By Darby Turnbull

Gertrude Opera’s production of As one is a relishing opportunity to see a contemporary opera performed in an intimate, minimalist setting by some superbly talented artists. As one, premiered in the United states in 2014 and went on to become one of the most produced contemporary operas in the US. It follows Hannah, a young trans woman navigating her transition from childhood to adulthood and her journey towards self-actualisation and fulfilment. Hannah is split into two, Hannah Before (Joshua Erdelyi-Gotz) and Hannah After (Morgan Carter) intersecting as her repressed and authentic self.

Linda Thompson and her assistant director Alexandra Amerides have created a sparse, minimalist play space for the two performers to display their deep, detailed characterisations. The projections, filmed by Kimberly Reed, are a consistent presence; in my eyes a bit too busy and distracting but contain some consistently interesting images and angles non the less. Jason Crick’s lighting design seamlessly compliments both the performers and projections, providing a fluid sense of atmosphere between time and place.

Laura Kaminsky’s score, written for a string quartet is serviceable without being particularly inspired; each instrument is given their moment to shine and there are some effective intervals that demonstrate Hannah’s growing anxiety and self-actualisation. However, the intervals tend to repeat themselves and can sometimes feel atonal and monotonous; I found myself yearning for more texture and melodic evolution. Kristian Winther (Violin), Suwing Aw (Viola), Natalia Harvey (Viola) and Zoe Knighton (Cello) under the baton of Alexandra Enyart are all highly skilled; they sound terrific in the small space, blending gracefully whilst providing dynamic contrast and balance within the space.

Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s libretto steers away from poetry and elects to use concise, direct prose delivered by both Hannah’s in direct address. There is a lot of telling instead of showing, often feeling more akin to a summary. The strongest being the exploration of Hannah’s early acts of self-liberation; wearing a blouse under her jacket on her paper route, writing an essay using flowery, fluid loops instead of a more masculine cursive. Despite being a show with a trans protagonist, the presentation is unimaginatively binary. Hannah finds incredible catharsis in finding out that her identity has a name and that there are people like her through research at her local library. However, as a result of that research, there is no mention of intersex, agender, gender queer or any other non-binary identities; no real exploration into what sex and gender mean to her beyond the traits she must perform and ultimately hormone replacement therapy. I can understand that her identity as a trans woman is central to the narrative but not even having her learn about other gender identities as part of her growing understanding of what being trans means to her feels like a oversight. Also, as written, she is to be played by a Mezzo Soprano, to represent her true self and a baritone as her pre transition. Some of the highlights explore her duality and the way she interacts with herself; but don’t leave much room for innovation. Openly transgender opera singers are making small strides in contemporary opera; Lucia Lucas, a baritone played Don Giovanni for Tulsa Opera. Holden Madagame, recently spoke to the New York Times about his journey coming out and transitioning from a Mezzo Soprano to a tenor whilst on testosterone. How much more nuanced and interesting would it have been for the score to be more playful and experimental with gender and voice or even to provide a more tangible opportunity for a trans performer to sing a trans character in their own voice. Joshua Erdelyi-Gotz compresses himself beautifully; his movements and vocal technique are minute, concise and controlled. He has a lovely way of allowing his eyes and face to convey longing, doubt and warmth; the way he looks at Morgan Carter as Hannah’s emerging self is filled with a natural tenderness that gives them a warm, easy chemistry. Whilst the score demands that he sing mostly in his lower register he has a few moments that allow for a poignant lilt into falsetto. Morgan Carter is stupendous as Hannah after; especially given that they were initially engaged as standby and stepped in at the last moment. They are a wonderfully expressive, instinctual performer and brilliant physical counter to Gotz. I first noticed the ease and delicacy with which they moved her hands, the joy at the fluidity and ease with which they move Hannah’s body as she develops more comfort and integrity within it. Their formidable soprano surely ordains a well deserved career on the mainstage but I felt given the intimacy of forty-five downstairs they could have allowed for more subtle projection to enhance the texture that’s already present in their vocal performance, particularly their stunning crescendos.

Despite being played by two such accomplished and sensitive artists, Librettists Campbell and Reed’s Hannah isn’t particularly well developed. She is a cipher; more of a summary than a fully formed character. The decision has been made to isolate her; she is disconnected from her family, but we never hear anything about her relationship with them. She doesn’t have friends, lovers and most importantly a community. She doesn’t interact with other trans people or barely anyone for that matter. She lives in San Francisco, but we have very little perspective of what she does there; is she studying and if so, what? Is she working? How does she afford her hormone treatments? Does she have a support system? Is she facing discrimination or harassment at work, school or the medical system? The libretto isn’t nuanced enough to really build a compelling narrative around someone who chooses to isolate themselves and so frustratingly her experiences don’t feel lived in. Namely, despite 90 minutes with this woman we seldom get a sense of who she is. The audience is robbed of the opportunity to build a connection with her on a grounded level. For a cisgender audience, I can imagine it amounts to watching an experience outside of their own and congratulating themselves for being so open minded as to hold space for her. For a queer/trans audience it just feels like a missed opportunity to explore a trans woman’s story in a medium that has historically excluded trans and gender diverse individuals.

There is no doubting the good intentions of everyone involved but I felt that there were several glaring blind spots. An interlude late in the piece has Hannah targeted in a parking lot whilst her counterpoint reads out, in graphic detail, statistics of trans women who have been murdered all over the world. Firstly, the list doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2014 when the opera was written and given the epidemically high rates of reported homicides on Trans women of colour in the United States (where the opera is set) it is a particularly egregious oversight. Furthermore, though undoubtedly the inclusion of these women’s names and the ways they were murdered is designed to ‘raise awareness’; in the context of the piece it feels misguided and exploitative. From my perspective they felt like a dramatic tool designed to provoke a response from the audience rather than honouring the lives, legacies and unique stories of these women.

I hope that As one’s success provides a stepping stone to telling more rich, nuanced and diverse trans stories in opera. This production has a great deal of talent behind it,  including several trans people in the creative team which undoubtedly helped add nuance to the presentation. Audiences will undoubtedly find much to enjoy despite my reservations about the material’s limitations.

As one is playing at 45 downstairs until February 1st.

Performances: 4    Direction: 3      Musical Direction: 3

Set/Costumes: 3   Score/Libretto: 2   Lighting/Sound: 4

*I was fortunate enough to be joined last night by a classical musician who was extremely valuable in helping me contextualise my thoughts on the music.

**An earlier version of this review stated that Hannah was played by two cisgender performers; that was incorrect and the review has been edited to include the correct pronouns of the performer in question.

Images: Sarah Clarke