Coming Together “As One”by Pat Launer November 2, 2017
It all began with an Aha! moment. Actually, two.
Laura Kaminsky, one of the hottest composers in America, is also an acclaimed presenter and social-political activist. All her compositions, primarily chamber and instrumental music, hew close to humanitarian and environmental themes, representing her deep connection to the natural world.
Among her many other grants, awards and fellowships, Laura has received six ASCAP-Chamber Music America Awards for Adventuresome Programming. The New York Times described her as “a composer with an ear for the new and interesting.”
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that she would venture into opera – though it was something of a surprise to her.
That was her first Aha! moment.
In 2008, she was reading a New York Times article about marriage equality. It concerned a heterosexual couple in New Jersey who were about to vote on same sex marriage.
“The issue was fascinating,” says Kaminsky, who’s pretty fascinating herself. “The husband was in the process of transitioning to a woman. They had been married for 20 years, had two kids and planned to stay together. But if the law didn’t pass [in 2013, it did], they would no longer be considered married.”
And that raised several questions for Kaminsky:
What are you willing to sacrifice to be yourself? What does that do to those in your orbit? How does it affect your relationships?
“That question of ‘What is Self’ was huge,” says the affable composer. “And I thought, ‘Wow! That should be an opera!’
“I had always wanted to write something about transsexuals,” she says. “Then, as artistic director of Symphony Space in New York, I produced a festival of music of the Soviet era. The mezzo singer was Sasha Cooke, whose mother was Russian. She said there were duets among these Shostakovich pieces and Russian folk songs, and asked if her husband, baritone Kelly Markgraf, could join her.
“It was a wonderful experience, meeting two artists with a deep spiritual/intellectual connection.”
And that prompted her second Aha! moment.
“I could tell the story of this couple as the same person,” she thought.
But then, she realized, “I had a concept, but not a story.”
Kaminsky’s wife, artist Rebecca Allen, was helping Laura find books and articles on the subject, and she came across Kimberly Reed’s film, “Prodigal Son,” a personal reflection about going to her 20th high school reunion in Montana, only to find that Paul, the valedictorian and star quarterback, had transitioned to a woman.
“Kim’s film was so wonderful,” says Laura, “I knew I wanted to work with her. We started imagining this project. Then I met the
famous librettist Mark Campbell, while adjudicating a grant for Opera America. I asked him to recommend someone for the lyrics. And he said, ‘I have to do this project.’ So I said, ‘If you and Kim click, we have a team.’”
The Ideal Collaboration
“It was a mutual meeting of heart and mind,” says Laura. “We collaborated completely, about the kind of story we wanted to tell, the feel of the piece, where in the story a song belonged. Together, we found the touchstone moments. I love and trust them. We respect each other, and we’re also brutally honest with each other. We gave birth to this together.”
Laura was commissioned by the American Opera Project in Brooklyn, which produced the first performance of ‘As One,’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), to unanimously positive reviews.
Opera News called it “a piece that haunts and challenges its audience with questions about identity, authenticity, compassion and the human desire for self-love and peace.” Operavore described it as “dramatically charged music.”
The San Diego Opera production will be the 11th for this acclaimed chamber opera. By the end of the year, says Laura, there will have been 21 productions.
“It’s a beautiful story about self-discovery, honesty and love,” she says. “It’s bigger than a transgender story. That’s a metaphor for the bigger issues of self and intimacy. It really touches people.”
The story is told in 15 short scenes that chronicle the life of ‘Hannah before’ and ‘Hannah after,’ from childhood as a boy, up until she finally realizes she can be who she is. A film complements the music, creating context for the action.
“We see Hannah riding her bike, inside her classroom, all from her point of view,” explains Laura. “There are multiple screens with different images, sometimes overlapping, sometimes replicating. It shows the environment, the landscape. It’s very fluid and really beautiful.”
In Laura’s view, “Hannah is one person, a woman, a unified being. We decided on a baritone and a mezzo. Throughout the one-act piece, different arias are shared, or presented in one voice. It’s not a male-to-female transition.”
In San Diego, the role of ‘Hannah before’ will be sung by baritone Kelly Markgraf (who was part of Laura’s second Aha! moment). ‘Hannah after’ is sung by mezzo soprano Blythe Gaissert, who created the role for the opera’s world premiere in Brooklyn. Both are new to the San Diego Opera.
