‘As One’Entertainment News, Feature Story, Latest Issue, Section 4A Thursday, October 26th, 2017
San Diego Opera presents this topical opera of discovery and acceptance with singers Kelly Markgraf and Blythe Gaissert sharing the part of the sole transgender protagonist.
San Diego Opera will be presenting the opera As One at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre Nov. 10-12.
As One was composed by Laura Kaminsky and the libretto was written by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed and is loosely based on Reed’s life and the transition she went through.
The opera follows the journey of Hannah Before and Hannah After and how she starts to realize who she is when she is a 10-year-old boy. A boy who delivers newspapers but discovers that she can still wear a blouse while she delivers those papers.
As One marks the first time both Reed and Kaminsky have written a libretto. Reed is a filmmaker and Kaminsky composes but is more at home composing about environmental issues. As One is quite a departure for these two but once they were joined by Campbell everything fell into place.
The general director of San Diego Opera, David Bennett, is responsible for bringing the opera to San Diego. He saw the opera early on and knew it was something he wanted for his season.
“I saw a workshop presentation of As One at the Opera America conference two years ago,” Bennett said. “I immediately connected with the work, and with the performances of our two singers [Kelly Markgraf, Blythe Gaissert] who performed it then.”
Even in its early stages the opera spoke to him on many levels. It wasn’t just the vocals but also the music, which is simply played by a string quartet. The featured quartet for this production will be San Diego’s own Hausmann Quartet.
“It’s a simple, elegant and powerful work,” Bennett confided. “The story is full of compassion, insight and humor. And it’s truly chamber music – the vocal and instrumental writing are really interwoven, not one being of service to the other. I’m trying to show our audiences the breadth of experiences that can fit under the title of “opera” and this is as effective as any grand opera in achieving its purposes. We also want to use the Detour Series to produce works that connect with the experiences of the many distinct communities that exist here in San Diego, including our large LGBTQ community. We opened the series last year with Soldier Songs, a work that explores the impact of combat on our soldiers, and we continue the series this season with Maria de Buenos Aires, a Spanish language tango opera.”
Although this opera was written and presented in 2014, the artistic team of Campbell, Kaminsky and Reed stay close to the production. They also take part whenever the opera is presented if they are available. For the San Diego engagement, two of the writers will be lending a hand.
“Both Laura [Kaminsky] and Kimberly [Reed] will be here for our production,” Bennett said. “Mark, unfortunately, has another opening the same weekend as ours, so he’s not going to be able to be in San Diego. But they all remain closely involved in productions of the opera. Kimberly is first and foremost an award-winning filmmaker, and this production uses film that Kimberly shot to enhance the staging. So she’ll be hands on in the theater during technical rehearsals.”
Bennett is also excited about the positive reception the opera has been getting since it was announced for this season.
“We’ve sold quite well already to our regular opera audience,” Bennett shared. “I hope members of the LGBTQ community who haven’t yet experienced San Diego Opera will take a chance with As One. You won’t be disappointed!”
This production also boasts two singers who have performed these roles more than a few times. Markgraf, who plays Hannah Before, has been with the opera since it premiered in 2014.
“Originally I performed the role of Hannah Before in As One’s premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York,” Markgraf said. “Since then I’ve performed it twice more, once in Logan, Utah and again in Denver at Opera Colorado.”
Gaissert, who plays Hannah After, was part of the original workshop presentation and has done the opera in two other productions.
“I was actually a part of the original workshop of this piece,” Gaissert said. “I kind of got to watch it ‘be born’, which was a real privilege. I did two workshop performances in NYC and Utah prior to the premiere. I then was the understudy for the world premiere at BAM, and subsequently did the same production with Kelly in Utah the next spring. I have also performed it at Opera Colorado also with Kelly, and have done multiple concert performances of excerpts. This year I will be performing it both in San Diego and Kansas City.”
So much of the piece spoke to Gaissert. She was drawn to the piece because of the music and lyrics, but it was the subject matter that struck a chord with her.
“The music is beautiful and serves the amazing text that Mark and Kim have written so perfectly,” Gaissert confided. “But most importantly, I was so excited to be a part of something that drew attention to transgender people in a positive light without sensationalizing. The way the story is told is so filled with humanity, love and humor, and it is difficult for someone to not identify with Hannah. We all struggle with figuring out who we are and how to be our best self in some way.”
Markgraf did his homework when it came to preparing himself for the role, but as he explains the show itself was a lesson in itself.
“I’ve spoken with friends and friends-of-friends who are transgender, but what was perhaps a bit surprising with this piece was how ‘built in’ the prep work was,” Markgraf said. “The script is beguilingly direct, shedding light on core struggles that all of us go through in our formative years no matter where we exist on the gender spectrum. It gives voice to our common struggles as human creatures that need self-acceptance, outer-acceptance, love and sense of belonging. That’s why audiences have such a powerful experience and also why I say the prep work is built-in: it’s all there, ready to hook into, if you just look inside.”
Both Markgraf and Gaissert were very clear that being a part of this production and what it says and stands for is something they feel strongly about. They both had a message for the LGBTQIA community that they wanted to share.
“Thank you. Thank you for being you, and for your enormous contribution to our world,” Gaissert said. “I hope that we can continue to bring awareness and understanding to the trans community, but also to all people who in any way feel uncomfortable in being who they are. Knowledge, understanding and empathy are the only way that we can move forward as humans, and I just want all of your readers to know that I stand in solidarity with you in this crazy divided time in our world!”
“What I often feel like shouting from the rooftops about As One is that it’s so important for people that aren’t comfortable with LGBTQIA issues to come and see it,” Markgraf added. “After opening night in NYC, a heterosexual man approached me. He stood there with tears in his eyes and confessed that he found himself identifying and empathizing with the central struggles of the character – just wanting to feel like yourself and feel loved in the world – because even as a ‘straight’ teenager he remembered fighting the same battles. He walked away from the show that night with his mind opened and his eyes changed.”
As One will be presented for three performances only Nov. 10-12 at the Joan B Kroc Theatre located at 6611 University Ave. in San Diego. Tickets can be purchased online at sdopera.org, or by calling 619-533-7000.
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