(Formerly) Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Laura Kaminsky

The former Cornish music chair teams up with Seattle Opera to bring the transgender opera 'As One' to Washington Hall.

By Seth Sommerfeld November 8, 2016

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Sometimes a more intimate, personal show calls for a less grandiose venue. Such is the case for Seattle Opera, which leaves the comforts of McCaw Hall and heads to Washington Hall to stage the Seattle premiere of As One. Conceptualized and composed by former Cornish music chair Laura Kaminsky (with a libretto by Mark Campbell and filmmaker Kimberly Reed), the opera tells a story of self-discovery for transwoman named Hannah. The interesting wrinkle comes from the lead (and lone) role being simultaneously split between a male baritone and a female mezzo-soprano, who are musically accompanied by a string quartet. Over the course of 15 songs, the show lets audiences emotionally experience the highs, lows, and humanity of a transwoman's journey of self-acceptance. The Seattle Opera production will reimagine some of the show's core staging to fit Washington Hall's space, and will also mark the first performances of As One featuring African American leads playing Hannah (Jorell Williams and Taylor Raven). As One opens at Washington Hall this Friday, November 11, and runs through November 19.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Kaminsky about the original inspiration for As One, writing two voices for a single character, and growing up as a junior activist.

What excites you about bringing As One to Seattle?

I’m actually totally excited about this for several reasons. Number one, it’s wonderful to be coming back. I think the last time I had a performance in Seattle was probably about five or six years ago.

I’m very excited about Seattle Opera using Washington Hall as a new venue. Its great history really speaks to me. I’m very excited about the fact that this is an African American cast. And I’m thrilled that the baritone, Jorell Williams, is somebody who was a student at my conservatory when I was the dean [at SUNY Purchase College]. So, I knew him when he was just starting out. I actually handed him his diploma when he graduated. And now, we’re working together equally as professionals. I love that.

Another thing that’s exciting to me—and to Mark and Kim, my collaborators—is that this will be the first production of As One that does not use Kim’s film, which was part of our original conception for the piece. So it’s going to be a whole new staging concept and design concept. And we don’t really have any idea what they’re going to do. So we’re very interested and eager to see this whole new way of thinking about the piece.

So Kim’s film played during the original productions of As One?

The film was actually sort of the set for the opera. The world of Hannah, the protagonist, played out in front of these five big screens. As Kim described, it was almost a cubist breakdown. So there were multiple images at all times that created the universe of her life. And Seattle Opera’s not doing that because of the space that they’re putting the show into and the way they’re staging it. So it’s going to be a brand new experience for us, and we’re all curious and excited about it.

What were the origins of As One?

It was my idea. I’m a composer, but not particularly of vocal music, and I had never thought about writing an opera. One morning, probably seven or eight years ago, I read an article in The New York Times that was about a vote on marriage equality that was about to take place in New Jersey. They were talking about the different reactions, issues, and what they thought the likelihood of it passing would be, but then they profiled a family. It was a husband and wife and two teenage kids in a suburban town in New Jersey, and they used this family as an example. The husband was in the process of transitioning to a woman, and was going to legally become a woman. They were staying together as a family after the transition. But if the bill did not pass, they would no longer legally be married. And they’d been married for 20 years.

And I went, "Wow, that is so operatic." It just popped out of my mouth. The idea of somebody becoming who they really are, and then all the people in their world needing to go on that transition journey with them. So the relationships will be changing, but they’ve made the commitment that they’re still that core person they’re going to be together with. As this person becomes more of who she really is, does that change the psychodynamics of the relationship she had when she was a male struggling with who she really was? And then there was the legal implications of now no longer being married: they would lose the health insurance benefits, they’d lose their social security benefits.

And I went wow, this is such a great metaphor for the strength to be yourself, what is the core of the human being, and what is lost and what is gained along that journey to self-realization? And it just stuck with me that it was an opera. After a long search, I came up with this notion of a male and female being the only singers and they would play the one character—so it’s a person in dialogue with herself throughout. And because of that intimacy I only wanted a string quartet, which is one voice. And then nothing happened for a long time. I was writing other music, traveling, doing other projects, but it just kind of stuck in the back of my mind that I really wanted to do it.