They’ll be accompanied by The Hausmann Quartet, an award-winning ensemble that currently serves as faculty Artists-in-Residence at San Diego State University and Ensemble-in-Residence at San Diego’s Mainly Mozart.
“This piece is about somebody’s journey,” says Laura, in describing the score. “So it had to have a sense of momentum, with propelling music. We decided that a viola would represent the soul of Hannah, neither male nor female. The leitmotif is really evocative of her core being. It’s lyrical music, and the propelling music of discovery and adventure. That’s the core of the musical language.”
Two of the duets comprise letters written for the holiday season. In one, Hannah realizes that, for the first time, she can’t go home for Christmas. It has a sorrowful tone. The second letter is her mother’s response, after Christmas.
“Mothers always know,” says Laura, knowingly.
In one scene, some musicians sing. There’s also a poem recitation, which the conductor leads.
“Every director handles it differently,” says Laura.
A detour to San Diego
“As One” forms part of the San Diego Opera’s detour Series — smaller productions in intimate spaces, a departure from the grand opera presentations at the Civic Theatre.
Bruce Stasyna, the Company’s current Chorus Master, conducts. Kyle Lang, long-time assistant director for SDO, is making his directing debut. Jonathan Gilmer is credited with the scenic design and Christopher Rynne, the lighting.
Typically, the performance is followed by a talk-back. The San Diego Opera is calling theirs Act II, a conversation with the cast and creators of the opera, including filmmaker Kimberly Reed.
“I try to attend all the performances,” says Laura. “To honor those bringing the work to life. It’s a show of respect for the artists.”
The piece has been enthusiastically received, even in unexpected locations.
“When we presented the opera at Utah State University,” says Laura, “the dean said, ‘This is exactly the kind of project this college needs to embrace.’ In Pittsburgh, there was a pre-show for families with young trans kids, some as young as eight years old. There was a wonderful conversation about what it means to be yourself.”
“In June,” she continues, “We had an outreach to trans veterans. That was very moving. Now, with the current regulations, there’s a sense of urgency to all this. Before, there was a sense of hopefulness.”
The Making of a Composer
Laura Kaminsky grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her mother, who was born in London, had family from Russia and Poland, and also traced relatives back to Spain. Laura’s father was a first generation American; his parents were from Belarus.
She attended Rodelph Sholom nursery school, and grew up in a close, secular Jewish family. No one else in the family has musical talent or inclinations, though Laura notes that “Danny Kaye was a relative on my Dad’s side. But we never met him.”
She started playing piano at age 10.
“I was never going to be a musician,” she says. “I was always making things up, trying to figure out how to write music.”
She attended La Guardia High School of Music and Performing Arts in Manhattan, and graduated magna cum laude from Oberlin College. She obtained her Master’s degree from the City College of New York/CUNY, where she was a Tuch Foundation Fellow.
Over the years, she has lived and worked in Seattle, Ghana and Eastern Europe — Poland in particular, after which the President of the country awarded her the Polish Gold Cross of Merit, an acknowledgment of exemplary public service or humanitarian activity.
Laura married Rebecca in 2005, in Canada. They had a commitment ceremony for family and friends in New York, then when same-sex marriage was legalized there, they completed all the paperwork.
“So we have three anniversaries,” Laura exclaims, with amusement. “But really, every day is an anniversary for us.”
Currently a professor of music composition at Purchase College/SUNY, Laura has been a featured composer at universities and festivals around the world. She’s also a renowned presenter and producer.
“I like making an opportunity for young people,” she says. “I have been mentored, and I like to mentor and encourage. My aim is always to make art that’s meaningful.
“By default, I became an artist/activist. The work you do is a reflection of the world around you. The things I keep coming back to are the environment and human rights and peace.”
She lives Tikkun Olam, musically.
“As One” runs one weekend only, November 10-12 (Friday and Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 1pm), at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre, 6611 University Ave. The production will be televised live on Saturday, November 11 at 7pm on KPBS 2 (Cox 811, Spectrum 1277). After the live broadcast, the production can be watched online at kpbs.org. Tickets are available at 619-533-7000; sdopera.org.