There’s a lot of debate these days about making opera relevant, or contemporary, and what that means and how to do it. And sometimes, when you see a work that seems to be setting out with this aim in mind you bridle: Is it going to be too deliberate, too preachy? I confess that was my initial reaction when I saw that Urban Arias was staging a one-act opera about a transgender woman.
That reaction proved to be utterly unfounded. Laura Kaminsky’s “As One,” which opened last weekend at the Atlas Performing Arts Center and has two more performances on Friday and Saturday, proved to be a thoughtful and substantial piece as well as that rarest of operatic commodities — a story that lends itself to dramatization in music.
You could call “As One” a monodrama, except that the protagonist, Hannah, is played by two singers, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano (here, Luis Alejandro Orozco and Ashley Cutright, who physically resemble each other and both sing very well, a notable casting coup). One of opera’s strengths as an art form is its ability to externalize inner conflict. All the better, then, when that conflict is expressed in two contrasting voices.
They were backed up by the inner dialogues of a string quartet (members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Urban Arias founder Robert Wood) playing Kaminsky’s effective, direct music — evoking now fiddling and Americana; now, through halting dissonances, the pain of a difficult place in the road; now, through the juxtaposition of plucked violin and singing cello, the exploration of two voices merging into a single identity. There were a couple of jokes, such as a brief quote from “Peer Gynt” when Hannah, at the end of the opera, announces that she’s going to Norway. Sometimes the musicians were even called on to vocalize — in, for example, the poignant Christmas scene when Hannah, in mid-transition and in Orozco’s voice, tells her unseen parents that she won’t be able to come home.
Kudos, too, to librettist Mark Campbell for an insightful text that avoids the pitfall, all too easy with this material, of becoming sanctimonious. Hannah is at once representative and specific, with enough gentle details to keep him/her feeling like a living character rather than a textbook Everyman/Everywoman. Her journey is not straightforward. She has second thoughts, feels trapped in her new, changing body, and discovers how vulnerable she has become to physical violence through leaving her male gender behind. The accompanying video projection by Kimberly Reed is arguably less integral to the whole than the creators may believe, but it added a gentle narrative touch over and around Adam Crinson’s spare white set, delineated by a few chairs and a staircase leading up to a platform, or to nowhere.
Both singers had plenty of chances to shine. Kaminsky writes well for the voice, and the diction was exemplary, so you didn’t miss a word. Dramatizing this journey had another, subversive consequence: “As One” presents a dialogue between man and woman in which the desired, happy outcome is the diminution of the male voice and the empowerment of the female one. Cutright’s luminous mezzo took on added radiance as the character exulted in her own identity, while Orozco looked on joyfully, and quietly, before joining her in a final, brief, unison note.
As One Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets: $29.50. (202) 399-7993 or www.urbanarias.org.