from “a big opera stage to a rec hall, a small gathering space. This was important to Kim, too, as we both wanted the work to reach as many people as possible.”
Enter one additional collaborator. After Kaminsky tracked down Reed, the two began exploring the film component. “We worked on that conceptually and had a sense of how the opera would look and sound, but we were still looking for the story itself, and were in search of a librettist. Then, I had the great fortune of meeting Mark Campbell. We were on a panel together for Opera America and, after every comment he made, I thought to myself, ‘I really like the way he thinks.’ So I asked Mark whether he might suggest someone for Kim and me to work with.”
Campbell, intrigued by the concept, surprised Kaminsky by suggesting himself, and she was flattered. “He is the most famous, the busiest librettist around. But I said to him, ‘Kim and you have to click. She is integral to this.’ The three of us spent time together, and it was electric. We began to imagine what this would be like, telling her story, and our stories through her story. The story is specific, but it is also universal. Then Mark and Kim said, ‘Go away; we are ready to create the story now.’” Campbell and Reed had decided to co-write the libretto and while doing so, clarify the use of film. Kaminsky left and, several months later, the team presented her an “amazing libretto and the beautifully wrought character of ‘Hannah’.”
Jarden then told them that AOP wanted to commission the piece, and they won a prestigious grant, which Jarden described in an email as a residency grant from the Kennedy Center’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management (Michael Kaiser’s brainchild) administered jointly with Brooklyn Academy of Music. “The award was a residency at BAM, with administrative help and a technical subsidy and mentoring — mentoring that was particularly helpful from BAM’s Marketing Department. We learned, and we eventually sold out,” Jarden continued.
October 3 – 10, 2015
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Details and Tickets
The libretto was completed over the Summer of 2013. Following a libretto workshop in November, Kaminsky began composing in January. There followed another workshop in June of 2014. Then Kaminsky and Reed travelled to Norway, where part of the piece takes place. “I wrote music while Kim shot footage. It was an incredible time, with 21 hours of daylight, and both Kim and I were busy for all of those hours every day we were there.”
A third workshop took place in Utah that July, and then rehearsals began in August for a September opening at BAM to a strong reception. Eric C. Simpson’s review in New York Classical Review proclaimed: “Laura Kaminsky is responsible for both concept and music, and her remarkable score always seems to be in perfect harmony with the libretto. The music fits naturally onto the text, her lyrical vocal writing giving the words room to expand.” David Allen wrote in The New York Times that “Ms. Kaminsky has sensitive collaborators in Mark Campbell, who wrote the libretto for Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, and Kimberly Reed, whose documentary, Prodigal Sons, traces her own transgender life. They face a quandary, solved with winning humor and a satisfying emotional arc.”
Enter UrbanArias. After two more productions (at Utah State University and West Edge Opera in Oakland), the UA performance is “next on the docket and I’m so excited,” Kaminsky told me. Librettist Campbell’s Bastianello and Lucrezia was produced by UA in 2014 and the company has also commissioned a world premiere from Campbell. (The Whole Truth, on which Campbell collaborates with Robert Paterson). Referring to Robert Wood, General Director and President of UA, and the Conductor of its As One, Kaminsky said, “I know that Mark had talked to him about it early on, and Charles and he [Wood] had talked, and I’m thrilled that he wanted to take it on — our fourth production in a year.”
UA’s Wood described his company’s interest in As One, during an email exchange, as a “quick embrace. I’m drawn to well-written, interesting, and moving stories, which As One definitely is. Plus, the music has real moments of rapture and transcendence. That combination is always a winning one for our audience, so I was eager to program it.” Kaminsky added, “I’m very curious what the team has come up with for Washington, DC.” Hinting that she was aware of some of the plans that Stage Director Octavio Cardenas intends at UA, she told me that she won’t be “a spoiler.”
Wood, however, offered insight into one aspect of this iteration: “We’re giving As One a new production, but what is perhaps most different in our version is the casting. This is a delicate subject, but I had a particular reaction when I became acquainted with the opera. There is a scene in which a list of transgender people who have been murdered is read out. It is a long list. Based on the names and countries of origin of the victims, it was immediately clear to me that most of them were people of color. That really hit me hard. So I decided to cast our production with two wonderful singers of Hispanic origin. To me, it was important to acknowledge that transgender people come from every conceivable background.”
I asked Kaminsky whether the writers were still tweaking the piece. “We’re not rewriting it. We’re happy with it. The libretto and the music are now fixed.” The invitation to the UA team is “don’t tamper with these, but please shed new light on it. We love that so many people now own it in different ways, and that the core material, while fixed, opens many channels for interpretation.”
Meanwhile, the world has changed since the days when a same-sex couple in this country would need to go to Canada to be married, and the UrbanArias production of As One arrives at a moment when the transgender experience occupies an increasingly prominent place in the cultural landscape. Referring to that, Jarden said, in his email, “I’d like to point out that for a new work of art that is original and daring, we were able to successfully attract a group of stake-holders to invest in the commissioning and development of this work — because the story had not been told in the operatic/chamber music or hybrid artwork field when we began it in 2012 or so — but world events caught up in an Olympic way and our project was news.” As One, he continued, “being larger than most [AOP premieres] in scope…stands out because of its debut on a prestigious platform with nationwide press attention.”
I asked Wood to talk about the relationship between AOP and UA, as each has overlap with the other as regards mission and repertoire. “AOP and UrbanArias have had a great relationship since I founded the company five years ago. AOP has commissioned and workshopped so many wonderful operas, and we’ve picked up a few of them now: Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears, Nora, In the Great Outdoors by Daniel Felsenfeld, and now As One.” Jarden estimates that As One “numbers above the two dozen mark in AOP’s ‘premiere’ catalogue.”
I ended my conversation with Kaminsky by asking her to talk about her conversion to writing for opera, and she spoke about the “collaboration and community” that she has discovered in the world of opera, about how “powerful it is to tell a story through song.” She recalled “the moment reading that article when I thought, ‘Oh my God, opera is the perfect way to tell a story that’s so universal, yet so specific.’ You can heighten it through music to reach people. It’s how you feel when you know something to be true — I just knew. And it’s become like a compulsion. It’s almost like being possessed. I go into this other zone when I write for opera and find myself living in the world being created.”
And what about the future of the form? The audience is graying, the repertoire of many opera companies is primarily filled with existing work. Is Kaminsky hitching herself to a dying art?
“I think we are in a really great place for contemporary opera right now. There’s a lot of vitality in the field. The idea of opera as being for older people, being on a grand scale, being historic and elitist, is breaking down. There is a lot of accessible, relevant work being done that speaks to a broader audience than traditional opera does, and that’s all to the good.”
To illustrate her point, Kaminsky admitted that it can “feel good to put on a tux or a gown and drink champagne” at a place like the Met, but that there’s also other work that fits more with bluejeans and beer, and “more and more, new work is being created that appeals to an open-minded, adventure-seeking, and younger audience. I think opera is not going to die, but will flourish.
“This work does have an audience.”
[Full disclosure: Beginning in the last century, I was involved with Charles Jarden for some years and, through that relationship, attended many AOP events and became acquainted with many people involved with the company.]