An Opera for Our Time

 The 2014 premiere of  As One  at the Brooklyn Academy of Music featured Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Photo by Ken Howard.

The 2014 premiere of As One at the Brooklyn Academy of Music featured Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Photo by Ken Howard.

To look at the opera world in the 21st century is to find an art form and industry questioning its identity. Everywhere you look, managers and industry leaders are seeking new ways to engage new audiences. We are witnessing an influx of new works and experimentation, companies looking for the next big classic that has eluded them for decades.

Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed’s opera As One could be considered a “new classic,” albeit in a way that exemplifies an art form in flux.

Like the other classical arts, opera struggles to expand beyond its roots. For many traditional opera lovers, the great singers existed long ago and the great operas have already been written, making it difficult for the art form to evolve.

As One is an opera about coming to terms with a new identity in the face of a traditional worldview that rejects this change. In the same way that Hannah questions her gender identity, the work questions what opera is and how it can be presented. As One is a chamber opera that calls for a string quartet and two cast members. So, instead of necessitating a massive production in a 2,000-seat auditorium, As One can be staged in a living room, a restaurant, a small theater, outdoors—anywhere.

Librettist Mark Campbell has stated that the work’s “portability” and “unique nature” has made As One particularly popular at smaller companies such as Opera on the Avalon in Newfoundland, Skylark Opera Theatre in St. Paul, Anchorage Opera, and the Boston Opera Collaborative, all of which have staged the work in 2018 to remarkable success.

Reviewing the 2014 world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, David Allen wrote for The New York Times, “As One forces you to think, simultaneously challenging preconceptions and inspiring empathy.” So, at the same time we are experiencing a new way of producing opera, we are moved by the specifics of the story—not about a long-ago king or fictional warrior, but instead the true story of a transgender person.

It is no coincidence that other contemporary operas are having similar success, whether it be Margaret Garner, Dead Man Walking, or Fellow Travelers—all deal with subjects inspired by true stories, relevant to contemporary cultural concerns. Audiences are connecting with them because these operas speak to themes and topics of our time. In the end, these operas, including As One, are about us.

David Salazar is the Editor-in-Chief of OperaWire.com, an online news site dedicated to covering opera around the globe.