This week I wanted to look at composers not yet featured on NYFOS programs who have exceptional ‘voices’ in the contemporary realm and more specifically, ones with a natural facility writing for the voice in particular. In Laura Kaminsky’s case, her entree into the opera world would not only have tremendous impact in the classical, social and artistic scenes, but she also would introduce a subject matter so current that soon thereafter it became a cultural obsession—the experience of being transgender.
Opera was, it seems, a gentle and welcome place for that conversation to get started. This was 2014, so before we met ‘Caitlin’ Jenner and shortly before Transparent premiered on Amazon. The setting was ripe and since its premiere at BAM, it has been produced in nearly a dozen cities here and abroad. That is unique for new music! You’d think Laura would need to have written an opera beforehand to have had such a slam dunk but it wasn’t the case. The same goes with David Bruce’s full-length opera Nothing and Joby Talbot’s Everest. They all had an immediate facility in the art form, a genre considered by many to be the most difficult—opera, the synthesis of so many forces all at once. This is certainly part of the reason there is a lot of BAD new opera…it’s just so damn hard to pull off. Laura teamed up with phenomenal, Pulitzer-prize winning librettist Mark Campbell (whom I first met with NYFOS doing the premieres of his two operas, Lucrezia by Bolcom and Musto’s Bastianello, both comic masterpieces) and librettist/filmmaker Kimberly Reed, on whose story the opera is based. The union of these three great minds could not have been more serendipitous. When my husband baritone Kelly Markgraf and I first read through the libretto, we were in tears. So on multiple levels, the work was profound. Laura had heard Kelly and I sing together four years before at Symphony Space while she was the Artistic Director there. She asked us on the spot if we’d consider premiering an opera of hers—the idea for it hadn’t even yet been fully conceived. In the final product, the male and female singers would represent the male and female aspects of the protagonist Hannah. Kelly’s part (the male) was more prominent in the beginning of the piece and by the end, the mezzo (female part) had fully taken hold. So on that level as well it was a revolutionary idea—two sides of the same person played by two different singing-actors. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that in straight theater OR opera. Then for Kelly and I, a married couple, to explore this uncharted, potent and highly emotional material together was one of the greatest privileges of our lives. Every now and then with new music, you get the feeling you should be pinching yourself. So forgive me for being biased!! In the following video, you’ll see clips from the protagonist’s experiences in ‘Paper Route’ ‘Sex Ed’, ‘The Perfect Boy’ where Hannah-before tries to do everything athletic she can to make herself fit in as a boy, ‘To Know’ where Hannah-before hears the word ‘transgender’ for the first time on TV (Kim and Mark brilliantly never actually mention the literal word) and the final vignette ‘Norway’ where Hannah-after fully embraces herself and takes a brave step forward as her true self, ‘As One.’