Boston Opera Collective continues its run of Laura Kaminsky’s As One tonight, January 27th, and tomorrow afternoon at Pickmann Hall Longy School of Music at Bard College. This intimate and modern two-person show tells a story by librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed of a male-to-female transgender character named Hannah as she comes to understand her life before, during, and after her transition. Both a baritone and mezzo-soprano represent Hannah, showing both genders of her story at the same time. With the accompanying string quartet sitting in front of the first row of the audience, the performance of this character study maintains an air of closeness.
Taking cues from co-librettist Reed’s life, As One unreels in vignettes that jump in and out of different moments in Hannah’s life. Part I focuses entirely on her days in school, biking a paper route while hiding a stolen blouse and wishing to learn about the female anatomy in sex education. Part II sees Hannah moving to California, where she begins her transition. On her own, she experiences happy moments of self-discovery, upsetting ones like not being able to spend Christmas with her family, and a life-changing experience of almost being killed in a hate crime. Part III sees her shaken by that last event, moving to Norway and living in isolation in a shack. There she learns what will fulfill her life.
The story moves at a brisk pace with little fluff. Every event deepens the audience’s connection with Hannah. She makes jokes about herself; she gets elated at seemingly innocuous events; she sometimes feels embarrassed. In other words, she feels like a real person rather than a constantly tortured soul. Moments like “Perfect boy” and “Home for the holidays,” where the audience listens to Hannah’s thoughts, are among the best scenes. Those delve deeply into her engaging character, and that’s incredibly fulfilling.
On occasion, though, the text delves into action-declaration, a common problem in modern opera. As One mitigates this by having one actor narrate what the other acts out. Direct allusions to John Donne’s poem “No Man is an Island” that start in Part I und ergo awkwardly forced reincorporation later.
Kamninsky’s decision to portray Hannah as both baritone and mezzo-soprano was bold. The cast this reviewer saw, Andrew Miller and Jamie Korkos, shared the workload of solos and duets. Their voices blended readily, sounding “as one,” especially near the end. Each actor did a fine job with the limited solo material, far more syllabic than florid (though it did have its melismatic moments). The pair shined in their duets, however, where the harmonies got top billing.
The accompaniment by a string quartet (Marie Oka and Liubomyr Senyshyn on violin, Hayly Murks-Abdikadirova on viola, and You Kyung Kim on cello allows the production to become a pocket opera similarly to Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, where carefully chosen timbres emanate from a small pool. Murks-Abdikadirova’v viola seemed essential in the overall sound world; its awkward, lyrical quality straddled the transition between the two voice ranges. Kamminsky hardly stinted, though on solo passage that highlighted the three other individual string timbres. Andrew Altenbach conducted with relaxed ease, even essaying a small role as a disembodied voice singing Christmas carols.
Gregg Smucker’s staging used projections from co-librettist Kimberly Reed to set time and place. Imagery mostly comprised stock footage of locations or actions, like “Paper route” having moving bicycles projected on the backdrop or “Three words” having San Francisco trolley rides. This choice enhances the pocket opera feeling by doing more with less. Otherwise, Miller and Korkos moved around the obligatory tables and chairs effectively.
Tickets still are on sale for the 8:00 PM Saturday performance (with Scott Ballantine and Rebecca Krouner as Hannah). On Sunday at 3:00 PM, Andrew Miller and Jamie Korkos reprise their roles. Do go see this show. Please.