Author Archives: Allison Kronberg

Valentines Day at the Opera

#HOTSpeaks: “A Love for Opera Brought Us Together”

It was the 1972 HOT Cast Party for Verdi’s Aida. The smell of potluck dishes filled the air, and the opera’s cast and choristers chatted and mingled, with the electric excitement that lingers after a successful performance.

During the opera, one chorister named Manning Richards had been dressed as a Fifth Century Egyptian Priest. He learned that Miss Sarah Marks was volunteering on behalf of the Opera’s education, and he quickly took an interest in her. But on the night of the cast party, Sarah arrived with someone else — the opera’s Egyptian King. Despite the competition, Manning introduced himself.

“I did not make much of an impression,” he said. “My robe costume was beige-colored from head to toe. It wasn’t much attractive.”

Rightly fearing that he was losing Sarah’s attention, Manning changed his course and invited her to a wine tasting. She was impressed, so she accepted. By the end of that year, the two were married.

Both Sarah and Manning grew up with art and music. Sarah’s grandmother was an accomplished pianist, and her mother was a singer, so it came as no surprise when she graduated with a degree in music from Indiana’s DePauw University. Manning was also active in music, though it didn’t become his career. He sang in several choirs, both here in his home state of Hawaii and in the Mainland United States, while he pursued his Doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Rochester Medical School.

“A love for opera brought us together,” Sarah said.

A year after they met, Sarah was recruited to join the HOT Board. She served as Education Chair for about five years and was then elected to serve as Board President. It was an interesting time for HOT. While Sarah was Board President, HOT was becoming its own organization, independent from the Honolulu Symphony Society.  HOT’s first individual office, in fact, was within the Richards’ family cemetery.

“[HOT] was a little bit more homespun in those days,” Sarah said. “Board members themselves were very involved in administering the operas. But, gradually, it got bigger and better. It was fun to watch it grow. And it has, indeed, grown.”

To this day, Sarah and Manning remain committed to supporting local arts. After serving as the Executive Director of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and as President of the Hawaii Theatre, Sarah still serves on several HOT Board committees. In addition to supporting Hawaii’s opera, The Richards are also regular season ticket holders for many local theatres and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

The next HOT production the pair will be attending is April’s Season closer, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. On Tuesday night performances, the Richards bring Manning’s brother and sit in the first row, front and center. On Friday night performances, they come by themselves. But when asked if they consider going to the opera a date, both enthusiastically replied, “No!”

“We don’t necessarily feel sentimental at the opera, because we’ve done a lot of different activities together since,” Manning said.

“But I will let you in on a secret,” he whispered, “We do hold hands during the opera!”

Hawaii Opera Theatre Props

#HOTVillage: Daughter of the Regiment Props

It takes a bunch of talented, skilled people that you never see or hear to pull these things off. There’s a lot going on that the audience doesn’t see. That’s what we are. We’re the people you don’t see. And we don’t want to be seen. We want to have these transitions happen and appear like magic, to some extent. Being the support role is what we do.” – HOT Director of Production Rob Reynolds

BECAUSE PRODUCING AN OPERA TRULY TAKES A VILLAGE, #HOTVILLAGE GIVES YOU AN INTIMATE LOOK AT ONE PIECE OF PRODUCTION FOR EACH HOT OPERA. IN THIS PIECE, HOT’S PROPS TEAM TOOK US BEHIND THE SCENES TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT GOES INTO THE OBJECTS ONSTAGE THAT HELP TELL THE STORY OF THE DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT.

 

A Lot More Than Just “Fake Things”

During a backstage tour this month for students taking part in HOT’s residency programs, Prop Master Rick Romer posed a question to a group of 2nd and 3rd grade students: “What is a prop?”

The students considered the question for a few moments before one enthusiastically replied “a fake thing!”

Rick laughed, and then explained to the students that a prop is “anything that an actor or singer touches, holds, or uses as part of the scene.” And as each student thought about the definition, he exposed them to a series of “fake things” within HOT’s February production of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment that have some very real stories to tell.

