Operas have come a long way since their debut in the early 1600s, when they were performed exclusively on palace grounds and primarily designed as propaganda tailored to fit the needs of French and Italian royalty.
Back then, they were intent on drawing parallels between rulers and mythological gods, persuading dignitaries to perceive the court in a more positive light. Nowadays, they fulfill the role of raising awareness about prevalent social and political issues while entertaining audiences with a combination of visual and audible art forms.
In one of the most popular contemporary operas sweeping America, “As One,” two actors play the sole protagonist, a transgender woman and her voyage though transition. Hannah before, the male-born character, and Hannah after, the person representing who she feels she genuinely is on the inside.
Both actors perform alongside a string quartet to present the audience with 15 songs comprising the powerful three part narrative. Telling Hannah’s story from adolescence to adulthood, the story evokes an array of emotions from the audience, as they witness the male and female counterparts of Hannah trying to come to terms with her one true identity.
Borrowing on both empathy and humor, “As One” begins with Hannah, still conforming to her male-born body at the time, facing the obstacle of sensing her feminine impulses yet rejecting them. This is due to the small town she belongs to, and her unawareness that transition is even a possibility.
As a youth, Hannah notices tendencies that cause her to question whether she was born the right gender, such as her girly cursive handwriting, identifying more with female roles during sex-education class and the belief that she was meant to be a woman.
While trying to counteract these mixed emotions, Hannah’s temporary solution involves taking on exemplary male behavior in order to convince both herself and her community that she’s the perfect boy. Joining the football team, lifting weights and deepening her voice to disguise the way she feels inside, Hannah struggles to understand why she wants to be a woman if she was actually born a man.
Her inner turmoil is finally clarified the day she hears the “magic word” on television, realizing there is actually a term for people similar to her. As we see her character head to the library to learn more about this new-found word, the anticipation and intensity heightens as she gains a whole world of knowledge that will forever alter her life.
The subsequent scenes of the opera follow Hannah in her college years, feeling torn between the two separate identities she depicts to the world. On one hand, she has made the decision to undergo hormone therapy, during which she experiences confusion about her own body and emotions. Sensing a growing distance between her family and the life she once knew, Hannah contemplates whether the ends will justify the means.
“As One” identifies several key issues that people within the transgender community deal with on a daily basis, including coming out to those around you, introducing yourself to people you find attractive and, almost inevitably, having to escape from assault because of hateful individuals who lack understanding.
After barely getting away from the man who attacks her, Hannah furthers her research and becomes aware of the countless harrowing tales from across the world describing situations similar to hers. The conflicting voices in Hannah’s head, coupled with her realization of the dangers that surround her, lead the protagonist to independently travel to Norway, where she hopes she can overcome this self-imposed alienation that has taken over her life.
In the final section of the play, Hannah comes face to face with herself and manages to find happiness through nature, solitude and self-reflection. This is where the audience sees Hannah evolve into the person she always wished she could be, leaving all doubts and insecurities in the past and returning home as her one, authentic self.
Once she is finally able to accept the parts of her that didn’t originally make sense, Hannah breaks away from the fears and preconceptions about what life should be, which allows her to finally live the life she’d envisioned for herself since the moment she was born. “As One” is a deeply moving tale that is well-executed and forces the audience to both think and feel acutely, ultimately defining a new era of opera specifically tailored for this day and age.
Following the hour-and-a-half long performance, audience members are welcomed to a talkback with the cast and composer, discussing the show itself as well as issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community and how we, as a society, can help make those individuals feel more safe in this world we all inhabit.
The public discussion at the Alamo City Opera rendition in San Antonio, Texas, included the surprising realization that the actor playing Hannah after was actually a transgender man who recently transitioned. Hearing their personal ties to the story allowed for a more real-life connection to the opera, and having the opportunity to ask them questions was such a treat after watching their talents first-hand on stage.
The dialogue prompted multiple compelling inquiries, including how to distinguish which pronouns to use if you are unsure of a person’s preferences. To this question, the actor responded that, when in doubt, it’s always best to ask a person to clarify, which is something we can all try to become more comfortable with.
The LGBTQ+ community faces so much controversy and opposition from the general public, but supporting such a profound cause brings light and awareness into even the darkest corners of our minds. With this said, the play is phenomenally produced and highly entertaining from start to finish. If you have the chance to see “As One” near you, seize the opportunity, for the show will definitely leave you speechless.