Wednesday, August 05, 2015

As One, West Edge Opera

West Edge Opera's summer season opened the other week, with Alban Berg's Lulu and Laura Kaminsky's As One. I have the Sunday afternoon matinee subscription, and caught the premiere of Laura Kaminsky's As One at the Oakland Metro, a club on 2nd St. near Jack London Square.

If you have tickets, be warned that the venue is absolutely sweltering on a hot day and has poor air circulation. You'll want to wear as little clothing as you are publicly comfortable in.

First, the good stuff, which is very good indeed: the performances were just about immaculate from every musical and dramatic standpoint. Mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson (Hanna After) and baritone Dan Kempson (Hannah Before), who play the transgendered Hannah at different stages of her life, have both got beautiful voices that could be upper or lower extensions of one another; both were musically sure, direct, and clear, as individuals or in duet. And they looked good together, too, when they were near each other.

Mark Strashinky's direction worked well, doing a great deal with very few props. I admit that I was perplexed by those of Jeremy Knight's Kimberly Reed's projections that were for the scenes in Norway, which mostly showed bright daylight. Hannah went there to be alone and see the northern lights, and generally you do that during the wintertime, when Norway has about 22 hours of darkness.

The Friction Quartet played the score gorgeously, and the score is mostly beautiful and effective. I'd definitely like to hear more of Kaminsky's music, especially her several works for string quartet.

Now for the not-so-good stuff. Oh, the libretto. The libretto is by Mark Campbell, an experienced librettist, and Kimberly Reed, on whose life story I gather the libretto is based, who is a filmmaker.

I see the libretto as having several problems: the first is all too common in recent operas, a failure to distinguish between recitative and more lyrical forms. In other words, it's short on arias and looooong on talk talk talk talk. That conversational libretto style is extremely difficult to set and accompany effectively, and you wind up with extended stretches of music that go on for too long and just don't work well. I hear it as traveling music, but it doesn't get anywhere, just goes on and on and on without enough contrast of tempo, color, rhythm, style. My general impression is that Kaminsky's music started out more interestingly than it finished up. Of course, it is also true that the Metro was so hot that I lost focus now and then and simply faded out. Maybe I missed some moments of greater dramatic tension.

Then there's the fact that there's not all that much drama in the story. Yes, there's a bit of struggle around telling Hannah's parents; there's the freedom that comes from crossing the bridge and becoming Hannah After for a few hours, even before the change; there's the slight but touching story of being scolded by a grade-school teacher for girly handwriting. The latter bit appears later in the piece, when Hannah After sends some letters in her natural handwriting, and this was...well...both trite and mawkish.

And speaking of drama, hoo boy, is there a major dramatic fall-off about 15 or 20 minutes from the end of the opera. We've just had the most serious and dramatic moment in the libretto, when Hannah escapes an attacker in a parking lot. (More about this latter.) She jumps on a plane and heads for Norway, to a lonely cabin in the middle of nowhere, for some personal contemplation. She picks berries. She goes out in a boat (it leaks, but she doesn't have to swim back to shore). She tries to get on the Internet, if I'm remembering this right. She writes letters. She looks at the constellations.

But really? Nothing happens. I think there is an intended revelation in there somewhere, but it does not come across because not much happens musically or in the text at that point. It sure doesn't feel like any kind of dramatic climax, and thus the entire final 20 minutes is completely anti-climactic.

Now, about the attack. To start with, Kaminsky telegraphs it in the music to the point that I was sitting there thinking "I hope she doesn't get beaten up too badly." I did not hide my face in my hands. But by the end of the attack, which Hannah does indeed escape successfully, I was enraged anyway.

That's because there's a film trope where a woman is attacked by a man, and her response is to flail around ineffectively, then die or get raped or badly beaten.* It's as though no women ever took a self-defense class or maybe wrestled with a brother. In this case....Hannah Before is a manly, football-playing guy. Are you trying to tell me that Hannah Before never learned how to throw a punch? Or that this knowledge somehow got lost, so that all she could think to do was get in the car and drive away?

Right after the attack scene, we hear about a number of attacks and murders worldwide on transgender people. Yes, this does happen - and has happened to people I know - but at this point, I felt like the libretto was checking off a political point.

By and large, I think that keeping it more personal - and more intense - would have made a better opera with better dramatic structure.

* Do not get me started on the godawful staging of the scene in La Ciociara where Giovanni rapes Cesira. Honestly, it was so bad that I was sitting there wondering why Cesira didn't go for the golden target when Giovanni was standing there with his legs apart. Sometimes having specialized knowledge makes it tough to suspend disbelief.

UPDATED: Corrected the creator of the projections from Jeremy Knight to Kimberly Reed, my bad.

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