Review

'As One,' the every(wo)man transgender opera

When Long Beach Opera brought Laura Kaminsky’s “As One” to Southern California for the first time Saturday night, it was as one more. This is the ninth production of the opera, which had its premiere less than three years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and has since been performed across the United States as well as in Montreal and Berlin. This year alone, Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Colorado have mounted “As One.” Next month: New Orleans.

The world clearly needs a readily accessible transgender opera with a warm heart.

The accessibility concerns not only Kaminsky’s musical style and the opera’s emotional directness but also its compactness. “As One” needs only a pair of singers and a string quartet. It can be put on just about anywhere. Video backdrops take care of the set.

The real secret of the opera’s success, however, as revealed in David Schweizer’s understated yet persuasive production in Long Beach’s Beverly O’Neill Theater, is that under everything lays a winning coming-of-age story. The specific aspect of sexuality is, surprisingly, almost incidental. No one grows up easily. Every first date is a trial. We all have issues with family. The point of “As One” is that we all are one.

The libretto by Mark Campbell (who has written texts for a number of new operas, most recently William Bolcom’s “Dinner at Eight”) and Kimberly Reed (a filmmaker who had been a starting quarterback in high school) is essentially a series of songs for Hannah Before and Hannah After. The first is a baritone; the latter, a mezzo-soprano.

But rather than having Before follow After, both Hannahs remain in dialogue. The female side comes out in a 10-year-old who likes to wear a blouse under a boy’s jacket while on a paper route. The male continues to support the female up to the time Hannah is Hannah.

In fact, “As One” is not so much an opera of ripped-out-of-the-headlines relevance than a traditional, if unconventional, love story. Were you to attend a performance sung in a language you didn’t understand, you might be led to believe it is a romance between two characters. They embrace often. The woman is protective of the young boy. The man is protective of the young woman. In the end, “As One” boils down to the easily relatable condition of a person learning to love one’s self.

Although structured as 16 distinct songs, “As One” is really a music theater piece in 16 vignettes. The string quartet sets each scene with a suitable music style. Kaminsky applies, say, propulsive post-Minimalism when she wants to wipe away angst and makes room for a lightness of being at the beginning. Here, the off-the-cuff message Hannah learns at 10 is that she can wear a blouse and the paper still gets delivered.

A rhapsodizing solo viola, its range between the violins and cello, is the ideal alter-ego for both Hannahs, the inquisitive Before and the soul-searching After. But Kaminsky just as easily employs the full quartet to produce effusive romanticism, flamboyance, folksiness and, in the one scene where Hannah narrowly escapes a hate crime, harrowing harmonics. One style, appropriately enough for this story, doesn’t fit all.

The soloists, Lee Gregory and Danielle Marcelle Bond, sing mostly declamatory phrases, Hannah Before more macho cool and Hannah After more willing to become flowery and flirtatious and emotionally wrought. While clichés in the abstract, perhaps, these traits are the necessary raw material of Hannah’s interior negotiations as she works out, step by step, how to find herself.

Both singers are strong stage personalities, but Bond’s job is the more considered. It is she who ultimately must transcend gender, which happens with the enlightenment bathed by the Northern Lights in hers and the opera’s most impressive scene.

Effectively grand as that Straussian transformative final scene in the Norwegian woods is, “As One” remains a modest opera and, remarkable for its subject, a cheerful one. To that end Andreas Mitisek conducted a performance that favored atmosphere over point making and that allowed enough space for humor. On his own, violist Adam Neeley had a bold sound that could stand out for the solos yet seamlessly blend with the violinists Robert Schumitzky and Anne Tenney and cellist Charles Tyler.

By moving beyond the daily news, “As One” approaches admirable universality. But does that also make it too nice to get attention in an art form that thrives on sensationalism? Different LGBTQ centers, as well other organizations, have thrown their support into the Long Beach Opera production, and even so the theater was far from full Saturday night.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘As One’

Where: Beverly O’Neill Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $49 - $150

Information: (562) 470-7464 or longbeachopera.org

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

mark.swed@latimes.com

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