Operatic tradition has explored ways to stray from gender conventions centuries before the term “transgender” first appeared in print. Castrati men sang female roles when women were banned from performing. Once they took to the opera stage, many women played men as “trouser roles” (some, like Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, originally written for a castrato).
Contemporary composers continue to challenge the binary, now through the lens of a more nuanced understanding of gender identity. Higher registers are no longer tethered to a character’s gender, with countertenor roles such as Marnie’s Terry or A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Oberon. Earlier this year, Lucia Lucas took on the title part in Tulsa Opera’s Don Giovanni, becoming the first trans performer to sing a principal opera role in the U.S. Later this season, Liz Bouk will play the first transgender character specifically written for a trans singer in the world premiere of Stonewall at New York City Opera (opening June 21).
Five years before Lucas’ U.S. debut and Stonewall’s premiere, however, another work aimed to explore the trans experience through opera: As One. Inspired by her own journey, filmmaker and activist Kimberly Reed partnered with co-librettist Mark Campbell (also the librettist of Stonewall) and composer Laura Kaminsky to tell the story of Hannah, a transgender woman brought to life by two singers: a baritone as “Hannah Before” and a mezzo-soprano as “Hannah After.”
Following its 2014 premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music and over 20 subsequent productions, As One returns to New York in a co-production between New York City Opera, American Opera Projects, and Kaufman Music Center. Both As One and Stonewall are part of NYCO’s third annual Pride series.
In the interview below, Reed discusses bringing familiar experiences to an unfamiliar art form, letting melody inform media, and her hopes for the future of trans representation in opera.
As One, directed by Matt Gray, will run for four performances through June 6 at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center. Two pairs of singers will play “Hannah Before” and “Hannah After”: Michael Kelly and Blythe Gaissert (May 30 and June 6) and Jorell Williams and Briana Elyse Hunter (June 1 and 4).
As you come primarily from a filmmaking background, what was your exposure to opera before working with Mark and Laura?
Well, I grew up in Montana, and there is not a lot of opera in Montana. Expect for the Met on the public radio on Saturdays, which my father listened to religiously. He was a farm boy, and when he went to school in St. Louis, he developed a taste for the opera. It was something that was present in our house, and that was the underpinning for a lot of appreciation for it. That said, I still wasn't steeped in the tradition.
Working in opera has in many ways just been a process of getting in touch with my roots in filmmaking. The cinema is a tradition that's multidisciplinary form that grew out of the world of opera, and I find myself focusing on the similarities of the two forms instead of the differences. As a film director, I've always been someone who's very sensitive to music. I've been working with composers who are very much a part of my process as a filmmaker, and that's really not that different than my process when working with Laura. Writing libretti is of course a different craft; it's a different art. But once the libretto is in place, I find that the process of working together with composers to fine-tune the music is not unlike the work I do in the world of film.
Film is still a crucial component of your work in opera. How do you approach incorporating video into the language of the piece, in addition to the notes and words?
For film projections that I'm doing for opera, I'm always responding to the music. Once the libretto is turned over to Laura and she has responded musically, by that point I usually have some rough ideas about how the film might respond to her music. But it’s really not until I hear her music and respond in kind, visually, that the film component really comes together for me.
For example, we just premiered a piece in San Francisco with Opera Parallèle about Georgia O'Keeffe's journey to Santa Fe. When Mark and I wrote the libretto for that, we specified very roughly, in prose-form, the visualizations that would occur during what we called a 'visual aria'. And so Laura responded to that brief description musically, and I was kind of taking that same starting point. I went on and filmed some footage that I thought would fit with that, but I wasn't able to really bring it together until I had a workshop recording of Laura's music that I could edit the video to.
Was there any particular “aha” moments in Laura’s music that informed the visuals you wanted to capture?
I'll give you one that's kind of on the nose. As One is comprised of 15 different scenes, and the ultimate scene is what's called "Norway." Our character, Hannah, in an effort to get away from all the noise around her, flees to this place where she has this repose. So she goes to Norway, and that is announced musically with a cheeky quote from Edvard Grieg. One of my favorite shots of Norway—this very long shot of this fjord with a very slow tilt up. And that one shot reveals Norway for the first time, and the transition—that cliché postcard moment—is actually cued by that Grieg quote.
This is one difference in the relationship between my work in film and my work in opera: In film, scores need to have a subservience to the narrative and character development that are going on in the film. In opera, I feel like the film needs to have a subservience to the music. In the final presentation of the piece, film can be very alluring and compelling to watch it, maybe too much. So that's something I'm constantly trying to be aware of, and oftentimes dial back, so that we're not distracting from this incredible music.
The opera is inspired by your own experiences, but is there anything not from your life you knew you wanted to explore through the lens of a fictional character?
Each of the scenes started with me. Some of them stayed pretty close to my experience, some of them depart pretty radically. It's very important to recognize that this is not the story of every trans person everywhere. Nobody would ever claim to make that. Even though the story is rooted in autobiography, it was very important for Mark and me to find ways to expand beyond my experience to talk about issues in the trans community that I haven't necessarily gone through, but by being a member of the trans community and as an activist in the trans community, I certainly run into again and again. While I have not been the victim of violence, I am in the minority. It was important to us that in one of our scenes, we let people understand that. Hannah comes to the realization of her own privilege; she experiences a violent episode, but manages to escape, and she's driven to consider all of the situations where people don't escape—especially trans women of color. Even though that didn't happen to me directly, I wanted to be able to speak about that and put Hannah in these situations.
And having Briana [Elyse Hunter] and Jorell [Williams]—two black singers—in that moment brings a much different subtext than with Blythe [Gaissert] and Michael [Kelly], I would imagine.
That's precisely why we're doing this with two casts. Again, what we're doing over and over again in this piece is let the audience see the world through Hannah's eyes—through the eyes of someone who is trans, and we want folks to understand that that crosses racial lines.
Would you say conversations surrounding trans representation have evolved since As One premiered?
I think they're evolving, and I love seeing them evolve. I think it's an absolutely crucial conversation to have.
Do you view having two cis singers portray Hannah differently now than you did when writing the opera?
Well, it's important to point out that Briana and Jorell or Blythe and Michael are not cis performers playing a trans person. They are cis actors who are portraying the phantasmagorical imagination of the two poles that our society has always broken down into. Not unlike the yin-yang symbol, it hints at these two poles, but then swirls together to erase those two poles, or at the very least call to attention the fact that there's a lot more gray area in between than we typically understand in our every day society.
The real character of Hannah is not Jorell, it’s not Briana, it's not Blythe, and it's not Michael. The character of Hannah is created in the minds of the audience, which is inspired by these two poles depicted by these singers. And I think that's alright.
We'd love having those two poles depicted by trans singers. And we love having them depicted by all sorts of constellations of people of color, which we are fortunate to have had in the 20-plus productions. This conversation is a very important one, and we are doing our damndest to find trans singers. The problem is the training of transfolk in opera. Opera is a pretty rarefied world of training to begin with, and there aren't a lot of singers that we have to choose from. But we all want to have as many trans singers as possible singing it. Even if that's the case, they would still be portraying this male side of Hannah and this female side, who then can hopefully negate those poles to end up with someone of her own making.
How else do you hope As One develops as it’s presented more and more?
We designed the production with these projections so that it would be portable, so I would love to see it go into smaller and smaller venues. Not just to evangelize our particular piece, but so we can evangelize opera in general in smaller venues that may not have experienced it before. We had a traveling production in Nova Scotia last year. That's a great example of that. Don't get me wrong. It's fantastic to be at NYCO, but we also like touring productions.