As One is a 2014 chamber opera exploring a transgender woman's journey of self-realization and acceptance. Commissioned by American Opera Projects, As One initially escaped the notice of classical conductor Alexandra Enyart.
Yet now Enyart is proud to be tied to the growing reputation of As Oneshe's guest conducting Chicago Fringe Opera's Windy City debut of the work at the Center on Halsted. It's just one of 11 separate As One productions appearing during the 2017-18 season, and follows on the heels of San Diego Opera's staging earlier this month.
"Being transgender, I definitely connect with this," said Enyart, who recently relocated to Chicago from Louisville, Kentucky, to be music director of Thompson Street Opera Company. "Just knowing As One exists made me very happy."
As One was conceived by lesbian composer Laura Kaminsky, the head of composition at Purchase College Conservatory of Music/SUNY and the former artistic director of Symphony Space in New York. As One features a collaborative libretto by gay lyricist/librettist Mark Campbell ( the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night and Chicago Opera Theater's forthcoming Elizabeth Cree ) and trans filmmaker/journalist Kimberly Reed ( the 2008 documentary Prodigal Sons ).
"It's so important to have someone who has gone through the same experience, or a very similar experience, to be working on this project," said Enyart about Reed, whose film work is also incorporated into Chicago Fringe Opera's staging of As One.
"It rings with an incredible truth to it and it is incredible how Kaminsky and Campbell, who are cisgender, have managed to learn so much about the transgender community," Enyart said. "And represent it so strongly and positively."
As One is scored for a string quartet, and distinctively features two performers playing one character simultaneously. "Hannah Before" is sung by a baritone, while a mezzo-soprano is "Hannah After."
Enyart conducts members of the new music ensemble Zafa Collective for Chicago Fringe Opera's production. She is also welcome resource to As One director Amy Hutchison and singers Jonathan Wilson and Samantha Attaguile in their portrayal of Hannah.
"I've not had the opportunity really before now to meet and speak with trans folks who were out to me or that I was aware of," Attaguile said. "It's been a really special experience."
"Alexandra has been very good at putting a very personal expression to what we've been working on and making it personal for each of us," Wilson said. "And approach this with as much context and understanding of the reality of experience as we could."
Enyart said she was careful not to just offer up "pamphlet version" advice that would be handed out to parents and families. Instead, Enyart wanted Attaguile and Wilson to personalize their own Google searches as if they were facing Hannah's internal struggle. They needed to be exposed to the variety of confusing or poorly written online advice that might influence vulnerable trans youth.
"Just having a transgender voice in the room who has these experiences really helps bring some of these moments into more clarity," Enyart said. She was also grateful to About Face Theatre, which presented a talk about gender and sexuality to the company.
In a perfect world, Attaguile said trans singers would be cast in future productions of the opera. But in the meantime, Attaguile is grateful that she gets the opportunity to be part of the growing visibility of trans people and issues by performing in As One.
"It's a happy story, but also full of conflict in trying to figure yourself out," Attaguile said. "Audiences should be able to identify with it because everyone has gone through that in some wayasking 'Who am I?' and 'Where do I really belong?'"
"[As One] can be so relatable, while still giving this underrepresented voice a moment to be front and center," Wilson said. "It's easy to grasp onto and feel a part of."
Enyart is pleased that opera companies are taking notice of As One. She feels so many productions have proliferated thanks to the opera's intimate scale and accessible score. Yet Enyart doesn't want As One to be the only opera out there telling a trans story.
"I hope that in the future we can see more works focused on female to male, as well as non-binary, as well as really emphasizing transgender people of color," Enyart said. "[As One] is a great step to inclusivity, but I hope more of these works come around and I can't wait to see them when they do."
Chicago Fringe Opera's local premiere of As One plays 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 16-19, in the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St. As One is sung in English with projected English surtitles. Tickets are $40 and $20 for students. Call 773-472-6469 or visit ChicagoFringeOpera.com for more information .