Presented as part of the Midsumma Festival, As One is apparently the world’s first opera about the transgender experience. Honest, poignant and ultimately uplifting, this 75-minute chamber work makes both its subject and opera highly accessible. This Australian premiere, produced by Melbourne’s small, independent Gertrude Opera, is led by two talented young local singers and American conductor Alexandra Enyart.

Joshua Erdelyi-Götz and Morgan Carter in As One. Photo © Sarah Clarke

First performed in Brooklyn in 2014, As One is composed by Laura Kaminsky and inspired by the life of transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed. She wrote the libretto with Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Campbell, and also created the evocative film footage that’s presented as overlapping projections on the wall behind the stage area.

Though the colloquially clear (sometimes perhaps too literal) libretto and Kaminsky’s expressive contemporary score never leaves the audience in any doubt, the film heightens the sparsely staged opera’s sense of time, place and mood. Hannah’s journey begins with a seemingly traditional Midwest childhood, continues with getaways to San Francisco where she begins to express her true self, and concludes in the Norwegian wilderness, where contemplation leads to self-acceptance.

In between are critical episodes such as surreptitious research in a library’s files and shelves in the vicinity of subjects such as Transylvania, Hannah’s first experience of flirting, and a violent attack in a carpark. This scene ends with a projected and sung-spoken list of transgender women who have been violently murdered around the world. It’s the darkest moment in an opera that is essentially warm-hearted, hopeful and quietly funny on occasion (see Transylvania above, for example).

Joshua Erdelyi-Götz in As One. Photo © Sarah Clarke

Hannah is played by Joshua Erdelyi-Götz, who dominates the first half, and Morgan Carter. After a middle period of duets, Carter becomes increasingly prominent as the character transitions to become her true self. Originally engaged as the Hannah After understudy, Carter stepped into the role at short notice but was sure-footed on opening night. Carter’s supple, strong and expressive mezzo-soprano and confident acting conveyed Hannah After’s emotions, from the quiet wonder and pleasure of the flirtatious conversation, to the carpark attack’s terror and subsequent existential crisis, as well as moments of self-deprecating humour.

Erdelyi-Götz was similarly sincere in his interpretation of Hannah Before. His portrayal of her wide-eyed childhood and sporty, model-schoolboy youth were charmingly earnest. Apart from briefly losing resonance in a few challenging transitions, his warm baritone was pleasing – especially during a poignant, personal song whose words are drawn from a letter the adult Hannah writes to her parents.

Morgan Carter in As One. Photos © Sarah Clarke

Enyart briefly stepped away from conducting duties to lead the audience in a brief, thought-provoking excerpt from John Donne’s No Man is an Island. Otherwise she led the string quartet with an assured hand through Kaminsky’s score. It’s rooted in contemporary minimalism, including vigorous pizzicato during the carpark attack scene, but is also often lyrical – As One’s opening passage was unexpectedly reminiscent of Schubert.

Directed by Linda Thomson, this bare-bones production features a modest two-level platform, two chairs and a handful of other simple props mostly drawn from a small box. It’s a repository for Hannah’s lifetime of treasures, including a stolen girl’s blouse secretly worn while doing a paper round as a child.

Dressed in identical boots, jeans and striped t-shirts, Erdelyi-Götz and Carter move about the open space with naturalism, often physically separate but positioned, and also lit by Jason Crick, so that their connection is never in doubt. At other times they literally support each other, and ultimately stand together, as one.

Accessible, evocative and profoundly relevant, As One breathes new life into opera.

As One is at Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs until February 1 as part of the Midsumma Festival


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