Review: Two voices shine in Pittsburgh Opera's moving transgender journey, 'As One'
February 19, 2017 7:15 PM
The biggest reason for the success of “As One” was the singing of resident artists Brian Vu (Hannah before) and Taylor Raven (Hannah after).
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At some point in the not-so-distant future, the chamber opera “As One,” by composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, may seem outmoded. The piece, first premiered in 2014, follows the journey of a transgender character named Hannah as she comes to terms with her identity. One hopes that as the experiences of transgender people become increasingly accepted in American society, the need for a work like “As One” will diminish.
But as Pittsburgh Opera showed on Saturday night, right now “As One” is a pertinent and moving work. The company’s new production is part of its ongoing Second Stage project, which gives Pittsburgh Opera resident artists the opportunity to perform a contemporary American chamber opera.
Second Stage is now in its fourth season, and “As One” was the best installment yet. The production was not elaborate, and that’s exactly the point. “As One” is written for two voices — a baritone and a mezzo-soprano — and string quartet. It is a personal work, and it is best experienced in an intimate space like the studio at Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters. It is also worth noting that “As One” is the first opera by a female composer that the company has ever produced.
Taylor Raven sang the role of Hannah after with Seattle Opera last year. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)
The biggest reason for the success of “As One” was the singing of resident artists Brian Vu (Hannah before) and Taylor Raven (Hannah after). The two voices serve to present different parts of Hannah’s experience and psyche: She sneaks on a blouse while delivering newspapers as a young boy; she is admonished in school for her “girly” handwriting; she expresses discomfort sitting with the boys in a sex ed class; she is nearly assaulted as she tries to get into her car.
Ms. Kaminsky’s tart and rhythmic score, largely centered on the viola, comments on the libretto with varied string textures. For example, nauseating glissandos accompany Hannah’s discussions of the dizzying effects of hormone therapy. The libretto, aided by insight from Ms. Reed’s own experience as a transgender woman, captures the dueling aspects of Hannah’s identity with sweetness and humor.
Mr. Vu and Ms. Raven showcased those interior struggles with compassion and confidence. Singing together, they gave not so much love duets as self-love duets, the knotty forces of a complicated identity merging in a messy or touching way.
Mr. Vu, whom I’ve often praised, continues to impress, and his performance gave me chills. The baritone maintained a gleaming character throughout various volumes and different parts of his range, expressing each line with a clear sense of purpose. His style was direct and his consonants were crisp, yet his performance still illuminated all the complexities of the character. The effect was like a simply constructed, beautiful sentence.
Ms. Raven, who sang this role with Seattle Opera last year, delivered her part with power, most notably with a pulsating, silvery vibrato in the upper register. Her performance of the final aria allowed Hannah’s personality — funny, a bit self-deprecating and ultimately hopeful — to shine through, and that long finale also exhibited Ms. Raven’s stamina. At times, however, she could have extracted more colors from the middle of her range, and some of the intricate runs were muddled.
The production’s only major blemish was the uneven performance from the string quartet, which featured four Pittsburgh Opera orchestra principals and was conducted by James Lesniak. The ensemble sounded underprepared; the players whiffed on some notes, were often out of tune and sounded dragged down by sluggish tempos. And they seemed uncomfortable with the score’s occasional extended techniques, such as the inaudible moments when they were supposed to hum or sing.
The production was directed by Frances Rabalais, who drew out a fine rapport between the two singers but missed a few opportunities to set the actions contained in the libretto.
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