22 Nov 2017

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

This relatively new one act opera (music by Laura Kaminsky, book by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed) has become the most often performed contemporary work in recent years for several reasons. First, it is a wholly engrossing character study as it traces the topical, personal, transgender journey of “Hannah.”

Second, it achieves a luminous and absorbing effect with absolute economy of means, requiring only two singers, a string quartet, suggested scenery, and simple costumes. It is an opera producer’s dream that is also a spectator’s wonder.

Hannah Before and Hannah After are compellingly sung and impersonated by baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert. As Hannah evolves from being trapped in a male body to embracing the woman she is, the two perform seamlessly together, to coin a phrase, “as one.”

Mr. Markgraf (Before) has a beautifully rich and well-modulated vocal delivery. He can thunder out pain that rings off the back wall one minute, and then break your heart with hushed, intense phrases of melting beauty the next. He is somewhat slight in stature, but looms large in stage presence and a total emotional investment.

Ms. Gaissert (After) matches her co-star in complete conviction, breathtaking musicality, and vocal allure. She is afforded a complex, riveting final scena of rage and frustration and doubt and acceptance that highlighted every one of her substantial vocal gifts. Blythe has a beautiful sheen in her well-schooled instrument and deploys an even delivery throughout the wide-ranging writing.

Director Kyle Lang has choreographed stage movement that is fluid and restless when possible, and wondrously still and reflective when appropriate. His varied use of the simple floor plan of a few steps and adjoining platforms is notable for its profound simplicity. Moreover, as the music intertwines the two beings, Mr. Lang visually embodies this with carefully considered, dance-inspired interplay between the singing duo.

He is well served by filmmaker and videographer Kimberly Reed who has collaborated fruitfully with set designer Jonathan Gilmer to devise a handsome backdrop of hanging screens. Projected on these are images of Hannah’s life experiences that accomplish the feat of being informative without being distracting. Ingrid Helton’s honest costumes provide just the right look, especially in her choice to have the actors and onstage musicians barefoot. That simple touch conveyed a subtle feeling that somehow primal truths were being addressed.

Pride of place for the physical production must go to Christopher Rynne for his accomplished lighting design. Not only did Mr. Rynne make potent use of well-focused specials, but he (and the director) were also not afraid to incorporate an intriguing use of shadows. Since Hannah’s life developed in a series of shadowy denials, having the soloists occasionally be on the edge of the light, or in and out of it, was telling.

Conductor Bruce Stasyna wrought a demonstrative performance from his small band of mighty performers. The Hausmann String Quartet played superbly under Maestro Stasyna’s assured baton, and their ensemble with the singers was musically and dramatically flawless. The conductor and two of the players were even called upon to play cameo roles in the action, which they accomplished with aplomb.

Ms. Kaminsky, Mr. Campbell and Ms. Reed have crafted a beautiful, informed work that might have been pulled out of today’s headlines. While its framework is somewhat that of a themed song cycle, with brief pauses after set pieces, the entire artistic team admirably keeps the tension, interest, and emotional honesty urgently tumbling forward throughout the eighty-minute duration.

I can’t imagine a better case being made for As One than San Diego Opera‘s haunting, lovingly mounted production.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Hannah Before: Kelly Markgraf; Hannah After: Blythe Gaissert; The Hausmann String Quartet, Violins: Isaac Allen, Bram Goldstein; Viola: Angela Choong; Cello: Alex Greenbaum; Conductor: Bruce Stasyna; Director: Kyle Lang; Filmmaker/Videographer: Kimberly Reed; Set Design: Jonathan Gilmer; Costume Design: Ingrid Helton; Lighting Design: Christopher Rynne