French Flag PropAs an opera with a plot that features the French military, the audience won’t be surprised to see French flags waving and the chorus of soldiers carrying fake weapons. But behind the scenes, other props involve a process that is greater than what meets the eye.

To demonstrate this to the students, Rick took out a silver platter topped with crystal glasses that were filled with champagne. He asked one young girl to carry it across the stage without spilling. As he saw her grow worried before attempting, he said, “Do you see what the problem is?”

He then explained how the prop team replaced the crystal with plastic glasses and glued metal washers to the bottom of each one to weigh them down. Finally, he demonstrated how a colored gel was placed into each cup to give the appearance of liquid from afar without the risk of spilling.

“I wanted the students to understand the process of problem solving, so they feel like they’re the ones discovering the solution or that they’re sharing in that process,” Rick said.

The Prop Master Rick has come a long way in his 50 year career in theatre and television since he created his first prop at 12 years old. His sister was cast as a maid in a school production, and she needed to carry a bag of groceries onto the stage for each production. Using just Lincoln Logs, Rick created a loaf of bread, celery, and other food items for the prop.

“I was in the house seeing my bag of groceries that I made, and it was like something clicked,” Rick said. “I really think that was my ‘aha’ moment.”

From Marcello’s easel in La Bohème to Rigoletto’s jester stick, props may not steal the show, but Hawaii Opera Theatre Propsbehind them lies a unique process of troubleshooting and ingenuity. For Rick and his team of two assistants, problem solving is an integral part of the process of prop creation. And they enjoy the challenge.

“I love running props, because I like being in the process of the production,” said Prop Assistant Emi Yabuta as she painted a plastic pineapple to give it more depth. “Things happen and you have to solve problems on the spot. It’s wonderful. I love doing that.”

Emi begins each production by reading the opera’s libretto to learn more about its plot and characters. She believes that props should go a step further than simply being utilized by a character – they should help show the audience each character’s temperament.

In Act I of The Daughter of the Regiment, Tonio is hauled onto the scene by the French regiment in a burlap sack. After Marie explains that he saved her life, the soldiers allow him to have a drink with them, but he receives a smaller tin mug than the rest of them. Both the burlap sack and the smaller mug serve the purpose of showing that the Regiment is not yet on Tonio’s side.

But Emi’s favorite props are those of the chorus, because without them, the characters have no individuality.

“The chorus members have no names, so they have things to define them, like baskets or farm tools” she said. “It does change the coloring of the stage, because then it’s more than just a bunch of costumed people singing.”

The team’s favorite prop of the show, though, is one that Rick designed and created. Called the “crash box,” it is never seen and only heard. As the Duchess of Crackenthorpe leaves the home of The Marquise in Act II, she does so with a clamoring racket. The comical noise is created by a large wooden box filled with various metal entities rolling down steps backstage.

At the end of production, the crash box or the Lincoln Log bag of groceries probably won’t be what the audience remembers. And Rick doesn’t want them to.

“They shouldn’t take attention away from the music,” he said. “They’re simply there. They do their job, and they tell their story.”

HOT's Daughter of the Regiment

10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment

Still looking for reasons to see HOT’s production of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment? Here’s 10! 
Audrey Luna High Res 1 credit Brian Kuhlmann 624x379 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment

Photo by Brian Kuhlmann

1. Metropolitan Opera Star Audrey Luna 

Hawaii’s own Grammy Award-winning Soprano Audrey Luna stars as Marie! Audrey broke the record for the highest note ever sung on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage earlier this year. Opera News has said that she “has power and a blazing coloratura facility that most lyric sopranos can only dream of.” Read Audrey’s thoughts on returning to Hawaii in this #HOTSpeaks post
 
Fille1 9 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment

2. The Tenor Aria With 9 High C’s 

With no less than 9 high C’s, Donizetti’s “Ah, Mes Amis,” sung by the character Tonio, is famously considered an impressive vocal feat for a tenor. Listen to this recording of HOT’s Tonio, Italian-American Tenor Michele Angelini, flawlessly performing the aria. Then come see him sing it live in his HOT debut! 

