“As One,” Laura Kaminsky's opera, onstage at Longy School of Music. Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018
“As One” is built for success. A one-act chamber opera—only two singers, a string quartet, and a conductor needed. The set is a video. The topic could be ripped out of any newspaper—the inner struggle of a transgender. And it’s lovingly told, with some humor, lots of energy, and a versatile score that sets a series of shifting moods brilliantly.
Saturday evening’s performance of “As One,” a joint production of the Boston Opera Collaborative and the Longy School of Music, in Longy’s Pickman Hall, captured all the high points of Laura Kaminsky’s inventive score. Thanks to a pair of terrific voices—baritone Scott Ballantine and mezzo Rebecca Krouner, who did the roles of Hannah Before and Hannah After proud with top-notch acting skills—“As One” rolls almost breathlessly through the early life of a small-town, A-student high school quarterback, who knows all along that there’s something different inside.
As a dramatic work, “As One” feels a bit facile. Apart from one harrowing confrontation scene, the Hannah’s conflict is internal. Perhaps as it should be; there’s no demonizing of parents or classmates (well, teachers come in for some lumps). But you feel like the depiction of Hannah’s early life leaves much of the telling untold.
That’s likely to be just a typical hetero reaction to the story. “As One” creates a trans hero: confident, decisive, self-deprecating but certainly goal-oriented. Perhaps that’s hard to accept. We expect alternatives to have doubt, so we’re not challenged in our own assumptions so forcefully.
The singing parts in “As One” take a back seat musically to the instrumental parts. Kaminsky’s score would be the true star in any other tale. The quartet highlights the lower instruments—the viola (Hayley Murks-Abikadirova) occupies a symbolic “between two identities” range, with solos to emphasize the point; and the cello (You Kyung Kim) has multiple inviting figures. Violinists Marie Oka and Liubomyr Senyshyn round out the foursome, and the entire ensemble was conducted with gentle enthusiasm by Andrew Altenbach.
Hannah Before and Hannah After are actors first and singers second, thanks to direct vocal setting that firmly placed declamation above flash. There was some coloratura, and some light melismatic sections, but Ballantine and Krouner mostly sang the story.
Which is certainly not a comment on their profoundly interesting and confident voices. Both instruments brimmed with talent: Ballantine is a lyric baritone, nice colors in his quieter range, full of emotion. Krouner showed great strength in her upper range—is this a soprano in the making?—and sang every note with easy conviction. It’s one of those instruments that’s calming, and pleasant to be near from the first note.
The set—a film montage created by Kimberly Reed, the subject of “As One,” a successful filmmaker and co-librettist with the estimable Mark Campbell—sometimes missed the mark. Some of it was quasi-autobiographical: young Hannah in school, on the football field, on a coffee date. Some of the film—projected to the back of the stage, and a bit above—was atmospheric, especially toward the climax, where Hannah escapes an attacker, and then travels abruptly to Norway to process the violence. Much of it had a grainy, old-time look, intended to mark the span of Hannah’s life, presumably.
Greg Smucker from BOC directed the production, but with the supplied backdrop, and simple, two-character casting, that became mostly directions on blocking and interaction. Those directions were superb: both characters moved around and changed the simple sets (benches, chairs) with organic ease; sight gags and glances were a big part of the humor, and the feeling of genuine devotion between the two Hannahs. (One wonders: if you “turned the sound off” on this production, you might think you were watching a love story. The two Hannahs are onstage the entire time, and their affection never relents.)
“As One” has so many positive attributes. The score brims with invention and smarts—sometimes tense, sometimes florid, always engaging. The topic begs to be explored, especially in this optimistic light. With integrity, it occupies a space between theatre and opera. The stripped-down production doesn’t hurt.
With almost two dozen productions staged since its 2014 debut, success has been realized. A sold-out room at Pickman Hall Saturday evening added to that tally.
“As One” closes its run at Longy’s Pickman Hall this afternoon at 3:00 p.m. bostonoperacollaborative.org