Two Singers Play One Transgender Character in Opera Idaho's 'As One' 

When Emilie Jackson-Edney, a transgender woman, read her transition story from a trembling piece of paper on May 1, The Linen Building itself seemed to hold its breath.

"I'm a human being just like everyone else, and I have spiritual, emotional and physical concerns, just like everyone else," she read. "I laugh, I cry, I eat, I drink, I fall in love, I go to work, I pay bills, I have family and I have strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else. And I deserve to live my life authentically, free from fear, with full civil rights equality, and [to] be treated with dignity, respect and acceptance—just like everyone else."

Jackson-Edney grew up in Boise's North End in the 1950s and '60s, and was gendered male at birth. She called her feelings that she was a really a girl her "deepest, darkest secret," one that she went on to hide for decades as she took a job in the male-dominated field of construction engineering, served in the military, got married and even became a church deacon. It was only after she could no longer control the barrage of suicidal thoughts that she made the choice to transition, explaining that it felt like "facing life and death square on."

Now an openly trans woman and board member of The Pride Foundation, Jackson-Edney was one of several people to share their stories at The Linen Building that night for a panel discussion on gender identity ahead of Opera Idaho's upcoming production of As One, which features a transgender woman as its main character. Two other members of the local transgender community—trans man Dayne Law and trans woman Percephone Bias—joined her, offering their experiences to a crowd of two dozen."It was kind of a crisis point in my life where I was like, I can't live a lie any longer," said Law, who didn't come out as trans until he was 42 years old, though he'd felt like a boy since age 3.

click to enlarge Left to right: Panelists Blythe Gaissert, Michael Kelly, Persephone Bias, Emilie Jackson-Edney, Dayne Law and Sen. Maryanne Jordan. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Left to right: Panelists Blythe Gaissert, Michael Kelly, Persephone Bias, Emilie Jackson-Edney, Dayne Law and Sen. Maryanne Jordan.

Bias came out much younger, but shared Law's battle with suicidal thoughts. When she and her family tried to find a clinic to help her overcome them, she was turned away because, she said, her gender identity confounded the system, making her impossible to place.

Their stories parallel Hannah's, and fit panel moderator and Opera Idaho General Director Mark Junkert's goal for the event, which was to leave listeners with "a better understanding of the issues of the opera." Before the panel, he told Boise Weekly those issues were controversial enough that announcements about As One—which opens in The Danny Peterson Theatre at Boise State University on Thursday, May 9—had triggered blowback from patrons, several of whom asked to be removed from Opera Idaho's mailing list. The panel was one way to combat that attitude, by giving trans people a platform to directly interact with Opera Idaho's patrons. Singers Michael Kelly and Blythe Gaissert—who play Hannah Before and Hannah After, respectively—were also on the May 1 panel, along with Idaho Senator Maryanne Jordan, a supporter of Idaho's Add the Words campaign.

As One had a meteoric rise after premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, soaring to become the country's 11th most-produced opera in the 2017-2018 season. Opera Idaho's production will be mezzo-soprano Gaissert's fifth time playing the role of Hannah After; she first gave her input when composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed were still workshopping the story, which is based on Reed's own history.

click to enlarge Gaissert (left) and Kelly (right) rehearse As One. - STEPHANIE DERENTZ
  • Stephanie Derentz
  • Gaissert (left) and Kelly (right) rehearse As One.

"I feel like every time I do a production you get a different perspective, not just from the director but from the community that you meet," said Gaissert. "It's been such an honor to meet so many different trans people throughout the country who are coming out and supporting our work, and hearing their stories."

While the May 9 opening night will be Kelly's first time playing Hannah Before, he has wanted to play the role for five years, and said he identified with Hannah by drawing on his own coming out experience as a gay man.

"The beauty in the story is its universal message. We all have something to discover within ourselves, and anyone can relate to that no matter what your journey is and what the thing is that you're trying to discover," said Kelly, a baritone. He likened the production to Randy Roberts Potts' traveling art piece "The Gay Agenda," for which Potts and his partner performed their day-to-day lives by recreating their home in public spaces. Kelly called As One "an art installation with activist roots."

At the panel discussion, Junkert noted that in addition to its groundbreaking content, As One will also be Opera Idaho's first production composed by a woman.

"It's about time," he said to applause from the audience.

Later, Jackson-Edney told listeners how she hoped the night would end. If they remembered one thing from the discussion, she said, she wanted it to be this: "I hope you'll understand that transgender men are men, and transgender women are women."

Gaissert said that one of the reasons she loves performing As One in places like Idaho is that it helps shine a spotlight on statements like Jackson-Edney's, which don't often penetrate the American mainstream.

"It's great to do it in San Francisco, it's great to do it in New York, but it's really great to go someplace where you might actually help someone change their mind," she said.

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