Tonio David Portillo Ava Pine Marie and Rod Nelman Sulpice Kiss Ellen Appel Fort Worth Opera 1 624x416 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment

Photo Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

3. It’s a Comedy 

“It’s a rollicking combination of esprit de corps, slapstick antics and innocent romance — not to mention intoxicating music highlighted by spectacular vocal writing.” ~ NPR 
Few associate comedy with opera. But the Daughter of the Regiment is filled with parody, irony, and eccentric characters. Even the premise of an army brat adopted by the French Regiment is comical. So get ready to laugh! 

Opera History in Hawaii
 
4. The Local Historical Significance 

A rich history of opera in Hawaii dates back to the 1800s. Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment was the first known operatic performance in Hawaii in 1854. Learn more about opera’s local history in this #HOTSpeaks article

france 1544526 960 720 624x416 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment
 
5. The French Language 

The French language is regarded as beautiful and romantic when spoken – imagine it sung! But don’t worry, HOT provides English supertitles, so you’ll always know what’s going on in the plot. 

 Untitled design 48 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment
6. HOT Debuts 

Tenor Michele Angelini Debuts with HOT in the role of Tonio, along with Mezzo-Soprano Jenni Bank, who debuts in the role of the Marquise. Michele is heralded by the Dallas Morning News as an artist who “displays a voice of silken loveliness as well as graceful agility.” The Baltimore Sun has said of Jenni that she has a “deep, dark, penetrating tone… that can extract Verdian richness.” 

Streetcar HI SingIt 360x251 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment
 
7. The Duchess Guest Appearance 

HOT recently announced surprise guest as the Duchess of Crackenthorpe in Donizetti’s comedy, Daughter of the Regiment: Soprano Jill Gardner. “The Southern Songbird” joins a long list of guest stars to play the non-singing role of the Duchess, including US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

Untitled design 49 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment
 
8. HOT Favorites Jake Gardner and Jamie Offenbach 

HOT is thrilled to welcome back Baritone Jake Gardner and Bass-Baritone Jamie Offenbach, singing the roles of Sulpice and Hortensius, respectively. You’ll remember Jake from the 2008 production A Little Night Music, and Jamie most recently sang in the 2016 HOT production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

Untitled design 50 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment
 
9. It’s Donizetti 

Along with Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini, Donizetti was a leading composer of the bel canto opera style during the first half of the nineteenth century. He penned some of opera’s most famous shows, including LElisir dAmoreDon PasqualeLucia di Lammermoor, and Anna Bolena

Marie Ava Pine Ellen Appel Fort Worth Opera 624x416 - 10 Reasons to see The Daughter of the Regiment

Photo Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

 
10. There’s a Happy Ending 

Opera can be pretty grim. La Bohème, Macbeth, Roméo et Juliette, and more end with death, insanity, or both. We won’t spoil the ending of The Daughter of the Regiment for those who haven’t seen it, but rest assured that every character lives to see the end! 
  

 

Opera Preview

Free Opera Preview: Daughter of the Regiment

The 2017-18 Opera Season continues in February, which means HOT’s Opera Preview Lecture returns!

On January 31, 2018, starting at 10:00 AM, join HOT for an Opera Preview of HOT’s The Daughter of the Regiment at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre.

The event features an in-depth lecture from distinguished musicologist Dr. Lynne Johnson about the opera, filled with surprising facts and fascinating background information. But the real highlight is an opportunity to hear from the Stars of the production! Plus, it’s FREE to HOT and HMoA members!

Hear from the cast of The Daughter of the Regiment, including:

  • Marie:
    Audrey Luna
  • Tonio:
    Michele Angelini*
  • Sulpice:
    Jake Gardner
  • Marquise:
    Jenni Bank*
  • Hortensius:
    Jamie Offenbach

*HOT Debut

Haven’t bought your tickets yet? Click the button below to reserve your seats!

No RSVP necessary. For more information about The Daughter of the Regiment Opera Preview, contact HOT at (808) 596-7372.

