This opera exploring trans identity is deceptively naive
In 2018, Laura Kaminsky Like a was officially named the 13th most performed opera in North America – the only opera by a living composer to make the top 20. It is no small feat when the competition is Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.
The fact that this is a piece exploring trans identity only makes the scope of the work more surprising. With over 50 productions staged worldwide since its premiere in 2014, As One has been seen on three continents, but never – until this week – in the UK.
Cuban-American conductor Odaline de la Martinez is the driving force behind the premiere, one of 14 at the London Festival of American Music, whose home at The Warehouse in Waterloo gives the piece the kind of informal performance that she needs.
Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s libretto has an ingenuous quality that sets the tone for a work that sits somewhere between the song cycle and opera.
Fifteen songs tell the story of Hannah – a trans woman – following her from childhood, confusing and covering up through discovery, acceptance and aggression, before finally reaching a precarious peace.
Two performers share the role; a baritone (Simon Wallfisch) is Hannah Before while a mezzo (Arlene Rolph) is Hannah After – a binary approach that has been more recently challenged by the trans community.
The potentially exclusionary duality is addressed here with the addition of a dancer – Jarry Glavin – who animates the tensions and connections between the two Hannahs.
Kaminsky’s score, performed with style by Martinez’s Ensemble Lontanto, is composed of motor rhythms and open-hearted harmonies.
Writing for quartet is more interesting than syllabic vocal parts, so determined to keep the text clear that they risk becoming inert.
Director Benjamin Davis has a light touch. The projections add a sense of context, but otherwise Rolph and Wallfisch and a handful of props take us from childhood to adulthood.
Both find pockets in the character – Rolph’s dry humor, Wallfisch’s tender open-mindedness – although vocally there are fewer nuances.
The result seems deceptively naive. This is the sleight of hand that contemporary American opera does so well and the reason, perhaps, why we remain wary of it in the UK.