Photo – Mathew Staver, Opera Colorado

OPERA SCENE – “AS ONE”

 FINDING SELF-LOVE

By John Patrick Ford

Are you ready for this? The most performed American contemporary opera is coming to San Diego. It presents a few surprises.

Preparing the material for the preview of an opera never seen and a subject not generally found in the general repertory was daunting. None of the traditional clichés of opera drama seem to apply to the chamber opera As One scheduled for November by San Diego Opera.

The first of the Detour Series for the 2017-2018 season is a production that pioneers SDO’s outreach to a different community: the three performances are the first at a theatre outside of downtown; the sensitive theme is about the transgender progress of a man into a woman.

As One uses a simple cast of a baritone and a soprano supported by a string quartet. Hannah before is a coming of age male who is searching for his sexual identity. As the two identities merge, Hannah after becomes the dominant character, completing the As One transformation.

This opera is not a one-off probe into a shady area of contemporary scruples. Since its premiere by Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014 under a grant from American Opera Projects, the work has been performed by nine opera companies with more scheduled for future seasons. In fact, As One is rated as the most performed American contemporary opera.

The opera repertory is full of characters trying to find themselves. Violetta is drawn to a new relationship based on love not dependence; Tannhaűser is torn between passion and loyalty; Turandot rejects men but succumbs to one more dominating than she; and so on.

Transformation also figures in some operas: Florencia in the next SDO production morphs spiritually into a butterfly to join her lost lover; Strauss’ Daphne becomes a tree; Marguerite joins the heavenly angels in “Faust.”

Hannah before fulfills his masculine role as a quarterback and class president in school but feels he is different. He begins wearing women’s clothing under his regular apparel and taking hormones. The emotional alteration comes later.

Revelation finally comes when Hannah before goes to Norway and completes the transformation from man to woman. Initially the two Hannahs sing in different pitches but close the gap into a unison of voice. This union of the two results in an opera with a warm heart.

A review of the premier in 2014 by The New York Times was favorable with the comment that the score makes you think about preconceptions and inspires empathy. Having the two characters on the stage together but as one person was necessary to understand the transgender progress.

A Los Angeles Times review of the recent Long Beach Opera production called the opera a coming of age story. No one grows up easily. The two characters would appear to be lovers if the dialogue between them was silent. The woman protects the boy; the man supports the woman until she becomes the only one. It boils down to a person loving oneself, the review concludes.

So that becomes the focus of the opera – self-love or self-esteem. Before Hannah began the journey down the gender-identity road, history records some interesting concepts written by Cicero in the 1st century up to Francis Bacon in the 16th century who considered persons with self-love to be arrogant and egocentric, doomed to end in failure.

A more enlightened era changed that when philosophers in the 20th century wrote that self-love means caring for one’s self and taking responsibility. Eric Fromm proposed that in order to love another person, one needs to first love oneself with respect and realistic understanding about one’s strengths and weaknesses.

The SDO production is a chamber opera with American baritone Kelly Markgraf and American mezzo soprano Blythe Gaissert performing Hannah with a string quartet. Markgraf created the role at the premiere in 2014 and sings with several regional opera companies. Gaissert, a Merola Program graduate, was the understudy for the premiere and also appears with regional companies and on the concert stage.

The Hausmann Quartet is based in San Diego but performs nationally at multiple music festivals. Conducting the chamber opera is Bruce Stasyna, the SDO chorus master.

Performances at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre in the Salvation Army complex are Friday November 10 and Saturday November 11 at 7:00 p.m. and Sunday November 12 at 1:00 p.m. For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit http://www.sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.