Good things come in small packages.
The Southern California premiere of “As One,” presented by Long Beach Opera at the Beverly O’Neill Theater the other day, required only two singers, a string quartet, and a bare stage, two chairs and a stool.
But those minimal forces offered a powerful, compelling tale of transformation and self-discovery, using the specific experience of a transgender individual to tell a universal coming-of-age story.
Beginning as a young man, he discovers that he likes to wear a blouse under his jacket. When sex education divides the class by gender, he wants to sit with the girls. His teacher criticizes his handwriting as too feminine.
With maturity come complications, and the transition features the first time he/she is called “Miss,” inner changes physical and mental, and not going home for Christmas. A jarring physical attack leads to a litany of transgender individuals who have been murdered around the world. Fleeing to Norway, under the Northern Lights, there is a sort of apotheosis of acceptance. Life goes on.
The lead character is portrayed by two singers, Lee Gregory as Hannah Before and Danielle Marcelle Bond as Hannah After. Both are LBO veterans, and both are extraordinary. Gregory carries the bulk of the action early on, and Bond basically handles the final third, but the two also engage in dialogue and sing together. Thanks to their intense singing and acting performances and David Schweizer’s inventive direction, the audience has no trouble seeing them as two aspects of one person.
Laura Kaminsky composed the music, and the libretto is the work of Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed; the experiences portrayed are basically filmmaker Reed’s. The vocal writing is declamatory rather than lyrical, with most of the musical interest belonging to the instrumentalists. The four players, conducted by artistic director Andreas Mitisek, are fabulous musicians, and their sizzling performance gave the action an elevated dramatic dimension.
With a bare stage, the lighting becomes all-important, and Dan Weingarten’s design was brilliant, enhancing and commenting on the drama while looking stark, beautiful and disturbing by turns. Video projections also kept things intelligible and moving along. Katy Brisbois’s costumes were simple, and subtle; he wears blue and white, she wears white and blue.
I have to say, this one felt a little personal. I have a couple of transgender friends, one of whom I saw through the entire transition. I hope they get to see this opera sometime, because it’s a very well-made work and because the story is important and compassionately told. Alas, this was the final weekend here, but given the small forces required and the timeliness of the subject matter, the opera is bound to turn up now and then.
Long Beach Opera continues to explore compelling issues of the day, and to do it with innovative productions and terrific young singers. They’ve done it again.