As One Opera Lighting

#HOTVillage: As One Lighting

It takes a bunch of talented, skilled people that you never see or hear to pull these things off. There’s a lot going on that the audience doesn’t see. That’s what we are. We’re the people you don’t see. And we don’t want to be seen. We want to have these transitions happen and appear like magic, to some extent. Being the support role is what we do.” – HOT Director of Production Rob Reynolds

Because producing an opera truly takes a village, #HOTVillage gives you an intimate look at one piece of production for each HOT opera. In this piece, HOT’s principle lighting and set designer Peter Dean Beck took us behind the scenes of As One for a look at the new production’s lighting.

Lighting in “A World Where People Sing”

Lighting Design HOT

Stage Manager Madeline Levy (Left) and Lighting Designer Peter Dean Beck (Right) have a laugh while preparing lighting cues for HOT’s production of As One.

Peter Dean Beck has designed scenery and lighting for more than 350 productions around North America and Asia. Almost a third of those were HOT productions.

“I’ve been with [the Hawaii Opera Theatre] a long, long time,” Peter said. “I started here in 1986, and this is my 32nd season with the company. I’ve always done this. It’s the only career I’ve ever had.”

Peter didn’t always know that opera production would be his career, though. But he did have an awareness of the behind-the-scenes aspects of theater productions since his youth. Peter’s grandfather was a screenwriter, so he grew up with firsthand experiences of the world behind the curtain.

But it wasn’t until he attended Oberlin College that Peter had the opportunity to be a part of an opera production. He then went to graduate school at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. His first work in opera was Verdi’s La Traviata in North Carolina in 1977. 

“That was an education, let me tell you,” Peter said. “I began to understand that opera can be dramatic and theatrical. It’s more than just singing.”

Designing lighting and sets for an opera was very different from lighting a play, a dance piece, or even a musical, he learned. Unlike in a movie, where a camera is able to tell an audience where to look, lighting must do this in opera. And in opera, sets have to be able to accommodate the strict tempo of the music. For instance, if a chorus has four bars to enter the stage, they need to be able to maneuver within a set in that amount of time. Lastly, in opera, the designer of lighting and sets must also consider each singer’s ability to be heard within their placement on the stage. 

“I’ve always maintained that a world where people sing shouldn’t look like a world where people speak,” Peter said. “Singing rather than speaking moves us into a more lyrical and abstracted dimension.”

Over the course of his lifetime in work with scenic and lighting designing, Peter has worked on many repeat operas. He has designed for ten productions of both Madame Butterfly and The Magic Flute. His most recent work with HOT was designing the lighting and scenery for this season’s production of Bizet’s Carmen. He will also be back for HOT’s next season production, Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment.

But there are still operas he’s never worked on before. One of those pieces is HOT’s new production, As One.

As One is a chamber opera for a cast of two singers and a string quartet. There are no costume changes and minimal set pieces and props. Additionally, HOT is performing the piece in an all-new venue, Pier 10 at the Aloha Tower Terminal. All of these factors make for a unique lighting design challenge.

“It’s always interesting to discover a new piece,” Peter said.

Peter’s work in designing sets and lighting always begins with an in-depth knowledge of the production itself. He learns the music’s timing and the libretto’s story so that he can accommodate these with his vision. The next step is designing for the performance space. 

“Working in the Blaisdell Concert Hall is a lot different from working in Pier 10,” Peter said. “Pier 10 presented major challenges. It’s not a theatre, so we had to make it one. There’s a lot of hidden effort when you play in a place like that.”

Peter’s crew erected three lighting “trusses,” or metal overhead supports for lighting, over the stage in Pier 10. They then hung 44 individual lights from the trusses and focused them in the direction they would need to point. 

DSC00493 624x414 - #HOTVillage: As One Lighting

A member of the crew prepares for show time

After that, Peter sat down with As One’s Director and Stage Manager to set “lighting cues,” — timed recordings of how the lights will look during each part of the opera. In As One, there are about 80 of these cues. Before the production begins, an electrician does one last check that all lights are working, and then it’s show time.

Some of Peter’s favorite lighting moments in the production come in the third part of the piece. In stark contrast with the opera’s earlier settings, like classrooms and cafes, the third part is set in nature, in Norway. The story’s protagonist, Hannah, describes her experiences of rowing a boat and searching the night sky for the Northern Lights.

