Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Gender identity undergoes exploration with chamber opera

Hannah Penn as Hannah after and Lee Gregory as Hannah before in Portland Opera's production of As One. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

What is the self? How do you accept yourself if you do not identify with your own gender? How do others accept you? These questions are some of the central underpinnings of As One, a chamber opera that received a strong production from Portland Opera on March 22 at Newmark Theatre. Composed by Laura Kaminsky with video projections by Kimberly Reed who also co-wrote the libretto with Mark Campbell, As One tackles transgender issues straight on but ultimately falls a little short of delivering the emotional goods.

As One uses a string quartet and only two singers to tell the story of a male who becomes a female. The male, listed as Hannah Before in the program, struggles from childhood with his feelings even though he is the “perfect boy” to his family and friends. He delivers newspapers from his bicycle and excels as an athlete, winning medal after medal a la Bruce Jenner. But he steals a blouse from a neighbor’s clothesline and wears it under his clothing. He loves writing cursive, and wants to be with the girls during the sex ed class. At the library, he surreptitiously reads books that discuss transgender issues.

Sometime after high school Hannah Before moves to the San Francisco area, where he takes medication that allows him to become Hannah After. Although she writes to her parents that she won’t be home for Christmas and is finally accepted by others as a woman. A frightful encounter with a hateful stranger at a park causes a dramatic shift in her life, and she responds by taking a trip to an isolated cabin in Norway where she realizes that she can be happy with herself.

As One was most effective in building the story of Hannah and portraying conflict. One can imagine being an island with no one to turn to for help except books. The incident in the park with the stranger had a palpable edge that was followed by the recitation of names of transgender people who have been murdered. Rather than reach out to family or friends, Hannah After inexplicably runs off to Norway to find herself. Snippets of disarming humor brought levity to the story, but I was not convinced that she was truly happy with herself unless she returned to the states and felt that way.

Outstanding performances by Lee Gregory and Hannah Penn carried the Portland Opera production to the goal line. Gregory, who starred as Hannah Before in the Long Beach Opera company’s 2017 production, skillfully conveyed a conflicted young man. Hannah Penn excelled with impeccable comic timing to connect with the audience. Even though Gregory’s legato lines allowed him to become a bit too loud when matched up with Penn’s ornamental filigree, their voices were well suited for each other.

Kaminsky’s music expressed optimism with uplifting motoric phrases. Dissonant tones portrayed the scary scene in the park. A series of sliding sounds conveyed the disorienting effect of the sex altering drugs. Plaintive fragments of Silent Night and The First Noel drifted in and out during the sad Christmastime scene.

Violinists Margaret Bichteler and Nelly Kovalev, violist Hillary Oseas, and cellist Dylan Rieck played with conviction under the direction of Andreas Mitisek, who did double duty as stage director as well as designed the stage and costumes. The use of a suitcase to extract memories from Hannah’s past was subtle and effective.

Reed's films supported the story and music superbly, including a wonderful go-pro-camera like sequence for the newspaper route. When the Lewis and Clark Library from Helena, Montana, (where Reed grew up) was shown, it generated some laughter from the audience who mistook it for the library at Lewis & Clark College.

The ending with self-imposed isolation in Norway, seemed a bit of a stretch. The parents had written that they loved their child, and Hannah had replied that she didn’t have the money for a plane ticket, but later found enough to fly to a foreign land. It seemed that she could have tried to find a few supportive friends in the Bay Area, especially after the dangerous experience at the park. The final scene was hopeful but would it stick after returning home?

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