You don’t generally think of opera as ripped from the headlines, but San Diego Opera’s production of "As One" has a distinctly contemporary feel. The latest dētour series production tackles a transgender story through the character of Hannah, who’s portrayed by two singers — a baritone and mezzo soprano.
Kimberly Reed, along with co-librettist Mark Campbell and composer Laura Kaminsky, is interested in invigorating the form of opera in America today.
"A lot of times people think about opera as being this form that is 400 years old and that’s in Italian and you can’t relate to it. And we want to tell these really approachable stories that happen to real people today," Reed said.
"There has been a trend in the opera world to deal with highly contemporary and topical issues. It is one of the ways the industry needs to evolve," Kelly Markgraf added.
Markgraf stars in "As One," an opera that perfectly exemplifies this.
"The composer, Laura Kaminsky, saw an article in The New York Times about a New Jersey couple, one of which was transitioning to the other gender, and it caused some difficulties for them in terms of benefits and what you might call the pragmatic aspects of life," Markgraf said. "So she found that to be fascinating that society had not caught up yet to the social changes that were happening."
Reed created the films that run on screens during the opera. But she was also tapped to co-write the libretto and draw on her own experiences as a trans person.
"I think all the creators wanted to tell the story of the yin-yang, right? Sometimes one side is dominant, sometimes the other side is dominant. But the important part is when the two really swirl together. I think in all of our lives when we talk about changing or transitioning from one thing to another, it may not have anything to do with gender, but I think that that process of transition, starting in one place and becoming something else, is something we can all relate to," Reed said.
"As One" focuses on Hannah, who is played by baritone Markgraf and mezzo soprano Blythe Gaissert.
"With standard characters, each would have their own desires and needs and goals," Markgraf said. "But here you are entirely playing with each other. It’s a bit of an earth-shaking experience for an actor to be onstage and actually inhabiting the same spirit and the same body and the same psyche as another performer. So while (Gaissert) is on the opposite side of the stage singing, I am actually saying everything that she is saying, even if I am silent."
Gaissert coinhabits the character of Hannah with Markgraf.
"There is a constant interplay between the two characters," Gaissert added. "In this story you get an opportunity to see another person going through a situation where they don’t feel like they are their best self and that they are not complete."
"The beauty of the piece is that it can change minds of people uncomfortable with the topic coming in. And they end up leaving knowing that they empathized with the struggles of the character, so therefore they can’t actually be that different from that character," Markgraf said.
And the intimacy of a chamber opera is exciting, Gaissert said.
"I like being able to see people’s reactions, people’s energy in a closer proximity. I feel like it helps energize the performance and it gives the audience a closer look at how we are doing what we’re doing. And there’s a certain thrill that comes from being that up close to someone making that much sound. But they can see that we’re really living it and that we’re really telling a story in a different and more intimate way," Gaissert said.
Adding to that intimacy is a talkback scheduled each night following the opera.
"I love talkbacks," Reed enthused. "It’s really an opportunity for the creators of the opera to speak directly with audiences to get everybody behind the scenes to really spark discussion. Art, if it’s working, should spark a lot of discussions. I’m happy to introduce audiences to the main character, Hannah, and I want them to have a lot of questions about her."
Most of all, she wants to encourage a sense of empathy for somebody whom audience members might feel like they didn’t fully understand before. It’s like transforming the audience from individuals when they enter, to feeling as one with the character of Hannah when they leave.
San Diego Opera’s "As One" is part of its dētour series and runs Friday through Sunday at the Joan Kroc Theater in Rolando. It will be telecast live on KPBS TV 7 p.m. Saturday.