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Anchorage Opera’s ‘As One’ explores inner world of a transgender woman

Calling "As One" an opera about gender transition is like calling "The Vagina Monologues" a play about gynecology. In both cases the human body is not the subject, but rather the starting point for a personal journey: the realization that we need not be entirely defined by our physical selves.

Anatomy is not destiny in this 75-minute chamber production, which transgresses musical boundaries and challenges old expectations of the genre. It's performed by a string quartet rather than an orchestra. No large cast with grandiose costumes, wigs and makeup; just a mezzo-soprano and a baritone in everyday clothing.

The two are actually the same person: a transgender woman, played as "Hannah-Before" and "Hannah-After," reviewing the woman's life from childhood to the point at which she decides to transition.

This is not the story of a tragic transgender person who's wracked with sorrow and self-loathing. It's a tale of the search for identity and meaning: Who am I, and where do I fit in the world?

"That's a point of connection for all of us," says baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, last seen in Anchorage Opera's "Maria de Buenos Aires" in 2016.

Premiering in 2014, "As One" features music by Laura Kaminsky, the current composer-in-residence at American Opera Projects. One of the librettists, Mark Campbell wrote the book for "Silent Night," the opera that won the 2012 Pulitzer for music. The other librettist, documentary filmmaker Kimberly Reed, was once a boy named Paul, whose life is the basis for the piece.

Orozco has sung the part four times; Hannah-Before is his favorite role. "What I love most about this opera is how likable Hannah is, how relatable she is. You can relate to her struggles, whether or not you know anybody who's trans," the baritone says.

"We've all had to hide parts of ourselves."

Luis Alejandro Orozco (Hannah before) and Ashley Cutright (Hannah after) star in Anchorage Opera’s production of As One. The opera tells the story of a transgender person in transition. Photo illustration by Loren Holmes / ADN

Visiting director Andreas Mitisek also has a history with "As One," having conducted it for Long Beach Opera in 2017. In Anchorage he'll fulfill three jobs: conductor, director and designer.

Mitisek sees the two-person role not as two separate characters but rather a reflection of the "struggle between the different voices" in our heads. When faced with a new or stressful situation, it's an all-too-human tendency to hear our fears/doubts telling us to stay put, don't try, don't risk.

Hannah could have continued to perform as a male. She was good at it: hard-working, starting quarterback, class president (as a young man Reed was all those things, and also voted "best-looking" and "most likely to succeed"). Yet her core identity was female. Seeing a transgender woman on television shakes her to that core: I'm not the only one.

As an adult she must decide whether to accept her true self – and in doing so, to chance losing family and friends, as well as expose herself to social condemnation and hate crime (depicted in a song called "Out of Nowhere").

"It's the journey to find yourself: What's the honesty I can live, instead of playing a role? It's not a transgender opera. It's a human story," Mitisek says.

Both performers are on stage from beginning to end. Hannah-Before does not cease to exist but rather becomes integrated with Hannah-After: a part of her history but no longer a defining factor of her identity. That possibility begins to seem real with "A Christmas Story," a song that takes place in a coffee shop open on Dec. 25. It incorporates melodies from a traditional carol whose lyrics include, "that mourns in lonely exile here."

"A Christmas Story" references that phrase with the lyric "Just two exiled people, denying our exiles," as a male patron expresses interest in a female-appearing Hannah-Before. As a woman inside a male body, Hannah has been exiled from her true identity, her true self.

This is Orozco's favorite scene: "A moment of acknowledgment," when Hannah is seen as who she really is.

Mezzo-soprano Ashley Cutright has performed "As One" with Orozco before, at Urban Arias in Washington, D.C. She acknowledges that, as a cisgender female, she has not faced anything like her character's struggles. Yet the mezzo found an entry point: recalling the "lost" feelings of a young "music nerd," out of step with typical teen interests and behaviors.

That's why she describes the opera's theme as "universal," despite its unusual subject matter.

"If you have ever struggled with being truthful to yourself," Cutright says, "then you will gain so much by hearing this story."

Anchorage Opera recommends this performance for people ages 15 and up. It contains brief mentions of mature language and a violent encounter.

As One

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.

Tickets are $42.50 to $87.50, available at CenterTix.net and at the box office. (907-263-2787)

Pre-performance talks begin one hour before each show.

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