Riv­et­ing opera fol­lows an odyssey of change

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - LOCAL - By Ruth Bing­ham ——— Ruth O. Bing­ham re­ceived her doc­tor­ate in mu­si­col­ogy from Cor­nell Univer­sity and has been re­view­ing the mu­si­cal arts for more than 30 years.

Hawaii Opera The­atre’s “As One” is the story of a young trans­gen­der per­son dis­cov­er­ing who she/he is, but like many op­eras, it con­nects on a uni­ver­sal level and is rel­e­vant to ev­ery­one who strug­gles to­ward self­ac­cep­tance. Thurs­day’s per­for­mance was out­stand­ing, sure to be a high­light of HOT’s year.

Cre­ated by Laura Kamin­sky, Mark Camp­bell and Kim­berly Reed, “As One” is de­signed not for grand opera houses of old, but for more in­ti­mate con­tem­po­rary spa­ces. The li­bretto is in­tense, yet com­pact, cov­er­ing a broad dra­matic arc in only 15 songs, very much like a song cy­cle.

HOT pre­sented “As One” in an un-air-con­di­tioned Aloha Tower ware­house trans­formed with black­cloth walls and light­ing trusses, a sim­ple stage and

an au­di­to­rium of fold­ing chairs. Dress lightly, bring a fan and ac­cept that glass of wa­ter on your way in, but leave your opera glasses at home, be­cause you will be sit­ting close enough to be en­veloped in sound and to see per­form­ers’ nu­anced ex­pres­sions.

Shar­ing the sole main role of Han­nah, bari­tone Kelly Mark­graf (Be­fore) and mezzo-so­prano Sasha Cooke (Af­ter) were riv­et­ing, their stag­ing a del­i­cate dance about their re­la­tion­ship: fac­ing or back­ing off, echo­ing move­ments, turn­ing away or em­brac­ing. Mark­graf and Cooke’s voices, large, warm and ex­pres­sive, matched well, their over­lap­ping ranges merg­ing in mo­ments of in­ti­macy. At times, one joined into the other’s phrases, the tim­bre of one gen­der emerg­ing through the other’s voice, pro­duc­ing a stun­ning im­pres­sion of nei­ther-one-nor-theother-but-both.

Cooke and Mark­graf sang the role for the world pre­miere in 2014, and their com­fort­able fa­mil­iar­ity made it easy to be­lieve they were two sides of the same per­son. Apro­pos of a cham­ber opera, the orches­tra was an on­stage string quar­tet, the ex­cel­lent Fry Street Quar­tet led by con­duc­tor Robert Wood.

Han­nah’s emo­tional jour­ney is told through Kamin­sky’s mu­sic, us­ing op­er­atic tech­niques now fa­mil­iar to movie­go­ers to meld words, ac­tion and mu­sic into a multi-lay­ered drama. Moods shift quickly, youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance turn­ing in­tro­spec­tive as Han­nah ap­proaches ado­les­cence, heart-pound­ing dis­so­nance con­vey­ing as­sault, and soar­ing vo­cal­iza­tions paint­ing words (“free,” “lone­li­ness”). Kamin­sky com­mands a var­ied pal­ette, and her por­tray­als — of lone­li­ness, queasi­ness, doubt — were mas­ter­ful, paint­ing Han­nah’s rich emo­tional world with sen­si­tiv­ity and leav­ing in­deli­ble mem­o­ries. Set­tings were via video pro­jec­tions on back­drop screens and added their own lev­els of mean­ing, both lit­eral (Nor­we­gian fjords) and sym­bolic (a long tun­nel emerg­ing into a new phase of life). The screens pro­vided su­per­ti­tles that en­sured ev­ery­one caught ev­ery de­light­ful phrase (“emo­tional ver­tigo,” “a shack with cabin as­pi­ra­tions”). Han­nah’s story, al­though a strug­gle, is also up­lift­ing (fi­nally — an opera with a happy end­ing!) and in­vites peo­ple to look into their own mir­rors: us­ing per­fec­tion as a dis­guise, fac­ing lone­li­ness, ac­cept­ing who we are, and in the end choos­ing to be happy.

It is easy to see why

“As One” is one of the most fre­quently per­formed con­tem­po­rary cham­ber op­eras in Amer­ica.

COURTESY HAWAII OPERA THE­ATRE

Kelly Mark­graf and Sasha Cooke play a sin­gle char­ac­ter, known as Han­nah Be­fore and Han­nah Af­ter, in the cham­ber opera “As One,” to­day and Tues­day at Aloha Tower Pier 10.

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