Gertrude Opera heralds the new decade with the modern American opera As One, a heartfelt work as timely as it is elegiac.
The first ever opera to focus on a transgender journey, the Australian premiere of As One is an ideal fit for the cultural program of Melbourne’s annual Midsumma Festival. Commissioned and developed by American Opera Projects, the 2014 work is a seamless match of concept and form. A pair of singers plays Hanna Before and Hannah After, sharing the stage and gently supporting each other as they perform.
The 75-minute opera unfolds in three parts over a single act. Over the course of fifteen songs, the audience follows a fascinating life story from a boyhood paper round (with a secret blouse beneath a jacket), to the rigid gender expectations of school days and on to breakthroughs of self-realisation, medical processes and both the soaring thrill and the inherent danger of being seen in the new guise. The horrific violence suffered by transgender women around the world is deftly highlighted as a sobering issue that Hannah After must face.
Composer Laura Kaminsky conceived As One, with the libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. Written for mezzo-soprano, baritone and string quartet, the piece is not only at the perfect scale for an independent production, it is also a beautifully accessible piece that is a pleasure to hear upon the first listen. Pacing is deliberately measured, allowing ready absorption of the carefully considered material.
Reed also serves as filmmaker, providing the enlightening video montage that accompanies the performance of the singers and musicians. As a projection screen, the wall of fortyfive downstairs would be well served with a fresh coat of white paint, but that is all part of the charm of the characterful venue.
Visiting American conductor Alexandra Enyart is a very welcome guest as she makes her Australian conducting debut. Highly experienced with As One, Enyart keeps the relatively unfamiliar music flowing with calm confidence and insightful musicianship. Enyart’s confidence extends to a brief cameo as a teacher, leading the audience in the role of a classroom full of pupils reciting a verse of John Donne’s “No Man is an Island” (Meditation XVII).
The four excellent musicians are Kristian Winther (violin), Natalia Harvey (violin), SuYing Aw (viola) and Zoë Knighton (cello).
Director Linda Thompson rightly trusts the material, presenting the opera with a well-judged minimum of staging and action. With the projections providing all the context required, the two singers are free to focus on the music and the transmission of the highly personal story in this intimate venue. Far from a simplistic delineation of the two traditional genders, the opera weaves in the early influence of Hannah After and the later background support of Hannah Before; Thompson’s gentle direction conveys this duality with elegant flair.
Young baritone Joshua Erdelyi-Götz gives a compelling performance as Hannah Before. Working with a determined, yet gently understated, focus, Erdelyi-Götz enhances his role with subtle glimmers of warmth while avoiding any sort of physical affection in his body language. Possessing an attractive voice that soars in power with little visible effort, Erdelyi-Götz colours his vocals with tender expression.
According to program notes, soprano Marie Campbell was engaged as understudy, and is making her principal role debut having stepped into the role of Hannah After. To say that the backstage drama of this arrangement is completely absent from the stage would be a total understatement. Presenting herself with utter poise and charming presence, Campbell sings with sweet ringing tone and engaging sincerity.
In all too rare moments of duets, Erdelyi-Götz and Campbell’s voices blend beautifully. Though obviously not playing a traditional couple, the pair can still be said to enjoy chemistry; their mutual respect and support is palpable, and they share the spotlight with sincere humility. One final comment would be that each singer’s English diction is immaculate, with the decision not to utilise surtitles being an obvious one.
Opera lovers of Melbourne are well versed with new work and should need little encouragement to be sure to see As One. Midsumma revellers seeking a higher plain will also find much to enjoy.
As One plays at fortyfive downstairs theatre, Melbourne until 1 February 2020.
Photos: Sarah Clarke