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Thinking of opera, one might imagine a knight in shining armor, a damsel in distress or Brunnhilde — a woman with a viking helmet and blonde braids belting out some massive vocal power. And, in many ways, opera is still representative of those traditional characters, but it’s also an ever-changing medium that is growing with the times. “As One,” an opera that talks about one transgender woman’s path to her own acceptance is the perfect example of that. Set to premiere in Michigan on April 6 and 7, it’s being put on locally by Ann Arbor’s Aepex Contemporary Performance and Kerrytown Concert House.
“The project began with a conversation between Kathy Kelly (the show’s director) and a very accomplished opera director and vocal coach at the University of Michigan. And then she had coffee with Kevin Fitzgerald who is Aepex’s music director almost a year ago,” said Garrett Schumann, Aepex’s executive director. “She was aware of ‘As One’ and brought it up talking to Kevin and he was really excited about it.”
“As One” turned out to be the perfect fit for Aepex’s programming said Schumann, specifically because Fitzgerald had had experience putting on LGBTQ-friendly programming, and because it fit perfectly with Aepex’s overall mission.
“Kevin Fitzgerald has been involved in a number of concerts surrounding specific issues, and one of them was a community-based performance of the Mozart ‘Requiem’ that he organized right after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in the summer of 2016, so when he was talking about ‘As One’ the connections he had made with the LGBTQ community in Ann Arbor gave him a lot of confidence about our ability to build an audience for it,” Schumann said. “This is the first opera production we’ve been involved with, and we’re also very excited about not just the story that it tells … but that it’s something we care about as an organization: sharing artistic perspectives and stories that are not normally programmed in this music space.”
The opera stars soprano Jennifer Cresswell and baritone Jonathan Lasch who will be portraying the same person at different stages in their journey of transition and acceptance. The performers will also be performing alongside a video created by transgender filmmaker and the opera’s co-librettist Kimberly Reed. Schumann said that this addition will also add another modern twist in the presentation of this story.
Fitzgerald said that although opera might be an art form that intimidates some who have never attended, that this performance is a direct answer to that: not only does it cover progressive material, but it provides an intimate concert setting in a much smaller concert hall than normal.
“I think that classical music in general has been associated with a class system that’s been around for hundreds of years, because, frankly, classical music was used for the most part in two contexts: one in church and two as entertainment for rich people,” Fitzgerald said. “We are, as a global classical community, trying to figure out how to break that down.”
The show’s director Kathleen Kelly agreed. She said that the show’s intimacy will resonate deeply with its audience because of the language the show is in, too.
“The piece is in English, so you don’t have to be reading a translation, you don’t have to be informed in advance of the story so you can come like you come to theater and be surprised. Also, because the space is small the singers don’t have to sing up at the edge of their resources in order to fill up a big hall, and that also means that they can be very understandable with their words,” Kelly said. “But, they’re still athletically trained opera singers so you get all of the emotional impact of a voice produced like that.”
Kelly also said that if attendees are worried that they might not be able to relate to the protagonist in this piece because they themselves are not part of the LGBTQ community, she recommends seeing the opera anyway. Kelly said that she has related more deeply to “As One’s” main character than almost any other piece she has directed.
“Because it’s about this really human search for identity. Like, if I don’t fit into the categories that are prescribed for me, what does that mean for my life? I don’t mean I can understand the journey of this person or that my journey is the same, but it can touch me and it’s universal,” Kelly said.
And, according to Kelly, the fact that the opera has been heavily lauded and performed nationwide speaks for itself.
“This piece was the 14th most produced opera in America last year, and you can say part of it is because it’s so economical, it doesn’t involve very many people and some of it is because the issues at hand are issues that are at hand in society, but it goes beyond that,” she said. “It’s been produced that many times because it’s a great piece and has a lot to say to us.”
“As One” will be performed at the Kerrytown Concert House on April 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets and more information about the performance are available at http://kerrytownconcerthouse.com. The venue is located at 415 N. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor.