'As One': Groundbreaking opera of transgender youth's emergence

Opera Colorado presents ‘As One,’ a chamber opera with a libretto co-written by Denver native Mark Campbell, March 2-4 at Pinnacle Charter School in Federal Heights.

By Mark Campbell
Special to the DCPA NewsCenter

Opera composers and librettists are repeatedly asked the rather wearisome question: “What comes first, the libretto or the music?” And the equally wearisome answer — delivered with a slightly Borscht Belt inflection — is “the commission.” (Rim shot.)

Mark-Campbell QuoteOf course, the real answer to that question is “the story.” In the typical construct of birthing a new opera, the composer and librettist, and eventually the commissioning producer, all agree on a story they want to tell. Once that jolly convergence occurs, the librettist starts writing the libretto — setting up the events in the story, establishing the moments that put the operatic form to its best use and filling it with words to be sung. The librettist then submits that first draft of the libretto to the composer, who then begins setting it to music. Thus, the legendary dance between text and notes begins. Sometimes a minuet — sometimes a stomp.

But the process of creating As One was as atypical as the opera itself. When composer Laura Kaminsky asked me to join the creative team, she already had come up with the theme —  something about the experience of a transgender individual. She had seized on an intriguing but not yet useful theatrical conceit — a mezzo and a baritone playing the sole protagonist. She had the basis of a visual design — engaging filmmaker Kim Reed to create projections. The principal cast was in place — the amazing Sasha Cooke and Kelly Markgraf). She already had an idea for the accompanying sound — a string quartet. And finally, she had secured a producer — American Opera Projects.

What was missing was where most operas begin: The story.

I’ll never forget the evening Laura invited Kim Reed and me to talk about collaborating at the gorgeous, massive apartment she shares in the Bronx with her wife, the artist Rebecca Allan. Neither Laura nor Kim had created an opera before, but their passion for the subject and their freedom from preconceived notions about the form stood them well. They told me their ideas for a story but I felt that none of them would accomplish what they were seeking to accomplish in this opera. I turned to Kim and respectfully asked her, as a transgender person, to relate some experiences in her own life.

Kim recalled an incident as a male-assigned youth in Helena, Mont. Like almost every boy born into a suburban existence, Kim had a newspaper route. But one morning, she decided to deliver newspapers in a blouse worn under her jacket. It was a galvanizing moment. We discussed a few more experiences (the wine was kicking in nicely), and I left the Bronx that evening with a vague but thrilling notion for a story.

As One at Bam. Photo by Ken Howard. A few days later, I proposed creating an original libretto about a transgender person from youth to emergence, based very loosely on Kim’s experiences. I invited Kim to co-write the libretto, and that was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. She and I quickly established the themes we wanted to explore and from that created a narrative in three parts that lies stylistically between an opera and a song cycle. We also decided very early on that humor would be a crucial element in connecting our audience with our story.

About three months later, we delivered a libretto to Laura and she began setting it to music, astonishing us at every turn with the power she was finding in the words. About a year after that, the opera premiered and soon became one of the most produced contemporary operas in the country.

(Photo above and right: Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke portray the transgender protagonist Hannah in ‘As One’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Photo by Ken Howard.)

Having As One performed at Opera Colorado has some personal significance for me. I attended Thomas Jefferson High School and was Vice President of the Drama Club — which is about as euphemistic as it gets. I graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder, where I now mentor for the College of Music’s New Opera Workshop. In this wonderful initiative designed to train young composers about writing opera, I try to teach some rules about the process of creating opera — but also the importance of knowing when to break those rules, as we did with As One.

Note: This story originally published in the winter 2017 edition of Ovation Magazine. 


About the Author: Mark Campbell
Denver native Mark Campbell is one of the most in-demand and prolific librettists in the country. He has written more than 15 operas and five musicals.  His most-known work is the libretto for Silent Night, which received the 2012 Pulitzer in Music for composer Kevin Puts. The work premiered at Minnesota Opera, was broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances and has entered the modern repertory with an unprecedented rapidity. Campbell’s other operas include The Manchurian Candidate, Later the Same Evening, Volpone, As One, Bastianello/Lucrezia, A Letter to East 11th Street, The Inspector, Rappahannock County and Approaching Ali. Campbell is the recipient of the first Kleban Prize for Lyricist, two Richard Rodgers Awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a NYFA Playwriting Fellowship, three Drama Desk Awards nominations, a Rockefeller Foundation Award, the first Domenic J. Pellicciotti Prize and a Jonathan Larson Foundation Award. Recent and upcoming premieres include The Shining (Minnesota Opera), Elizabeth Cree (Opera Philadelphia), Dinner at Eight (Minnesota Opera), Some Light Emerges (HGOco) and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (The Santa Fe Opera). He is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School the University of Colorado Boulder.


As One: Ticket information

  • What: A 75-minute chamber opera for two voices sung in English with English subtitles
  • When: March 2-4
  • Where: Pinnacle Charter School, 1001 W 84th Ave., Federal Heights
  • Tickets: 303-468-2030 operacolorado.org 

As One: Synopsis
As One.Summary: With humor and empathy, As One chronicles the experiences of its sole transgender protagonist, Hannah, as she endeavors to resolve the discord between herself and the outside world. Two singers share the part of a sole transgender protagonist — Hannah after (mezzo-soprano) and Hannah before (baritone). Inspired in part by the life experiences of acclaimed filmmaker Kimberly Reed. Fifteen songs comprise the three-part narrative; with empathy and humor, they trace Hannah’s experiences from her youth in a small town to her college years on the West Coast, and finally to Norway where she is surprised at what she learns about herself.

Part I: In “Paper route,” Hannah rides around her suburban neighborhood delivering newspapers and revels in her more feminine impulses. Her youthful challenges in conforming to gender norms are related in “Cursive,” “Sexed,” “Entire of Itself ” and “Perfect Boy” — in such disparate subjects as handwriting, sex, a John Donne poem, and exemplary male behavior. However, in “To Know,” she discovers that she is not alone in the world and seeks understanding about herself at a local library.

Part II: During her college years, Hannah struggles with her bifurcated existence in “Two cities,” but also encounters the joy of being perceived as she wishes in “Three Words.” In “Close,” she has made the decision to undergo hormone therapy and briefly suffers its vertiginous effects before feeling at one with her own body. “Home for the Holidays,” “A Christmas Story” and “Dear Son” all occur around the Christmas season and relate Hannah’s growing distance to her family and her past, which is countered by an immediate connection with a stranger in a local café. In “Out of Nowhere,” Hannah escapes a harrowing assault that prompts her to find a link to the larger trans community and end her self-imposed alienation. Reacting to the conflicting voices in her head, she finally resolves to escape in the fragment, “I go on to…”

Part III: “Norway.” In this extended aria, Hannah finds, in Nature, solitude, and self-reflection, the simple yet surprising equation that will help her achieve happiness.

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