Then I found Kim. I saw her film, Prodigal Sons, which was about her own story. My wife Rebecca, an artist who I met in Seattle, knew that this [project] was something that was really sticking with me, so she found Kim’s film for me. I thought this is somebody I could talk to about actually making a story. Kim and I started to meet in 2011, and that’s when we realized that film would be integral to our concept, which is why we’re all so eager to see what Seattle Opera is doing without the film. We began to imagine and visualize the world of our character: what it would look like and what the sound world would be. But we still didn’t have the story.

And then soon thereafter, I met Mark, who is a renowned librettist. I explained what the project was and he said, “I would be so interested in doing this.” So I said, “Okay, if you and Kim connect then we have a team.” And they connected and we all just loved talking and sharing ideas and sort of etching a concept and character. And at a certain point they said, “We’re starting to develop a story, Laura. Go away. We’re the storytellers. You’re the music person. Go away.” And that’s when Hannah was born. They wrote that beautiful libretto, and I had the great honor of giving it a musical world.

How did your time in Seattle influence your approach to music?

When I was in Seattle, I responded to the environment. I’m very sensitive to water and light. So I loved being a composer in Seattle. I wrote quite a number pieces in Seattle that sort of address nature. I’ve written a number of pieces since about my concern for environmental protection and sustainability and climate change and all of that, and I think the seeds were planted in Seattle.

I don’t know if it’s still true, but there was a kind of East Coast/West Coast aesthetic divide in the music world. And I feel like Seattle’s energy and spirit is tied more to America. That’s a hard thing to say because America’s so many things. Seattle is also more tied to Asian and to Native American worlds of sound, and I think the East Coast is still more tied into European ways sound. So I think that influenced me too.

Why is it important for you to continually address social, political, and environmental topics with your music?

I grew up in a household that was very much concerned about the society in which we lived. My family as little kids we had to have new discussions every Sunday at brunch. My sisters and I had to do weekly research on a social or political issue that was current, and then have dialogue with our family at the Sunday brunch table. So I grew up in a socially, politically active family. I mean, I was an environmental activist when I was in junior high school, and went on a march against Exxon when I was 12 years old or something like that. But I ended up in a career that’s not about social and political change in direct way. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a politician, I’m not a psychologist or a counselor, or any of those things.  

Music is a language and it tells stories, even if it’s totally abstract. At the end of hearing a piece of music, you’ve taken your listener on some kind of an emotional journey, because sound waves in motion impact us. So often, I’m telling a story about the world—an issue, a feeling of anger, injustice, or fear, or commenting on an issue—and I use my musical language to convey the emotions around that issue. Sometimes it’s more abstract, and sometimes it’s more specific, like a movement that’s titled “The Lack of Water” where I try to evoke water disappearing in the music. But it’s not pictorial or programmatic in say the way that Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is. It’s more abstract realizations of emotional energy that comments on issues of concern.

As someone who hadn’t done a lot of vocal composing, what were the musical challenges when writing one character in two voices for As One?

One of the challenges was that we didn’t want the first part to be sung by the male singer and the second part—after the transition or through the transition—to be sung by the female singer. This was both a dramatic narrative challenge and a musical challenge. So figuring out how to balance all that was really interesting. One of the things that Mark and Kim and I were clear about was that we were always going to have both singers onstage and that they were always the same person. So before the transition the mezzo would sing, and after the transition the baritone would sing. So it was a really wonderful challenge to figure out what is an internal thought, what is an external declaration or proclamation, how the inner and outer worlds of our character [interact], and the storytelling and emotions for both. You know how you talk to yourself? Well, I have the ability to have somebody talk to themself and have two voices.

One of the things that was very important when Mark and Kim crafted our character was that there had to be humor and self-deprecation and a certain amount of goofiness—that she’s a real person, a three-dimensional person. This isn’t just an iconic archetype of somebody on a journey to self-realization—this is a real person who kind of does silly things and doesn’t fit in all the time, and realizes it, and makes fun of herself. So working in the humor while holding onto the poignancy, the longing, and the fear was a wonderful musical challenge.

And I guess the other thing was I did want them to be as one. So between the high range of the baritone and the low range of the mezzo, there really weren’t that many notes in common that they both could sing comfortably. And the highest baritone notes and the lowest mezzo notes are either stronger or weaker for the two voices, so [it was a challenge to] find those few pitches where I could bring them together in way that was balanced and beautiful. They go home at the end as one on the same pitch.

As One
Nov 11–19, Washington Hall, $25–$45

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