Transgender Opera, With Two Singers Portraying One Character, Comes to Pittsburgh

Feb 17, 2017

There is no fancy set, no elaborate costumes. Just a small three-level stage, a string quartet and two opera singers — who both happen to be playing the same person.

“My character is Hannah Before; Hannah before she transitions to female,” said Brian Vu, a resident artist with the Pittsburgh Opera.

Fellow resident artist Taylor Raven is Hannah After.

“Me and Brian are portraying the same person and that is a really difficult thing to kind of wrap your head around in the beginning,” said Raven. “What part of Hannah is he and what part of Hannah am I, and how do they come together?”

Hannah is the protaganist in "As One," which depicts her life experiences from childhood to adulthood as she tries to come to terms with her identity.

This weekend is the Pennsylvania premiere of the show, which will have only four performances at Pittsburgh Opera headquarters in the Strip. The American opera was first performed in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the music and concept is by Laura Kaminsky and the libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. 

Kaminsky was on hand for the dress rehearsal Thursday, and talked with several LGBT groups and individuals.

Vu said that’s part of what sets this opera apart—it opens up a topic he said a lot of people are afraid to talk about because it feels taboo. “Just like women’s rights back in the day and gay rights and gay marriage," he said. "These things need to be talked about and addressed so that we can move forward as a society.”

Raven added that it also helps break down stereotypes around opera.

“This project is a really great indicator that opera is so relevant and it’s continuing to try to deal with the politics of the time and with the issues of the time,” she said.

Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn said that’s one of the medium’s greatest strengths.

“I fervently believe theater is at its most effective when it’s on the cusp of challenging societal norm and at the forefront of that kind of debate where you’re pushing the envelope,” said Hahn.

And Vu says even though this is about one woman’s experience, there are pieces everyone can relate to. “I think a lot of what Hannah Before and Hannah After [go through], we all go through in different ways, in our own journey," he said. "I try to go into rehearsals with my mind as a blank slate or a white canvas and as I sing the words, just remembering times when I felt this or when I’ve experienced something like trying to cover up feelings that are true to me.”  

Stage director Frances Rabalais said she did a lot of research, reading and listening to stories of trans people.

“I really wanted to start with not my own experience, because, yes, it’s a universal story, but Hannah’s trans identity is an integral part of her, so I wanted to make sure they were infused from the beginning," Rabalais said.