We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, September 5, 2014


Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke (photo by Ken Howard)
What a unique and brave subject for an opera--the struggle of a transgendered individual for self-acceptance.  The concept came to composer Laura Kaminsky who found willing associates Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed to co-write the libretto.  The work certainly held our interest from start to finish--words such as TRANScendent and TRANSformation kept popping into our brain.

In a casting coup, married couple Sasha Cooke and Kelly Markgraf shared the role of the protagonist--a likable and sensitive individual born male but feeling very much like a woman. Forty years ago such individuals were thought of as having a mental disorder and the surgeons who dared to perform sex-reassignment surgery were attacked by their medical brethren. Nowadays, the condition is readily treated by hormonal manipulation and surgery.

One might think that the story of one such individual would be difficult to relate to; on the contrary, most people are in touch with parts of themselves that they feel are unacceptable and therefore repressed and denied.  Thus, we may feel a kinship, compassion and understanding.  If we are open to it, we may even feel better integrated ourselves by bearing witness to this story.

Mr. Markgraf performed the role of Hannah "before".  Although his physique and forceful baritone are completely masculine, his skillful interpretation allowed us to witness the woman within.  Ms. Cooke's gleaming mezzo and soft appearance was tinged at appropriate moments with the called-for masculine quality as she portrayed Hannah "after".  The roles could not have been better acted or sung.

A remarkable feature of the work is the way the various artists were called upon to cross artistic boundaries.  At times, the singers were called upon to dance and used their entire bodies to express their emotions.  The superb conductor Steven Osgood was called upon once to lay down his baton and assume the role of a schoolteacher.  (He exhibited a fine commanding voice.) The members of the Fry Street Quartet (violinists Robert Waters and Rebecca McFaul, violist Bradley Ottesen and cellist Anne Francis Bayless) not only played Ms. Kaminsky's music with consummate artistry but also participated in the drama just a bit.

One must give ample credit to Stage Director Ken Cazan who created the magic of having us see in our mind's eye what was not onstage. Although there were videos projected onto four asymmetrical screens, we found them distracting and preferred to use our imagination under Mr. Cazan's meaningful direction.  Although there were titles projected, they were unnecessary since the pair of singers exercised exemplary diction.

Since this was called a chamber opera, let us consider Ms. Kaminsky's music.  Her writing for the string quartet was nothing short of thrilling with interesting motives operating on a semi-conscious level.   There was ample melody and attractive harmonies.  There was nothing disagreeable to the ear, save for the scene when Hannah escapes a man with evil intentions.  There were snippets of Grieg when Hannah retreats to Norway.  The music created a portrait of a sensitive protagonist, someone we would want to get to know, someone we could care about.

We cannot express such enthusiasm for her writing for the voice. We understand that the librettists wanted the writing to be direct and colloquial, a task at which they succeeded admirably.  But, and this is a big but, such direct lines in English do not lend themselves to melody.  One could hear the potential beauty of the vocal lines only during short periods of melismatic singing when there was no dialogue to interfere.  And there were some thrilling moments when Ms. Cooke and Mr. Markgraf sang in gorgeous harmony (symbolic!) and in unison (even more symbolic!).

This problem is not unique to Ms. Kaminsky.  Most contemporary operas in English seem like plays with music rather than operas in the sense that one usually thinks of as opera.

Scenic and lighting design by David Martin Jacques was spare. Costume design by Sara Jean Tosetti consisted of jeans for both Hannahs and bare feet all around.

The work was commissioned and developed by American Opera Projects and will have two more performances on Saturday and Sunday at BAM Fisher.  If you are fortunate enough to get a ticket, don't be surprised if you walk out TRANSformed.

(c) meche kroop

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