With its new production of As One, a transgender coming-of-age story, the Alamo City Opera is ahead of the curve in more ways than one. Though the opera has been the most-produced new opera in North America since its 2014 debut, the Alamo City performances on Jan. 19-20 will be the first to feature a transgender person in the lead role.
Transgender mezzo-soprano Liz Bouk will play Hannah After, representing the post-transition, female aspect of the central character.
As One might also be the first opera with a shared lead role, where two singers share the stage simultaneously representing different aspects of the same character. Baritone Jose Rubio will play Hannah Before, the pre-transition, male aspect of Hannah in the performances at the Buena Vista Theatre on the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Downtown Campus.
The dual role signifies the complexity of telling this kind of story, with Bouk and Rubio sometimes singing in tandem, sometimes alone while on stage together, and sometimes complementing each other with commentary and dramatic action.
“Both sides are living and telling the story at the same time,” said Amy Hutchison, the Chicago-based director who is currently in San Antonio for the production. “It sounds a little bit impossible, but I just can’t even tell you how beautifully it works. … It’s so theatrically fresh.”
Hutchison also notes that this is the Texas debut of As One, “which is remarkable for a state that is as important in American opera-making. San Antonio’s first! It’s great, really remarkable. It’s not Austin, it’s not Fort Worth, it’s not the Houston Grand Opera, it’s mighty SA.”
Mark Richter, Alamo City Opera’s general and artistic director, shared Hutchison’s excitement. “It’s kind of cool that we’re the first ones in Texas actually doing it,” he said, noting that this will be the 23rd North American production of the piece, which has been performed in such diverse locales as Newfoundland; Anchorage, Alaska; Honolulu; and Des Moines, Iowa.
After San Antonio, companies in Portland, Oregon, and New York City will stage As One , “and I’m certain there will be many more,” Hutchison said. “It’s firmly part of the repertoire now.”
One reason the opera has become so sought-after is its universal appeal, Richter said. “This is about finding an inner self, an inner realization, that’s something anybody can relate to,” no matter one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, he said.
The basic concept is “be yourself,” Hutchison said, which is “sometimes easier said than done, but I think that idea is something we all grapple with, a lesson that we are all constantly learning throughout our lives — trying to eliminate the voices that rely too much on the expectations of other people, and deeply understand who you are inside.”
A key moment in the opera arrives in the song “To Know,” which has Hannah sitting in front of the television at home when a transgender person appears onscreen. “All of a sudden, this little kid realizes there are other trans people out there,” as As One’s composer Laura Kaminsky explained during a 2016 interview on Bronxnet.
Then I see her on TV.
There she is.
And I hear the word.
The real word.
The magic word.
Finally a name for this.
That is me.
That is my word.
These are the lyrics Hannah After sings as she kneels in front of her TV. In the story, she then runs to the local library to search the card catalog for books on the subject.
The libretto was written by Mark Campbell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his work on the opera Silent Night (in collaboration with composer Kevin Puts), called a “modern masterpiece” by Opera Wire.
As notable as his work is, Campbell has said he asked for help with writing As One. In a recent interview with WFMT, a Chicago classical music station, Campbell explained, “I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean that I understand a transgender person’s experiences by any means.”
He sought out award-winning filmmaker Kimberly Reed, who won wide recognition for her 2008 film Prodigal Sons, which chronicled her own transgender experience. Reed contributed video which runs as a backdrop to the multimedia production, and provides a place for sung lyrics to be projected throughout the performance.
As universal as the coming-of-age story might be, the transgender experience has its own particulars. “Even for me personally,” said Hutchison, who identifies as a lesbian, “I still sometimes have a stumble over people’s preferred pronouns.”
As part of Alamo City’s effort to build awareness, Richter has scheduled educational and informational events around the production. A fundraiser was held last week at Luther’s Café to raise money for the production and to celebrate San Antonio’s LGBTQIA+ community.
“When it comes to activism and pride, I think San Antonio has made leaps and bounds in the past five years in coming together as a gay community, and really having one voice,” he said.
To further the mission, a Transgender Awareness Public Forum will be held at the Central Library on Tuesday, Jan. 15, from 6-7:30 p.m., with representatives of San Antonio’s opera, gay, and transgender communities, including singer Alyson Alonzo, Robert Alcido of the Pride Center, and Amber Nixx of Fonz Salon. Activist Ruby Corado of Washington, D.C., will join As One composer Laura Kaminsky for the event, which will be moderated by Rivard Report Publisher and Editor Robert Rivard.
The forum is free and open to the public. “We want everyone to come who has a question, or doesn’t understand” transgender identity and issues, Richter said. “That’s what causes fear, keeps people at arm’s length from our own brothers and sisters in our city.”
That a popular new opera is based on such a hot-button issue is an important development for the art form, Richter said.
“This is where I think opera is evolving to,” he said. “Instead of the stories being about these mythical creatures like Wagner and Valhalla and the gods, I think right now what’s catching on — and rightfully so — are stories that are about today’s headlines. … All of the sudden, the news becomes part of the art.”
Tickets for As One performances are available on the Alamo City Opera website, along with further details.