Q & A: Composer Laura Kaminsky On the Development of ‘As One’

By David Salazar

Anywhere you look these days, you might find some major opera company programming “As One,” an opera by composer Laura Kaminsky and written by noted librettist Mark Campbell and filmmaker Kimberly Reed.

The work, which depicts the journey of transformation for a transgender woman has mystified and engaged numerous audiences around the United States since it world premiere on Sept. 4, 2014, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Since then it has toured a wide range of cities including the Hawaii Opera Theatre, San Diego Opera, New Orleans Opera, Long Beach Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Boston Opera Collaborative, Des Moines Metro Opera, Opera Colorado, Pittsburgh Opera, Seattle Opera, and West Edge Opera, among others. Yes, this work isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

With the work set to make its appearance at the Skylark Opera Theatre starting on March 16, 2018, OperaWire had a chance to speak with Kaminsky about the creation process for the work and its development.

OperaWire: What does “As One” mean to you and what would you like people to take away from it?

Laura Kaminsky: For me, “As One (AO)” is a piece about self-discovery and the quest to find true happiness, presented through the lens of Hannah, a self-deprecating, sometimes self-absorbed, funny, intelligent, questing human being. Hannah also happens to be transgender, and the opera is their odyssey from youth through adulthood.  In the end, this is both the story of one transgender person seeking their own truth and from that, happiness; it is a universal human story. What I hope people take away and know that they do after hearing from audience members at all the productions thus far is that we all need to be true to ourselves. Truthfulness takes courage, and seeking that truth is not without its profound challenges and the challenges faced by transgender folk, in a world that is often unaccepting and full of ignorance and hatred, are more extreme than most but the point of our story is that truthfulness can lead to happiness and “oneness” and that every human being should have that possibility in their life.

OW: What musical language did you employ for this work? How did it evolve throughout the creation process?

LK: Hannah’s personality dictated the musical language. Hannah’s story is a journey, so there is “travel” music that is propulsive and energetic, but part of the journey is ruminative and internal, so there is soulful, “interior,” reflective music, represented by a bluesy viola solo, the viola serving throughout the piece as the representation of Hannah’s persona. Recurring motives give Hannah’s odyssey a musical throughline, and there are bits of Christmas carols during the holiday sequence of three scenes, and a snippet of Grieg heralding Hannah’s decision to go to Norway to seek fulfillment. There is also some harrowing music during a scene in which Hannah is attacked. One unusual decision I made was to have the string quartet not only play, but also sing at times, and the music director to speak. Also recited, not sung, by Hannah before, is a list of names of victims of violence against transgender individuals around the world (an unspeakably sad list to have to include and to have to continue to update with each performance) during the scene in which Hannah after is attacked.

OW: How did you decide on the voice types?

LK: The decision to have two singers, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone, share the one role was the result of an “aha” moment, when I had the opportunity to present mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Kelly Markgraf in a performance at Symphony Space in New York City on a festival celebrating music from the Soviet Era. Working with these extraordinary artists made me want to write something especially for them. I had already begun to conceptualize an opera about a transgender individual, and after working with Sasha and Kelly, I had the thought that they could not only be in the opera, but might be the only character, sharing the role of Hannah. Surprisingly, when I asked them if they would consider this unusual premise, their response was positive. With that promise, I continued to imagine the world and the sound world for the piece. That led to the decision to use a string quartet, that unified ensemble that exists, well, as one, from the lowest C of the cello to the highest note of the violin. A string quartet seemed the only possible ensemble option to support the two voices and to create Hannah’s world. Having just completed my sixth quartet, “Rising Tide,” for the Fry Street Quartet, and having had an extraordinary experience working with them, I invited them to join the growing “As One” family and was thrilled when they accepted.

OW: What was the most challenging aspect of creating this opera?

LK: Not doing it in a traditional manner. Usually, there’s a commission, a story, then a libretto, then a score, then casting and workshopping and design and finally the production. Here, there was a concept, a cast, an instrumental ensemble, a design concept, but no story, no commission, no company. Slowly the pieces fell into place. After knowing it would be Sasha and Kelly and the Fry Street Quartet, I sought the story, and encountered Kimberly Reed’s film “Prodigal Sons,” thanks to my wife Rebecca, who was helping me find possible ideas for the story and came upon Kim’s film. After we watched it, I said to Rebecca, “I have to find Kim; she must be involved.” With Kim on board, the broad concept of a story of self-discovery was agreed to, and the film element was cemented, but still not the actual story.

Then Mark and I met adjudicating grants on a panel at Opera America and I told him about our project. He was intrigued, and I invited him to join the team as librettist, sharing that credit with Kim as co-librettist, who was also our filmmaker. The pieces had finally fallen into place and American Opera Projects joined as our commissioner and developer, and finally producer, in a partnership with BAM, with a plan to premiere the work in 2014.

OW: What was the experience with working alongside Mark Campbell on “As One.” What was one thing you learned from the collaboration?

LK: Building the team for “As One” was a slow process that resulted in a collaboration with Kimberly Reed and Mark Campbell that has persisted; we are currently working on our third opera together.

Working with both Mark and Kim is exhilarating in every way. They are smart, sensitive, funny, exacting, relentless, open, persistent, lyrical, declamatory, and bursting with energy at every moment. We have built a profoundly satisfying “mènage à trois,” a three-way creative relationship where we all respect each other, challenge each other, and help each other to find the best expression of our idea(s) in the work we do together.

OW: Is there a musical moment that you particularly love? What is it and why?

LK: I think Mark, Kim and I all would point to the scene “To know” as our favorite. It’s a pivotal moment, the moment of self-discovery, when Hannah before sees a transgender woman being interviewed on TV and has the startling realization that this is who she is. She heads to the library and searches for all the books about being transgender. She does this in secret as she doesn’t want to be found out, but she is exhilarated to learn that she’s not the only one. The joy of learning, of self-discovery and of connection is presented in this scene, and it is done so with both humor and blissful abandon.

OW: What does opera mean in the modern world and why is it important?

LK: Opera tells stories. We need stories. They bring us together as human beings in a shared experience, and, with the music and the words, the staging and the design, that experience can be transformative and transcendent. I could go on and on, but won’t, other than to say that I am lucky to have discovered this form, and to be making new work in what is blossoming into a golden era of opera.

OW: What are some other operas you are planning to write?

LK: Right now, Mark and Kim are on our third opera together, “Today It Rains,” for San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle in 2019 and American Opera Projects in New York in the 2019-20 season. It is a chamber opera inspired by an event in the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The opera takes place on the four-day train trip that she took in 1929 from New York to Santa Fe. We just came away from a successful first workshop in January in New York and will have our second workshop in San Francisco in May.  Then, Kim and I are writing an opera, “Postville: Hometown to the World,” inspired by the largest workplace raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency at a Kosher meat-packing plant in 2008. “Postville” looks at the intersection of race, religion, ethnicity, and culture in America’s heartland. It is one of the first of two commissions for the Opera For All Voices consortium, led by Santa Fe and San Francisco Operas, and will premiere in 2020.


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