Sensitive portrayals, compelling music highlight Fringe Opera’s “As One”

Sat Nov 18, 2017 at 4:04 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jonathan Wilson and Samantha Attaguile in Laura Kaminsky's "As One" at Chicago Fringe Opera. Photo: Victor LeJeune
Jonathan Wilson and Samantha Attaguile in Laura Kaminsky’s “As One” at Chicago Fringe Opera. Photo: Victor LeJeune

Chicago Fringe Opera has emerged as the most consistently impressive of the city’s storefront opera companies. The upstart troupe discerningly chooses edgy, contemporary works and pulls them off successfully with thoughtful casting and modest but effective stagings.

Such was the case again with Laura Kaminsky’s one-act opera As One, heard Friday night in its Chicago premiere at the Center on Halsted where it runs through Sunday.

With a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, As One examines issues of gender identity, as represented by the title transexual character Hannah–a young man who is cautiously transitioning into his female persona.

Hannah’s conflicted nature is represented by two singers: Hannah Before (Jonathan Wilson) and Hannah After (Samantha Attaguile). The concise 75-minute opera moves breezily between vignettes of Hannah’s life and the growing realization that he is really a woman. Among the young Hannah’s early key moments are his wearing a woman’s blouse underneath a shirt at age 12 while delivering papers, and secretly–and humorously–researching the word “transexual” at a library.

The transitioning Hannah is violently attacked one night, in a scene that also more broadly comments on violence against the LGBTQ community, as Hannah Before reads the names and violent details of transgendered people who have been murdered around the world.

After surviving the attack, Hannah travels to Norway where she becomes more comfortable and confident in her female identity, and now “free,” finds acceptance and peace within herself.

One invariably braces for a polemical screed with any drama touching on “diversity” issues in Chicago’s heavily politicized theater scene. But that’s not what Kaminsky, Campbell and Reed are about. Rather, As One is a gentle, often witty and ultimately affecting tale that makes a strong empathetic connection with its audience by focusing on the universality of the situations allied to Hannah’s identity dilemma–loneliness, uneasy romantic relationships, family conflicts, and a search for self knowledge and social acceptance.

The dialogue and lyrics by Mark Campbell–the busiest opera librettist of our time–and Kim Reed are typically deft and gently ironic. In a scene depicting Hannah’s discomfiture in sex ed classes, he notes “We have been separated by gender to talk about sex.” Yet the dramatic impact is also there, as in the scene of Hannah’s attack, set against recitation of LGBTQ victims.

As One sags a bit at the start of Part Three, and I’m not entirely convinced the opera makes a smooth turn from the harrowing attack to the Norway setting; here the jokey one-liners suddenly seem lightweight and out of place, as if wandering in from an episode of Maude.

Most of the success of As One is due to Kaminsky’s consistently compelling music. The vocal lines for both Hannahs are skillfully crafted, often sung together, with Hannah After’s solo lines soaring into tessitura heights.

Just as striking is the composer’s scoring for string quartet, which is varied, fluently conceived and wraps naturally around the action: from a pulsing minimalism–John Adams’ Shaker Loops seems a near cousin–to the jagged, violent fragments for the attack scene. The score is genuinely moving in its vein of spare, simple lyricism that is nostalgic and often poignant.

The success of Chicago Fringe Opera’s production was aided immensely by a pair of gifted and hugely appealing young actor-singers in the two-person cast.

As Hannah Before, Jonathan Wilson proved ideal casting for this difficult role. The young singer has a boyish vulnerability that makes him plausible as the searching Hannah, and his wide-ranging baritone encompassed the lyric flights and humor as surely as his powerful denunciation of the violence against transgendered people.

Samantha Attaguile was just as fine a partner as Hannah After. Showing a flexible and attractive mezzo-soprano, she was charming in the humorous moments and brought daunting intensity to the attack scene, handling the stratospheric moments with impressive security.

The singers’ voices blended felicitously in their many duetted moments. Wilson and Attaguile are both superb actors and were consistently credible throughout, always selling the action and character, even in the libretto’s talkier moments.

Having the actors inches from those in the front row contributed to the immediacy of the performance. Director Amy Hutchison moved the action fluently and naturally within the intimate black box space. Ted Nazarowski’s production made much out of little with a few minimal props, enhanced by Read’s artful use of period films in her projections.

After some initially wayward intonation, the Zara Collective (violinists Hannah Christiansen and Emelinda Escobar, violist Danielle Taylor and cellist Audrey Q. Snyder) performed Kaminsky’s music with fine energy and sensitivity. Conductor Alexandra Enyart led the music with confidence and flexible pacing that was always in synch with the singers. She also doubled artfully in a brief acting cameo as Hannah’s teacher.

As One will be repeated 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at The Center on Halsted.

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