Operas Illuminate Transgender Life, World Of Sirens

In 'Here Be Sirens,' by composer-singer Kate Soper, left, the femmes-fatales of myth explore their destinies. (Morningside Opera)
In ‘Here Be Sirens,’ by composer-singer Kate Soper, left, the femmes-fatales of myth explore their destinies.
(‘Here Be Sirens’ production photos courtesy Morningside Opera)
By Rron Karahoda

NEW YORK – A multiplicity of narratives and perspectives drives two operas by female composers staged earlier this month: Laura Kaminsky’s As One premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Kate Soper’s Here Be Sirens was presented at Dixon Place. While both operas give voice to characters struggling to understand themselves – a transgender individual and a trio of seductresses – Here Be Sirens emerged as the more focused.

Composers Laura Kaminsky and Kate Soper
Composers Laura Kaminsky and Kate Soper

Kaminsky, in her late fifties, is a former artistic director at the multi-disciplinary Symphony Space, and she is the current composer-in-residence for Brooklyn-based American Opera Projects, which commissioned As One. Her projects are strongly driven by socio-political and environmental issues and her musical style, which has been compared to Shostakovich, relies heavily on contrasts of texture and mood to reflect the divisive nature of these topics. Singer-composer Soper is a generation younger and writes in a personal yet honed musical language that re-imagines traditional vocal techniques.

Markgraf and Cooke share the role of Hannah in 'As One.' (© Lynn Lane)
Markgraf and Cooke play transgender Hannah. (© Lynn Lane)

As One is the result of a five-year collaboration by Kaminsky, librettist Mark Campbell, and filmmaker Kimberly Reed. The opera chronicles the ongoing transgender journey of Hannah, performed simultaneously by baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke – as Hannah Before and Hannah After. Hannah begins to identify as female, undergoes the transition from male to female, is attacked in her car, and subsequently flees to Norway. Through the two performers, we see Hannah grapple with her dual identity as she grows up.

A large story on a small stage with a score that jumps all too suddenly between light and lyrical to dark and harsh, As One, directed by Ken Cazan, sometimes confuses. We find both Hannahs – wearing costumes that can only be described as Greco-Urban – forced to maneuver around the Fry Street Quartet, lodged in the middle of the small stage, while projected backdrops create the environment.

Markgraf and Cooke, with Fry St. Quartet, projections.
Markgraf and Cooke, with Fry Street Quartet, the intimacy palpable.

As One is based on filmmaker Reed’s own transgender experiences, and it is here that the story line is strongest. Details like Hannah’s desire, as a boy on his paper route, to wear a blouse under his clothes makes the character come alive. When the libretto deviates to address the transgender community as an audience, the opera loses focus.

Even so, Hannah often narrates her life to the audience instead of living it. Her transition from male to female, a major event, is haphazardly recounted. When she is attacked in her car, the horror we should feel is mitigated by the event’s distancing portrayal as a memory. By contrast, when Hannah, in the present, discovers the victims of similar crimes online, we hear voices intone the list of names — a compelling device that extends an invitation into her experience. More invitations such as this would have benefited the opera as a whole. Throughout the work, the intimacy between Cooke and Markgraf is palpable, which comes as a relief, since there are no other important characters. And although Hannah returns from Norway and finds personal contentment, the effect is unsettling. Hannah stands strong, at the edge of the stage. She is still alone.

The music in As One, described by Kaminsky as mostly “traveling music,” accentuates Hannah’s sense of disconnect. The work is scored for string quartet, which blends too easily to be persuasive as a backdrop for life-long internal conflict. When the music does stop traveling, each instrument jumps off into its own realm. Though the material is well written, the instrumentation creates a vague sameness within Hannah’s sound world.

What does it mean to be a siren? ask the mythological creatures in Soper's opera.
‘What does it mean to be a siren?’ ask the mythological creatures in Soper’s opera.

In Soper’s Here Be Sirens, three mythical monsters confront their own histories, as told by outside voices. It comes off as an exploration of woman-ness. The sirens Polyxo (Soper), Peitho (Brett Umlauf), and Phaino (Gelsey Bell) pick apart old books written by old white men who have projected their own ideals and fears onto the form of the siren. The three women — a critical theorist, a romantic, and a classic silent-type, respectively — reassess what it means to be who they are.

The scenery, designed by Andreea Mincic, comprises a fortress of books, a siren’s rocky perch, and an open piano that serves in equal parts as prop and orchestra. Under the direction of Rick Burkhardt, Sirens gives the audience a strong sense of remote location and a needed aura of isolation. The sirens — costumed by Annie Holt in white fishnets and Spandex dotted with tattered cloth, encrusted with seashells, and obscured by white face paint and powdered wigs — are free to roam about their figurative prison.

Soper's eerie sonic vocabulary incorporates the piano.
Soper’s otherworldly sonic vocabulary incorporates the piano.

By giving them a unique and evocative musical vocabulary, Soper makes the sirens truly otherworldly. They sing eerie melodies that mix Latin and English texts with medieval church forms and touches of dissonant harmonies. The effects are hypnotic and sonically bridge Polyxo’s energetic performance with Peitho’s haughtiness and Phaino’s stoic composure. [For a teaser from an earlier performance of the opera, see below.]

With humor and candor, the studious siren Polyxo drags her companions through the works of Freud, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Ovid, the ancient Greek geographer Pausanias, and other scholars to examine the narratives that have defined them. At the end of each section is a “Shipwreck Sequence,” in which the Sirens converge around the piano and sing into it as they bang on the strings with mallets and produce piercing sounds from a small air horn. The effect is marvelous the first time: A monstrous sound that cannot be ignored or resisted. However, the magic recedes with each repetition.

This sequence hurts the pacing but is redeemed at the climax of the opera when Peitho, the young romantic siren, comes upon the fragments of the Greek lyric poet Sappho’s writings. In her decision to sing from them, instead of from another work by an old man, her growth as a character is reflected. It is a brilliant switch of perspective and leads into the most mesmerizing music of the opera.

The operas of Kaminsky and Soper are smart, their characters are investigative, they have more depth than many iconic operatic figures, and so deserve to be on the big stage. But who will take them there? The last opera written by a woman and performed at the Met was Dame Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald, in 1903. Representation throughout the States is not much better. To address this, WQXR in August hosted a 24-hour no-repeats marathon of music composed by today’s emerging women entitled “Her Music,” with the instruction, “So let’s listen!”

It is a start. Kaminsky and Soper are among those who deserve a larger forum.

Rron Karahoda studied composition with Kyle Gann at Bard College and interns at ISSUE Project Room. He is a freelance critic and is penning his own opera.

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