Tears, Trauma and Triumph in Opera Idaho's 'As One' 

click to enlarge asone_lexnelson_1_.jpg

Lex Nelson

At the moments in As One when the intensity ratcheted highest, opera singers Michael Kelly and Blythe Gaissert pulled off a minor miracle: They convinced the audience that they were, despite their physical differences, two halves of a single person. That person was Hannah, the transgender woman at the center of the story created by composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. Over 75 minutes at Boise State University's Danny Peterson Theatre on May 9, Kelly and Gaissert not only became Hannah's sometimes-warring, sometimes-harmonizing voices—one male and one female—but brought her to life with tremendous emotional force.

click to enlarge Gaissert (left) and Kelly (right) rehearse As One. - STEPHANIE DERENTZ
  • Stephanie Derentz
  • Gaissert (left) and Kelly (right) rehearse As One.
Through a combination of four-piece orchestral music from the 208 Ensemble (lead by Conductor Jennifer Drake), chamber opera, theater and film under the eye of Stage Director Gordon Rinehart, Opera Idaho's As One crafted Hannah's complex and difficult life, beginning with her pre-teen years of feeling like a girl trapped in a boy's body. Early in the opera, Kelly, who plays Hannah Before, is in control, while Gaissert, Hannah After, looks on with a mix of pride and disappointment as her young self tries on a blouse in secret, experiments with more feminine handwriting and ultimately decides—in the song "Perfect boy"—to hide behind male stereotypes. As the story unspools and Hannah begins the process of transitioning, the two singers enter an elaborate vocal dance, Kelly's forceful baritone pairing with Gaissert's precise mezzo-soprano.

At its heart, As One is about control, and the lack of it. At points, the singers use their scarves as marionette strings to make each other into puppets, Hannah Before restraining Hannah After, or guiding her through the herky-jerky process of taking hormone pills, desperately, by the handful. When Hannah gives up controlling her femininity others decide to do it for her: In the opera's most harrowing scene, Hannah is confronted by a man—represented by a white-faced mask held aloft—who shouts "What are you!?" physically accosts her and threatens to kill her. She escapes, but is haunted by other transgender victims who weren't so lucky. As she shakes and cries, Kelly stalks the stage, holding up a series of masks and listing the names and causes of death of real-life trans victims of violence.

For all of its darker themes, As One has a happy ending, and plenty of bright spots along the way, from Hannah's first attempt at flirting as a woman in a coffee shop to her chuckle-inducing adolescent pronouncements. On both ends of the spectrum, Gaissert and Kelly perform brilliantly, their facial expressions and gestures selling the characters even better than their voices.

click to enlarge Left to right: Michael Kelly, Mark Campbell, Blyth Gaissert. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Left to right: Michael Kelly, Mark Campbell, Blyth Gaissert.
"We creating opera in this country are so lucky to have singers who can act," As One librettist Mark Campbell said in a post-show Q&A.

Much of the Q&A revolved around the opera-writing process, but its last minutes turned to the trans community when an audience member asked the two singers (neither of whom are trans) whether interacting with transgender people had influenced their performance.

"Every time I've gone somewhere to do this the people that I meet are so inspirational," said Gaissert, who is now on her fifth time playing Hannah After. "...When you can attach all of [Hannah's experience] to a person, it makes it more meaningful and more powerful."

Kelly, a gay man who has faced social obstacles himself, added, "So much of the fear of the trans community is a lack of understanding."

Campbell said he ran into that lack of understanding firsthand in Iowa, where a retired doctor told a panel of transgender people who had come out for an As One production, "I don't think you're whole people."

"I was ready to throttle this guy," Campbell said, getting agitated at the memory. "But for once I shut up and let a trans person speak."

The trans woman, he said, gracefully diffused the situation in a way he never could have. 
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