There is always a sort of nervous tension, one finds, when one’s story is being told by others. The tale always changes in the telling, and in the eyes of the teller things may be seen far differently from what the original teller experienced. Transgender people, for example, have learned to be leery of portrayals of their experience in media, particularly when few-to-no trans people were directly involved (c.f. Far too many movies and “very special episodes” to list here). It was, therefore, with some trepidation that this reviewer sat down to the Lyric’s performance of “As One” last night, currently playing at the Lyric’s headquarters on 18th st.
“As One” is a chamber opera, offered outside of the regular season as part of the Lyric’s “Explorations” series. This series, running in parallel to the regular season, has allowed them to put on smaller, more intimate productions of a type that would not necessarily suit the usual staging at the Kauffman. Fans of the series will remember fondly last season’s “The Juliet Letters”, another chamber piece.
“As One” is based on the story of Kimberly Reed, a transgendered woman whose journey took her from her small town roots to the anonymity of the big city and eventually even as far as Norway on her journey of self-discovery. Ms Reed co-wrote the libretto along with Mark Campbell, whom Lyric regulars will remember for “Silent Night”. Interestingly, Ms Reed also created the video backgrounds for the piece–small wonder, as she has established herself in recent years as a notable filmmaker. The footage–first-person mixed with archival found footage and other media–blends well with Laura Kaminsky’s music, reflecting the mood of the piece as it goes on.
Concerning Kaminsky’s score, it is an exercise in getting a lot out of very little. Using only a string quartet, she is able to march us through the formative years in a tense, tightly constructed series of melodies, with only the plaintive viola pushing its way through the structure, trying to find its own voice. Anyone who grew up different will understand. Fortunately, the character of “Hannah” is given voice by not one but two capable singers Wes Mason (“Before”) and Blythe Gaissert (“After”). Normally at this point this reviewer will launch into a tirade about casting cisgender (that is, non-transgender) persons in transgender roles, but in this case one must concede the lack of operatically-trained transgender singers available. This of course is another problem on its own, but one that can (and, we hope, will) be fixed in the fullness of time. In the meantime, It must be stated that Mason & Gaissert do an excellent job of bringing “Hannah” to life.
It is no secret that this reviewer has a particular stake in stories such as these, and to see it told well, with honesty and empathy, is always a relief. One never feels that they are being told their story by someone outside their experience; it is our story, being told by ourselves. There are so many moments that made this reviewer nod in agreement: the early isolation, that exhilaration of being unthinkingly “ma’am”‘d, the gut-sinking terror when someone starts following you and shouting and you wonder if you’re about to become a headline.
Ah yes, that. Sadly, violence and the threat of violence are also a near-universal part of the transgender experience. Even the most “passing”, the ones among us who do all the “right” things, take the most caution–we all have our stories. Part and parcel of the life we find ourselves in is that there are a number of people in the world who, quite simply, despise the fact of our existence. And who will demonstrate this with whatever means are at their disposal. During the piece “Out of Nowhere”, when Ms Reed’s own close call is narrated, Mr. Mason walks around and behind the audience, reading off a list of names of transgender people who have been killed by violence. And yes, even Kansas City has its names on that tragic ledger.
Overall, it must be said that the performance came off extremely well. The refurbishment of the Lyric’s space into a full-fledged theatre is very impressive, and leads one to hope that there will be more such “explorations” in the seasons to come. The projection was perhaps not quite as bright as it may have been, but it was at least adequate. The Fry Street Quartet did an excellent job on the score as always, and as we left the theatre, I and the two fellow trans women I had brought with me agreed that it had, overall, gotten it right.
As we stepped back out into the cold night, I reflected on the state of things in the country today: violence against trans people has been climbing steadily over the past several years, with each year bringing a new record for death by violence. Already, two dead in this year, and only January. A recent poll shows tolerance for LGBT people actually going down. The might of the federal government, once bending towards equality, seems now bent on driving us from public life again. In such times as these, it can be hard to have hope sometimes. But one must remind oneself that such battles as these are won with hearts and minds. And judging by the reception one saw last night, and the sold-out performances reported, there is something to be hopeful for.