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'As One' an intimate look into quest to find one's true self

| Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
David Bachman
Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as “Hannah after” and baritone Brian Vu as “Hannah before” in Pittsburgh Opera's 'As One.'

What began as a simple burst of inspiration has become a life-changing experience for composer Laura Kaminsky. From a simple “vague but clear notion… to write an opera about a transgender person,” she and librettists Kimberly Reed and Mark Campbell created the chamber opera “As One,” which has beaten the odds to become the most-produced new opera in America.

Composed for two singers and a string quartet, the opera tells the story of Hannah, who travels the world on a quest to find herself, not only as a member of the trans community but as a member of the human race. “As One,” which will be presented by the Pittsburgh Opera Feb. 18 to 26 at its Strip District headquarters, points toward the modern in both the subject matter and its vision of the future of opera.

“There's a lot of activity in the opera world” around smaller, more intimate pieces, the composer says.

Kaminsky has composed for casts of singers and musical ensembles from tiny to orchestral, but when it came to writing “As One,” she thought small.

The cast of “As One” is only two singers: baritone Brian Vu as “Hannah before,” and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as “Hannah after.”

This intimacy is by design, says Kaminsky. “It's like a monodrama for two singers. I wanted an intimate ensemble to support that, so I decided to use the unified voice of a string quartet.”

Like the two singers embodying one person, the string quartet is four instruments with their own distinct sounds, but creating an organic whole.

“The viola is the middle voice of the string quartet,” Kaminsky says, “and I assigned the viola the soul of Hannah, metaphorically speaking. There's a lot of important music belonging to the viola that represents Hannah's deepest self, and so that instrument is very central.”

Four musicians, two singers and one conductor bring the total performer count to seven, a far cry from the symphonic traditions of the grand opera. Though Kaminsky has written for the large traditional opera world before, she prefers chamber opera.

“The chamber music idiom is so intimate; everyone is so completely in communication, trusting each other,” she says. “When I wanted to tell this story, wanting it to be personal and intimate, I knew I had to parallel the oneness of the singers with the oneness of the quartet.”

Given the focus on singularity and duality within its compositional DNA, it is little surprise that “As One” began from a singular idea crafted by multiple artists.

“The story is actually an original piece,” says Kaminsky, but inspired by the experience of seeing the film “Prodigal Son” by Kimberly Reed. “I loved the way she revealed her story on film. I wrote to the film company and met with Kimberly … and with Mark Campbell, a renowned librettist. The three of us immediately clicked.”

Not only did filmmaker Reed contribute to the libretto alongside Campbell, she created an original filmed piece used as a primary element of the set onstage.

Though many new operas are performed as singular events and never revived, “As One” will have had at least 10 major productions by the end of this year, making it the most commonly produced new opera in the United States. Kaminsky attributes its popularity, in part, to the timeliness of the story.

“When I first started this, the trans, I hate to say ‘issue,' but the cultural conversation around this hadn't entered the zeitgeist the way it had by the time it premiered in 2014,” she says.

More than a literal story of transgender identity and the fluidity of gender, “As One” is a metaphorical exploration.

“Hannah herself is something of a metaphor for self-discovery. We are all multiple things. We are all a spectrum of who and what we are, whatever that may be,” Kaminsky says. “The struggle to find ourselves, the fear of not finding it, and the need to find where you fit in. These are universal truths every person discovers, which is why I think people have responded so much to this character. She speaks to people.”

Greg Kerestan is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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