Review: The Atlanta Opera’s ‘As One’ is a poignant, powerful take on gender identity

Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

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Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

It’s three words of text in an opera, but they seem so much more.

“Pardon me, Miss,” someone says to Hannah, the transgender protagonist of “As One.” Having spent much of her young life wondering if she could ever transition and pass for female, Hannah hears that line and feels a wave of contentment.

A bold, triumphant chamber opera, “As One” is part of the current “Come as You Are” festival staged by The Atlanta Opera at Pullman Yards. The line-up also includes “Cabaret,” which has performances still through June 19. “As One,” however, had only two scheduled productions. It’s a shame, because it’s likely to be one of the year’s most-discussed pieces of work.

Two voices — Hannah Before (baritone Lucia Lucas) and Hannah After (mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert) — bring to life, via memory, the story of its central character through 15 songs. While on a paper route, Hannah Before steals a blouse and puts it on underneath her jacket, liking the way it feels.

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Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

Credit: Raftermen

Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

Credit: Raftermen

Combined ShapeCaption
Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

Credit: Raftermen

Credit: Raftermen

Hannah’s subsequent teenage years are spent trying to conform to gender norms, being a star quarterback, even class president, and always trying to be the best at everything to please everyone. In the unforgettable “To Know,” Hannah goes to a library and searches for help with what she is experiencing. After some time, she finds — typed on a yellow card — the word (which the audience never sees, though it’s implied that it is “transgender”) that describes what the character is going through. There are others like her, Hannah realizes, closing Part One.

Part Two finds Hannah leaving home and settling in San Francisco. The character has decided to have hormone therapy and in one joyous moment, enjoys an unexpected, flirtatious moment in a café. Yet there is heartbreak in “A Christmas Story” and “Dear Son,” examining holidays without family and the growing distance between Hannah and her loved ones. In “Out of Nowhere,” matters grow even more harrowing, with a frightening assault on Hannah. That piece is made even more chilling and topical with Hannah calling out the names and passing out cards to audience members about others who have been the victims of violence towards transgender people.

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Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

Credit: Raftermen

Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

Credit: Raftermen

Combined ShapeCaption
Lucia Lucas as Hannah Before and Blythe Gaissert as Hannah After in the Atlanta Opera production of "As One."

Credit: Raftermen

Credit: Raftermen

Eventually, Hannah leaves the country, settles in Norway and finds some internal peace.

“As One” is composed by Laura Kaminsky, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. For Reed, who made the excellent documentary “Prodigal Sons” about her own transition, it’s very personal material and much here seems to parallel her own story.

Because of COVID-19, the original Atlanta Opera production of “As One” was postponed. With the new date, the company has secured Lucas as the first transgender performer to play the central role. (Lucas previously became the first trans woman to take on a leading part on an American operatic stage in Tulsa Opera’s “Don Giovani.”) There have been several mountings of “As One” prior to this, but I simply can’t imagine the piece without Lucas.

Lucas and Gaissert often share the stage, perfectly complementing each other, and both have majestic, expressive voices. This opera would not work, however, unless both were excellent actors able to convey the pain and confusion the character is facing — Lucas painting a haunting picture of a youth trying to figure out what is going on with her internally and Gaissert giving weight to Hannah’s inner voice.

“As One” is directed by Stephanie Havey, who makes the most of every minute. The show also features a transgender conductor, Alexandra Enyart, who leads four musicians, and a transgender costume designer, Erik Teague.

The set is pretty bare save for a bicycle, chest and some boxes. Havey makes potent use of light boxes and lanterns that symbolize Hannah’s memories. The use of projections, courtesy of projections co-designers Nicholas Hussong and Nicholas Chimienti, also works. In “Cabaret,” the use of said projections often felt superfluous but here they nicely supplement what is happening onstage.

The show itself runs about an hour and twenty minutes and was followed here by a talkback. This is an intimate work, perfect for a smaller venue. It would be swallowed up whole in the opera’s regular home, the spacious Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

If I have any criticism of the work at all, it’s that Part Three can feel a little like a post script, not as defined or sharp as what has preceded it. Yet it’s a tiny quibble for a work that has such ambition, depth and authenticity, as well as a deserved happy ending. Credit must go to the company’s general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun for staging a work that needed to be part of this season, even if it was not destined to be a box office magnet.

The sparkly mainstream offering at the center of the festival might be “Cabaret,” which was virtually sold out the night we saw it. While I enjoyed it, it didn’t always have the defining stamp I’d identify with The Atlanta Opera. “As One” does — in spades. It’s a staggeringly powerful piece of work that will resonate with a lot of people. An audience member near the stage sobbed for much of the performance. Let’s hope at some point this work can return.

The production ends with simplicity and grace with Hannah Before and Hannah After coming together. It’s a long, often painful journey, and eventually both halves can co-exist. As one.

Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.


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