Vocal range and gender identity are as fundamental to opera as color and form are to painting. Through these elements, composers create conflict, excitement, and wonder, often at some distance from conventional ideas about which voices belong to men and which to women. Centuries before RuPaul, opera found dramatic value in vocal cross-dressing. Whether it’s in “pants roles,” where mezzo-sopranos play male characters, or in the female roles in Baroque opera that countertenors sing, opera comes alive through the plasticity of voice.
In As One, the 75-minute contemporary work that Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) will present Friday, March 25, and Sunday, March 27, at the Lobero, composer Laura Kaminsky brings opera’s greatest assets to bear on 21st-century trans experience. In 15 songs, two singers — the baritone Evan Bravos and the mezzo-soprano Ashley Kay Armstrong — embody the two roles that exist inside a single character. Bravos sings trans woman Hannah Before, and Armstrong sings Hannah After gender reassignment. Both artists remain onstage for the entire evening, emphasizing the fact that for trans individuals, gender identity is rarely a matter of either one or the other, but rather a conversation and communion between two aspects of one individual.
OSB has assembled a stellar team in support of this vital production. Amy Hutchison will direct, and Alexis Enyart will conduct the singers and the string quartet that accompanies them. The libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed comes complete with filmed projections that set the scene. We follow Hannah as she moves through early adolescence and into young adulthood, and witness her growing realization of her true nature. Hannah engages with the full range of transgender experience, from poignant isolation from her family to frightening confrontation with bigotry.
Finally, in the aria that completes the piece, she achieves ecstatic fulfillment in the natural world of Norway. Opera Santa Barbara has arranged a full complement of ancillary activities around this production designed to promote allyship with the trans community. For more information and to buy tickets, visit operasb.org.
Sign up for Pano, Charles Donelan’s weekly newsletter that captures the full range of arts and entertainment available in our region in one panoramic weekly wide shot, scanning our cultural horizon for the best in theater, visual art, film, dance, music, and more.