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Husband and wife share role of transgender woman in new opera

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Opening minds is a two-person job.

“As One,” a new chamber opera premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 4, is pushing boundaries in more ways than one. Not only does it tell the story of a transgender character transitioning from male to female, but the role will be shared simultaneously by a male and a female singer.

“Occasionally an actor or singer shares a role with another across several performances, but I’ve never witnessed one where a male and female are asked to inhabit the same character,” said baritone Kelly Markgraf, who will play one side of the lead role.

The opera follows the character of Hannah from childhood to college through adulthood and hormone therapy. Hannah is concurrently portrayed by two parts — “Hannah before” and “Hannah after.” Through their songs and duets, the show explores Hannah’s inner life, as well as issues of transphobia and self-acceptance.

“The story is a simple treatment of the transgender story,” said Mackgraf, who plays “Hannah before.” “It looks at Hannah’s story through the most human lens — a being in search of their true self and the courage it takes to be that person.”

“Hannah after” will be played by Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke — who also happens to be Markgraf’s wife. The pair said their close bond makes it easier for them to successfully embody the same character.

“Because we trust and know each other so well, I think the piece will benefit from our shared relationship and energy,” Cooke said. “In a sense, two married people are two halves of one entity.”

The work was first inspired by a New York Times article the show’s composer had read, about a married couple from New Jersey facing legal issues because one spouse had transitioned from male to female in a state that did not recognize same-sex marriage.

“To me, it seemed so operatic,” said composer Laura Kaminsky. “The question here was — what are you willing to sacrifice to be who you are? What is the core of a human being? I could see and hear this being an opera.”

The production also incorporates elements of film, courtesy of filmmaker Kimberly Reed, who co-wrote the libretto. But Reed brought more than just her multimedia and writing skills to “As One” — she also provided a critical perspective as a transgender person, said her co-librettist.

“I began by asking Kim some of her experiences as a transgender person and each story she told struck me as beautiful and courageous, and translatable into text for music,” said Mark Campbell, whose opera “Silent Night” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. “I’ve loved working with Kim because she’s taught me so much about this subject through her experiences.”

Cooke said she hopes audiences of all backgrounds come away from the opera having learned not just about the experiences of transgender people, but also something about themselves.

“We all have resistances, issues, things that keep us from our better selves, and this piece inspires us to face those challenges head on,” said Cooke. “The character Hannah in ‘As One’ has more bravery than most of us. In that sense, I hope it opens minds, not only for transgender awareness but for self-awareness.”

“As One” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fisher Fishman Theater [651 Fulton St. between Rockwell Place and Ashland Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. Sept. 4 and 6 at 7:30 pm, and Sept. 7 at 3 pm. $25.

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