Arts & Culture

Lyric tackles transgender opera, but themes are universal to all people

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “As One,” a contemporary chamber opera this weekend that follows the journey of a boy growing up and becoming a woman named Hannah.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “As One,” a contemporary chamber opera this weekend that follows the journey of a boy growing up and becoming a woman named Hannah. cgregorian@kcstar.com

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “As One,” a contemporary chamber opera this weekend that follows the journey of a boy growing up and becoming a woman named Hannah.

But pretty much everyone involved in the production agrees: This tale transcends transgender issues and offers something for anyone who has struggled with issues of identity. And that, they all point out, is pretty much everyone.

“As One” features two performers, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano, portraying Hannah Before and Hannah After, as well as a string quartet. The story of her transformation is told over the course of 15 songs.

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Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert is Hannah After in “As One.”
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Baritone Wes Mason portrays Hannah Before in “As One.”

In one of them, Hannah heads to the Lewis & Clark Library — noting that it was named for explorers — to find out more about the “magic word” transgender that she has just heard for the first time on TV.

It’s a fitting observational aside given that “As One” is part of the Lyric Opera’s Explorations series, which began in 2016 and features “programs in intimate spaces, with programming that crosses musical borders and experiments with a wide range of lyrical expression.”

According to Deborah Sandler, director and CEO of Lyric Opera of Kansas City, there is a clear demarcation during “As One” when Hannah goes from being male to female, yet both performers are onstage performing throughout.

Baritone Wes Mason portrays Hannah Before and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert is Hannah After. Both performers are from New York and will share the stage with The Fry Street Quartet of Utah, which debuted “As One” in Brooklyn four years ago. Mary Birnbaum, a nominee for Best Newcomer of 2015 at the International Opera Awards in London, will direct this weekend’s programs.

Sandler has wanted the Lyric Opera to produce “As One” since she first saw it.

“I went to the premiere, and I was very moved by the piece,” she says. “But it took a little while to find the right place to do it because at that point, we didn’t have the Explorations series. It’s really beautiful and will appeal to anyone, because we all struggle with our identity in some way. Who are we? Where is our place? Where do I need to be to feel comfortable in myself? What do I need to change to be comfortable? And it’s humorous too.”

Sandler says “As One” also fit rights with the mission of the Explorations series to feature intimate performances that are a bit more unusual than standard operas. It will be staged in a 200-seat space in the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building in the Crossroads District.

Award-winning composer Laura Kaminsky, whose work has been performed throughout the world, wrote the music and came up with the concept for “As One.” She turned it over to Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, who wrote a libretto for two vocalists and a string quartet.

Both are notable in their own right. Campbell wrote the libretto for Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night,” and Reed traced her own transgender life in the documentary “Prodigal Sons.” “As One” is based in part on her life. American Opera Projects of New York premiered the piece in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This will be the fourth time that Gaissert performs the role of Hannah After — she helped workshop it during its inception. Mason will be performing Hannah Before for the first time.

Even though this is their first time working together, neither Mason nor Gaissert has found difficulty in creating a single cohesive persona for Hannah.

“Actually I find that so much of it is in the music and in the libretto,” Gaissert says. “Wes is the third person that I’ve worked with on this one. And I’ve never found there to be a disconnect. You understand who this person is because it’s so universal. Everyone has feelings of not fitting in. Everyone has feelings of ‘What if someone finds this out about me? Are they still going to like or love me or want to be around me?’ Because of that universality and the way it’s portrayed in this story, it makes it a lot easier to connect. And also, there is a certain personality type that is drawn to doing this type of work. There’s a certain level of self awareness that’s required.”

What they have found challenging is Kaminsky’s score, which initially sounds simple and natural, but is actually quite hard to vocalize.

“Laura’s music is very beautiful and incredibly effective,” Mason says. “I describe moments of it as very liquid. There’s not really a central pulse, there’s not a continuous drive. The voices are really the lead of the forward motion quite often, so it’s very easy to find yourself straying from the path because of trying to line up with everything that’s going on.”

Mason points to one piece, in particular, called “Perfect Boy” that he describes as a tour de force.

“It’s very rhythmic and it’s all about achieving and getting things done and it’s because Hannah is trying to hide who she is by becoming class president, becoming the star quarterback, being a straight-A student,” he says. “And the choice in this production is that I really act out that football game and all that training while also negotiating a very difficult musical selection. It’s definitely the hardest aria I’ve done.”

“It’s the hardest I’ve ever seen,” says Gaissert. “Laura wrote it saying, ‘I don’t expect it to be perfect. In fact I made it so hard that it’s almost impossible to do it the right way.’ 

“It creates an additional layer of anxiety and drive not only for the performer but for the audience, too,” adds Mason.

As for the physicality of Hannah, that seems to change from production to production depending on the director and the vocalists portraying her.

Mason wasn’t sure which direction Birnbaum would be going in but was prepared for anything.

“At first my approach was to lose weight and thin down a bit and get my body a bit more feminine until I realized I’m playing quarterback Hannah, so I continued going to the gym and eating protein,” he says.

Sandler notes that Mason and Gaissert have some similar physical traits. They’re both brunettes and about the same height. That wasn’t by accident, she says.

“You wouldn’t look at a man who becomes a woman and have one be 4-foot-3 and the other one 6 feet tall. That would be an unbelievable transition,” she says. “You have to match the people carefully.”

Sandler says reception to the production by the local LBGT community has been very positive.

“We actually hosted an event here in January with a transgender chorus, and a lot of people have been very interested in the theme,” she says. “There’s a big population of people for whom this is very relevant. So it’s a great opportunity for us to invite them into our house.”

Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian: 816-234-4780, @CindyBGregorian

Onstage

Tickets for “As One” are $25 for the 2 p.m. Sunday performance at the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, 712 E. 18th St. The 7:30 p.m. Saturday performance is sold out.

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