As One — Original Cast Recording

What’s the most frequently performed new opera in America at present? It’s Laura Kaminsky’s 2014 chamber opera, As One, whose libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed explores the coming out process of its protagonist, Hannah, as a transgender woman.

Although an original cast video of As One is not available—the excerpt below is from the 2014 premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music—an original cast audio recording was released on June 28, 2019. For the project, from the Bright Shiny Things label, the opera’s original cast of two singers, the wife-husband team of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Kelly Markgraf, was reunited in 2018 with original conductor Steven Osgood and the Fry Street Quartet at Utah State University. (Audiophiles will recall Ray Kimber’s IsoMike recordings of the Fry Street Quartet.) The original cast recording of As One, which I auditioned in 24/96 file format, is now available as both a CD and high-rez download from the label Bright Shiny Things. Produced by industry veteran Judith Sherman, it gives the large, naturally resonant voices of Cook and Markgraf too much prominence, but it nonetheless allows assessment of the work’s score and libretto without the addition of animated visuals.

The story begins as young Hannah, a biological male who has a part-time job delivering newspapers, begins to explore her identity as a woman. By the time she reaches college, her struggle with gender identity, transformation, and self-acceptance has reached a head. One minute, she enjoys the first time a man flirts with her; shortly thereafter, she escapes a potential hate crime. At opera’s end, she takes refuge in Norway, where she finds the strength and self-love to bring all the parts of herself together as Hannah.

The opera’s creators chose to explore the two sides of Hannah by splitting the character into two parts, “Hannah before” and “Hannah after.” To underscore the essential oneness that underlies Hannah’s bifurcated existence, they took advantage of the intimacy born of a relationship by casting the impressively impassioned, virile-voiced Markgraf as "before,” and his wife, the exceptionally warm and full-voiced Cooke, as “after.” The palpable chemistry that these two superb artists bring to their many duets helps bring Hannah’s story to life. So do the recording’s liner notes, which use an unusual layout to add a vital theatrical aspect to an otherwise project that otherwise would lack any visual element.

I had hoped that the music and story of As One would make for compelling listening without their visual component. I find that the libretto holds interest, and I recommend the recording as such, but questions linger over the music.

Over 150 years ago, Richard Wagner began exploring ways to retain interest during long swaths of operatic dialogue by animating the emotions beneath his libretto’s words with oft-surging, emotion-laden waves of orchestral accompaniment. Kaminsky, alas, is not Wagner. As I read the libretto while listening, I kept waiting to be swept away by the emotions surging within Hannah’s heart and soul. Instead, I found myself constantly reading ahead in the libretto, moved more by the story than the music per se. While I heard lots of expressive dissonance, far too much of the vocal line and its accompaniment was of only moderate musical interest.

An example is when Hannah-after breaks into modest coloratura runs toward the end of the opera. In bel canto opera, rapid, multi-octave coloratura are motivated by drama. When Lucia flies higher and higher in Lucia di Lammermoor—especially when she duets with glass harmonica in her Mad Scene—her rapid ascents and descents express her desperation, love, and madness. In As One, I couldn’t make sense of Hannah after’s flights. They seemed gratuitous, as in, “Let’s give Cooke, who is one of the finest mezzos of our time, music that will show off all she can do.” Maybe the runs were intended to signify emotional surges, but they failed to touch my heart.

Another example: It was nice to hear snatches of familiar Christmas tunes in the string quartet accompaniment during the Christmas scene, but once they were gone, I was adrift. The music that followed failed to fully convey Hannah’s struggle.

Bu that’s just me speaking. I’d love you to listen for yourself and tell me that I’m wrong.

[Editor's note: Our original lede contained an error, now fixed.]

volvic's picture

You sure? I would have thought Carmen or Madame Butterfly would top the list and not As One. Maybe you meant to say the most produced opera in North America by a living composer ? That would make more sense.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It is "North America's most frequently produced new opera." I had six deadlines to meet before I headed to NYC for Stonewall 50, and I'm afraid that I messed up royally.

Why is it so popular? Remember, this is a chamber opera. It is easily performed by small companies with smaller budgets as well as large companies with the resources to mount credible productions of the classics with large choruses.

Here is the quote from the original press release. Please note that the recording's release was delayed until June 28 to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

"Bright Shiny Things releases AS ONE [BSTC-0127, 1 CD], the original-cast first recording of the highly acclaimed 75-minute chamber opera for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and string quartet. Commissioned by American Opera Projects, As One—the handiwork of composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, with an original film by Reed—began its conquest of American stages at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fisher Center in September 2014. Since then, it has become the most frequently produced new opera in North America, with thirty productions in twenty states across the U.S. Just before the disc’s release, New York City Opera and American Opera Projects are co-producing As One in its first Manhattan staging at Merkin Hall (May 30–June 8)."

Readers unfamiliar with the Stonewall Rebellion can find plenty of information all over the web, including on Wikipedia. This essential article addresses some of the myths that have been perpetuated around Stonewall:

volvic's picture

I have read that it is the most performed opera by a living composer in the 21st century, but the distinction of chamber opera makes it easy to perform in smaller venues, I see your point. Overall though when it competes with the big ones it falls to 14th, still very credible.

Jim Austin's picture
I've fixed the lede. Apologies for the error. Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You have nothing to apologize for. Me, on the other hand...

Anton's picture

Side comment: your review of the Bach cello pieces done on violin was superb and I ordered the disc.

I have always found these to be on the melancholy/wistful side, so very much looking forward to experiencing these in a new way. (Yo Yo Ma has been my favorite of the versions.)

Really well done on that review.