“It goes to a very deep color there that we haven’t seen before,” Peter said. “It has this mystical, cosmic quality instead of the harsh white light of being indoors.”

Many people think of lighting as a nuts-and-bolt, technical job, Peter expressed. But to him, designing lighting is much more than that. It’s poetry.

“A performer uses him or herself as their medium as an artist. I use stuff,” he said.

“I try to make poetry out of stuff.”

As One Opera Hawaii

Operawire names HOT’s As One in Top 5 Operas to See

The international online publication OperaWire named HOT’s production of As One in its Top 5 Operas to see This Weekend in North America for the weekend of Friday, January 12, 2018!

Read the Full Article

As One will be performed this weekend, January 13 and January 14, at 4 pm, along with a closing performance on Tuesday, January 16, at 7:30 pm at the Aloha Tower Terminal, Pier 10.

As One
A chamber opera for two singers and string quartet
Music and Concept by Laura Kaminsky
Libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed
Film by Kimberly Reed
 

“A piece that haunts and challenges its audience with questions about identity, authenticity, compassion and the human desire for self-love and peace.” ~ Opera News

Created by Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, As One depicts with empathy and humor the journey of a transgender person named Hannah as she achieves self-fulfillment in her life. The 75-minute opera stars Sasha Cooke and Kelly Markgraf, who are married in real life and created the roles of “Hannah after” and “Hannah before” at the 2014 premiere. 

Don’t miss out! Tickets from $35 at Tickets.HawaiiOpera.Org, by phone at 808.596.7858, or at the door.

Fry Street Quartet on Hawaii News Now

Fry Street Quartet Live on Hawaii News Now

Audiences in Hawaii heard a snippet of what the Fry Street Quartet will be bringing to the new HOT venue stage at the Terminal at Aloha Tower on this morning’s Hawaii News Now Sunrise.

The Fry Street Quartet – hailed by the New York Times as a “triumph of ensemble playing” – has a full weekend coming up with HOT this weekend, with performances as the accompaniment for the chamber opera As One on January 11, 13, 14, & 16, as well as in an independent showcase on January 12. 

Follow these links to watch the two-part video feature:

Fry Street Quartet on Hawaii News Now – Part 1

Fry Street Quartet on Hawaii News Now – Part 2

 

Librettist Mark Campbell #HOTSpeaks

#HOTSpeaks: Q&A With As One Co-Librettist Mark Campbell

An opera all starts with a story. And that story all starts with a libretto — an opera’s text. One person who has made this specific form of story-telling his career is Pulitzer Prize award-winning librettist Mark Campbell.

Mark Campbell’s work is at the forefront of the current contemporary opera scene in America. He’s also one of the co-librettists of HOT’s next production As One, opening this weekend on January 11, 2018. Together with composer Laura Kaminsky and filmmaker Kimberly Reed, Mark Campbell co-created the opera, which depicts with empathy and humor the journey of a transgender person. HOT’s production of the 75-minute chamber opera is the 13th production of the work since it premiered in 2014, making it one of the most produced new operas in recent history.

In this month’s #HOTSpeaks, we hear the unique perspective of what it’s like to be, as Mark Campbell puts it, the ‘guardian of the story.’

What made you decide to become a librettist?

I really love the combination of music and text and the power that it can give to a story. It can produce a more profound and urgent experience with an audience and helps them empathize with characters,  stories and situations in a way plain text cannot. I got into writing librettos mostly because I love music.

Many decades ago, I was an actor — and not a very good one. A composer I knew was writing a musical about the last days of the Romanovs that had an imminent workshop on the horizon and asked me to contribute some lyrics.  I discovered I really loved it. Following that, I wrote a few musicals and won a couple of prestigious awards in musical theater. Steve Sondheim honored me the first Kleban Foundation Award for Lyrics, which to this day remains the only award for lyricists and librettists in musical theater. But my first real foray into opera came in 2001, when John Musto asked me to create an opera with him for Wolf Trap Opera. The resultant Volpone, adapted from Ben Jonson’s play, was a big hit. And I felt I had found my artistic home.

