New York City Opera 2019 Review: As One
An Important Work Given A Powerful Performance By Jorell Williams & Briana Elyse HunterBy David Salazar
“As One” has become one of the major works of American opera in the 21st century.
The work has been the most produced new opera in North America since its debut in September of 2014 and its revival by the New York City Opera this summer bears out why.
The work, created by composer Laura Kaminsky and librettist Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, centers on Hannah coming to terms with her identity in the midst of her confusing and chaotic world. The opera is comprised of two singers and a string quartet, allowing for a greater degree of immediacy and intimacy.
Dramatically, the work is structured as a series of episodes centering on essential moments of Hannah’s coming of age. The first part of the work centers on Hannah’s discomfort in her high school environment and the feeling of being all alone in the world. This section climaxes with her realization that she is in fact not the only one.
The second part of the world sees Hannah coming to life in a far larger and more complex world. We see her navigate two cities, the distance from her loved ones, and the danger of an assault before eventually escaping to nature to find the equation that will help her find her happiness.
The work is narrated by Hannah herself as Hannah Before (a baritone) and Hannah After (a mezzo-soprano), which further accentuates the interiority of the journey and the point of view.
Music & Text
Reed and Campbell’s language is very straightforward and direct, its expository nature allowing for easy access to the audience member. It also allows the story to cover a lot of ground. The tradeoff is a lessened poetic sense that in certain scenes could potentially deepen the emotional impact of Hannah’s psyche. Moments of reflection are lessened due to the text’s constant forward movement. This was particularly noticeable in the very last scene of the work where Hannah goes to Norway and finally comes to terms with her world. Hannah narrates everything she does in great detail, referencing the many times she makes jams from the berries she gathers and eventually the letters she writes to reconnect with the world. While there are thematic through lines with previous episodes and a rather emphatic proclamation that nature doesn’t work in metaphors (which implies that the writers have no such interest either in their language), it somewhat undercuts the richness of the moment.
The music itself is perhaps tasked with the poetry and soul of the piece, but this narrative drive makes the text the predominant force in the story and its propulsive movement toward new topics and ideas lessens the opportunity for the music to interact with the text in a deeper way and for the audience to thus feel the transcendence this moment is said to imply. Instead, Reed’s music has expansive long lines that express tranquility, though the sense of build and newfound direction isn’t present in juxtaposition to what has come before. One feels that the music is there to support the text, not the two working together toward a powerful synthesis of emotional and psychological expression.
That isn’t to say that the marriage of text and music is nowhere to be found. In fact, there are some true moments of operatic genius at work. For me personally, this was best exemplified in “The Perfect Boy,” a piece in which Hannah Before proclaims all the things she must do to showcase herself as the model man. And she repeats time and again all of these aspects. Under all of this, the music grows agitated with ostinato strings, creating a musical trap that only seems to grow and grow throughout. But it isn’t immediately obvious because the initial reaction one gets is of excitement as Hannah aims high. But then the discomfort grows real, running counter to the text. With each repetition, the rope tightens until exhaustion sets in. This was furthered by the staging and direction by Matt Gray, which had mezzo Briana Elyse Hunter running through a number of arbitrary motions that represented Hannah before’s individual desires to be the “fastest, the smartest, the strongest, the best.” As the frenzy of the scene developed, she slowed down from exhaustion, a reminder that holding ourselves to ridiculous standards will only harm us all the more. Reed’s projections of archetypcal male activities, flashing faster and faster behind the staging only added to the psychological power of the moment.
Other scenes had similar power in terms of the marriage of text and music, such as the very opening of the piece where the string quartet (which had hints of Dvorak’s American Quartet) had a motif of propulsive motion that was eventually revealed to be Hannah’s paper route every morning. There is a sense of movement, but it is repetitive in nature, also accentuating that Hannah’s life is stuck in these early instances. In this early number, Kaminsky also emphasizes differing vocal qualities in Hannah Before and Hannah After, showcasing that they aren’t quite unified yet. Hannah before’s lines are rigid while Hannah After has coloratura runs interspersed; one gets the sense of someone full of freedom ready to burst out. As the narrative develops, the two coalesce. Moreover, while Hannah After eventually takes over as a the leading voice, Hannah Before doesn’t disappear altogether, adding to the narrative nuance of the overarching story.
The Text Itself
Of course, opera isn’t just music and text, but also theatre, and Gray’s direction underlined this poignantly. Reed’s projections played a central role in all this, the imagery conjured up added to the emotional reality that Hannah had to navigate. The first images of a suburban neighborhood place us in the world and all the potential associations with its rigidity and “sameness,” which would emphasize Hannah’s sense of loneliness. During a scene about handwriting, imagery of written notes jumps across the screen, almost assaulting the senses as Hannah’s own confusion overwhelms her. The roads in “Two Cities” mirrors but contrasts the opening “Paper Route,” expressing a sense of emotional progression for Hannah, but also providing a stark reminder that there is still a long way to go toward peace. It is one of those instances in which the use of video projections is a core part of the storytelling, not just as an addition to the text, but also as the text itself.
The physical set itself is barebones with a couple of desks and a massive frame dominating the center of the stage. The frame on wheels is at the core of everything, itself a reminder of the art of creation, but also used to trap Hannah as well as a mirror at other intervals. When utilized as a mirror, it provides narrative tension between the two Hannahs, the viewer left wondering when they might see one another and connect. Other scenes show Hannah after trapped inside the frame, especially during the handwriting scene. And it is truly riveting to finally see her emerge from that frame to close out the first Act when she realizes that she is not alone.
Hannah Before & After
The work of course can never work without the work of its two leads – baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Briana Elyse Hunter. Williams showcased a robust baritone capable of descending to a delicate thread of sound. You sensed his sense of vocal strength throughout the earlier portions, which further emphasized a sense of him trying to put on a façade for others. It contrasted with Hunter’s more relaxed vocal approach throughout. In fact, her Hannah is no victim being trapped inside, but a figure that knows where she belongs and will move toward getting there. As such, Hunter displayed grace and ease whenever she was at the vocal forefront, eventually getting the chance to shine. Her singing at the very end of the opera made you overlook the aforementioned challenges as she herself offered the transcendence through her sublime legato. And as she took over, Williams’ lessened interventions were marked by a growing vocal ease.
Together they brought the character to beautiful life, ultimately proving to be the soul of the work itself.
As the evening came to a close, it was emphasized that the development team is looking to bring the work abroad to be seen and experienced. “As One” is undeniably a work of great importance that should be experienced.