What is it like being a librettist in the 21st century?

It’s incredible. A lot of people are identifying our current scene in opera as “The Golden Age of American Opera.” I don’t know if that’s really true, and we’ll probably only know that decades from now, but it’s a terrific time to be a librettist, and I’m especially pleased how my colleagues and I are raising the profile of libretto-writing with operas that are more story-centric. Opera isn’t just about hitting high notes any more, or enduring some pretty silly librettos.

It’s about giving the audience a story that they are entertained by, that they can relate to, and even see mirrored in their own lives. And I think As One fits into that description very nicely.

What kind of skills do you need to become a librettist?

A librettist today needs to be a good storyteller, a mutable collaborator, a fine craftsman and understand almost intuitively how words work with music. I feel very fortunate in that I studied the lyricist’s craft rigorously for many years, which has served me well in writing opera librettos. In fact, As One can be characterized as a theatrical song cycle more than as a traditional song cycle.

Has working as an actor also influenced the way you write librettos?

Yes, in that I aim to create characters and roles for performers that are complete and specific, with traditional theatrical elements like arcs and motivations. I feel that a lot of bad opera happens these days because librettists create archetypes, not defined characters.

While writing a libretto, what kind of relationship do you try to maintain with the composer?

I’ve worked with more than 35 composers in my career and written the librettos for 25 operas. I’ve worked a lot with “first-timers” and with three Pulitzer Prize-winning composers. Every single composer and every single experience has been different—even with composers whom I’ve collaborated more than once. Some composers will set 95% of the first draft of the libretto I give them, others 25%. But every time I collaborate with composers, I know that part of my job is making sure that I give them a story and text that inspires them to composer their best music.

One thing a lot of people don’t know is that the libretto always comes first. Many people still have the silly notion that the composer writes the music and the libretto merely comes in a fills in some words. My first drafts of librettos are rigorously structured and always work within the format of identifying those traditional operatic moments, like arias and ensembles.  Why work in opera if you don’t take advantage of the form?


What themes are you most interested in drawing out in your librettos?

I had six premieres in 2017. One was a sophisticated 1930s comic opera called Dinner at Eight. One was about the commissioning of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, with the theme of making art. Another was an opera about the life of Steve Jobs. And the other two were about serial killers… So I can’t seem to identify a consistent theme —nor can anyone else. But I will say that I am a fan of Hitchcock and love stories with suspense, surprise, and distinctly theatrical elements.

When people ask me what stories make a good opera, I always answer, rather glibly, ‘stories that sing.’ Opera is a musical art form. If the story is better spoken, then let it be spoken.

What was it like writing about a transgender protagonist in As One?

It was one of the most gratifying experiences in my career, mostly because of my collaboration with Kimberly Reed. Neither Kim nor composer Laura Kaminsky had written an opera before and didn’t really understand at the time that an opera springs from the story. After meeting them, I went home and sketched a story in three parts in which a transgender person becomes her authentic self — based very loosely on some of Kim’s experiences. I asked Kim to write the libretto with me, because the story would be inauthentic if I wrote it alone. But in working with Kim, I also discovered what a fantastic storyteller she is. So the libretto wasn’t just about a message, but a real person.

How have people reacted to the opera and its story?

Wherever we play, Laura, Kim and I make sure that we connect with the LGBTQ+ community, and specifically, the transgender community. When Kim and I created the story of As One and the story of its protagonist, Hannah, we decided early on that it must be told with humor and in such a way that the audience can see themselves in her arc of discovery.  I really think that the universality at the core of the story has been one factor that has greatly contributed to the opera’s success. Another is the ease in which it can be performed. There are no castles or choruses to contend with, just two performers playing one role and the simplest of production values.

Over the past few years, is there any one moment that has been most fulfilling in working with the team of creators for As One or in seeing it produced?

Seattle Opera invited transgender youth from age eight to 18 to a dress rehearsal performance of As One. Many came with guardians, because many of these young people had been tragically kicked out of their homes by their parents. Following the performance, Laura and I had the honor of speaking to them about the opera and it was gratifying to hear them tell us how much they appreciated that we had captured their story. Also, about a month ago, Des Moines Metro Opera had five transgender people participate in a post-performance panel. For a number of audience members in attendance that night, it was their first time seeing or meeting a transgender person. I hope many people who see As One realize that the differences between their journeys as human beings and Hannah’s are very similar.  And that this opera merely raises visibility.

What are your plans for the future? Any new works in progress?

Kim, Laura and I are working together again on an opera called Today It Rains, which is being produced by San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and American Opera Projects. It’s an opera imagined from a real event in the life of Georgia O’Keeffe—when she boarded a train in New York in 1929 and arrived in Santa Fe a few days later, transformed.

I also have an oratorio premiering at Carnegie Hall in May, with music by Paul Moravec, who I wrote The Shining with. The work is based on the writings of William Still, conductor for the Underground Railroad. Called Sanctuary Road, it will be performed by the Oratorio Society of New York.

Additionally, I’m creating another work with Paola Prestini for Minnesota Opera based on the young adult novel, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. And another opera I wrote with Kevin Puts and Elizabeth Cree —Silent Night andhas several productions this year. Lastly, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which was the most successful opera in Santa Fe Opera’s history, is going to San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, Indiana University, and probably many more companies. There’s a lot going on, but not as many premieres as last year. And I’m frankly a little grateful for that!

 

26232680 10155350673027712 6405892136121717257 o 800x450 - Star Advertiser TGIF Cover: ‘As One’ Opera Explores Transgender Experience

Star Advertiser TGIF Cover: ‘As One’ Opera Explores Transgender Experience

In the world of stage and entertainment, it’s not uncommon to have one person play two roles. Less common is to have two characters play one — unless it’s a “Bewitching” situation where Dick Sargent replaced Dick York. It’s also not unheard of to have men play a female role — just witness the film “Jumanji: In the Jungle.”

But it would be safe to say that none of those is quite as innovative as “As One,” a chamber opera presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre starting next week. The opera has only character, a transgender person named Hannah, who over the course of the opera transitions from male to female. Hannah is portrayed by the husband-wife duo of baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who as “Hannah before” and “Hannah after” simultaneously experience life through the prism of both genders.

In its four-year history “As One” has become a favorite among small opera ensembles, with more than a dozen productions already staged and several more planned for this year. The New York Classical Review called it “everything we hoped for in contemporary opera: topical, poignant, daring and beautifully written.”

“AS ONE”
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre>> Where: Aloha Tower, Pier 10
>> When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Jan. 16, 4 p.m. Jan. 13-14
>> Cost: $35-$65
>> Info: 596-7858, hawaiiopera.org

For Cooke, a Grammy-winning operatic singer, and Markgraf, known for his versatility in classical, pop and jazz roles, the appearance here will mark a homecoming of sorts; Cooke is a direct descendant of Amos Cooke, the missionary and businessman who laid the groundwork for Castle & Cooke, one of Hawaii’s “Big Five” corporations. The pair got married here and visit as often as possible.

Markgraf and Cooke gave the world premiere of “As One” in 2014, but HOT’s production will be only their second time performing it together since then, as both are in heavy demand by opera companies around the world.

“I haven’t been free for any of the ones I was requested to do, but Hawaii was awesome because they really worked around our schedule to make it work,” said Cooke, speaking from her home in Texas a few days after performances in Germany.

“As One” had its genesis in 2012, when New Jersey, along with other states, was wrestling with the issue of same-sex marriage. Composer Laura Kaminsky read a newspaper story about a husband, who, with his wife’s support, was planning to undergo gender reassignment. New Jersey did not recognize same-sex marriages at the time, so once the man transitioned, their union would have been derecognized and all the benefits derived from marriage — Social Security, health insurance, retirement — would be in jeopardy.

“They were in love as people, not as body parts, and if the law did not pass in New Jersey, they would no longer be married and they’d lose all those benefits,” she said. “As I read the article, I was thinking, ‘This is operatic. … What is it to be a fully realized human being, in the context of the people in your orbit, and then what are you willing to give up in order to gain yourself?’”

It a took a number of random events to bring “As One” to fruition in its final form. Kaminsky, a respected composer of contemporary music, had never created an opera before and until then had never been interested in doing so. But during a visit to Russia she obtained some rarely performed Shostakovich scores, and seeking someone to perform them, connected with Cooke, whose parents are Russian-language professors in Texas, and Markgraf.

“I fell in love with them,” Kaminsky said. “They’re extraordinary artists, but it’s because they’re extraordinary human beings. They’re deeply empathic, spiritual and empathetic and intellectual all at once. … I wanted them to be in my opera; in fact, I wanted them to ‘be’ my opera. I wanted them to be the one character.”

Kaminsky came across the story of filmmaker Kimberly Reed, a transgender person whose story of transition from male to female and her interaction with her rural hometown was told in the film “Prodigal Sons.” Kaminsky teamed up Reed with Mark Campbell, a respected opera librettist, to come up with a story, tossing a few ideas around initially but not coming up with anything.

“I started talking to Kim (Reed), saying, ‘Why don’t you tell me about some of your experiences as a transgender person?’” Campbell said. “She talked about having a bicycle route, the way all boys did when people looked at newspapers, and one day she decided to do it in a blouse.”

That incident would eventually become the opening scene of “As One.”

Much of the opera reflects Reed’s experience, but it is not biographical, Campbell said. Some parts are drawn from other known incidents, such as assaults on transgender people.

For Campbell, “As One,” while reflecting the particulars of a transgender person, has a universality that will make the story relevant to people no matter their interest or knowledge of the issues.

“This is about a person’s happiness,” said Campbell, who as a gay man identified with some of the identity issues raised in the opera.

“If you know a transgender person, you will realize that there is nothing different about them, that they are just seeking happiness. They were not born with a gender they feel they are. Why would you deny someone’s happiness? If you reduce it to that, most people cannot fight it.”

“As One” traces Hannah’s journey in 15 vignettelike songs, many of them sung by both singers as they reflect on incidents from a male or female perspective. For example, in a song about a grade school handwriting class, “Cursive,” Markgraf as “Hannah before” stresses out over writing in a restrictive, masculine style; Cooke as “Hannah after” worries about writing “like my cousin Annie” with “generous loops” and “graceful swirls.”

For Cooke and Markgraf, “As One” was a revelation into gender behavior, especially in children.

“I didn’t really fully understand what it meant to be transgender and how early kids have the feeling that they’re in the wrong body. All of that really blew my mind,” said Cooke, who won a Grammy for her role in the Metropolitan Opera’s recording of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic.”

“As One” required them to inhabit each other’s persona fully. One Hannah might be singing, for example, while the other is acting out the confused emotions underlying the song.

“Sometimes the person who’s not singing acts more,” Cooke said.

Being married proved to be advantageous in working that out.

“We’re so comfortable with each other,” she said. “We share one mind sometimes.”

Musically, “As One” is written in Kaminsky’s jazzy, contemporary style, played by a string quartet. It was a challenge for the singers but has proved accessible for listeners.

One of the tunes. “To Know,” has come to be considered the high point of the work. Sung by both performers, it expresses the excitement of discovering transgenderism for the first time.

Markgraf considers another song, “Perfect Boy,” in the first act, to be pivotal.

“It really goes to the heart of what forces are at play,” he said. “Hannah before is really truly trying to suppress and push down all of these things because of family influence and societal influence, because of all the inculcation that happens as we’re being raised. … It’s this repetitive ‘Push down, push down. No, I will not be seen this way, I will not feel this way.’”

Markgraf, who has performed as Hannah before in two other productions, said the work has provoked heartfelt, emotional responses, not only from transgender people, but people who knew little of the subject before experiencing the show.

Cooke added that people should not worry about feeling squeamish about the subject matter.

“I think a lot of people that come to this show expect or maybe wonder if they’ll be uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s quite the opposite. Transgender is merely an avenue to discuss accepting yourself. Any person, everybody can relate to that journey of, ‘What do I really want out of this life. Who am I?’”

By Steven Mark, The Star Advertiser TGIF