San Diego Opera's upcoming "As One" explores a young transgender protagonist's life as she transitions, a deeply personal and intimate story told by three collaborators.
The opera, created by composer Laura Kaminsky, librettist Mark Campbell and librettist/filmmaker Kimberly Reed, depicts the life of transgender protagonist Hannah as she finds herself.
Campbell said collaborating with Kim and Laura shaped the way they wrote the opera. His collaborators had not written an opera before, and so they had more freedom in building the story.
"It was good because we could kind of create our own rules with this story," Campbell said. "We didn't have to follow some of the old rules of writing opera, and I think that's one reason the structure evolved the way it did, was because there was more freedom in the collaboration."
The opera is told in three parts. The first part tells the story of Hannah in her youth, the second is Hanna in college and the third is when Hannah finally allows herself to be herself.
When writing the story, Campbell wanted to bring one important element to the character of Hannah throughout the opera: a sense of relatability.
"The thing that's different about 'As One,' maybe, is that at first, it seems like an issue opera," Campbell explained. "But it is not an issue opera. It is a human story, and it was really really important to me, and I think something Kim and Laura originally intended. . .it was really important for me to make sure to make sure this is a human being the audience can relate to, and I think that's one of the reasons it has succeeded."
Despite the serious nature of the story, Campbell said, the opera has humor in it. It was an intentional decision by the creators - to mix conflict and humor, side by side.
"Because so many people are afraid of transgender people, what it means to change gender, and I said, 'We can disarm those people with a little bit of humor and letting the audience know the character of Hannah is very much like them,'" Campbell said. "There's really no separation between this character's experiences and many of our own experiences."
The opera strikes a personal note for Campbell.
He relates to one moment in particular: an aria called "To Know."
The main character, Hannah, has been struggling with issues about who she is up to this point, and who she wants to be.
"She thinks she is completely alone in the world," Campbell said.
But one day she turns on her TV, and learns she is not, in fact, alone.
"And she sees a transgender person on television and she realizes that there are other people like there that are like her, and that the whole power to know that you are not alone in the world, and that this is not something wrong with you, this is just something you haven’t found other examples of in the world," Campbell said.
That's the point Campbell - and many others, he believes - key into the essence of the story. In this point in the story, knowledge is power, he explained.
"I think one reason 'As One' is resonating everywhere is that people are realizing that -- once I know about transgender people, I understand that they're not that different from you or me or anything else. They're just part of the universe," Campbell said.
One evening, after a performance in Seattle, Campbell and his collaborators met transgender youths and young adults who had came to see the show. The audience came with their parents or guardians, or alone, because some had been kicked out of their homes.
But one interaction, in particular, stood out to him.
"One person raised their hand and said, 'I just want to thank you for telling our story. That's all I want to thank you for,'" Campbell recalled.
And that experience put everything in perspective for him.
One of the reasons Campbell said he wanted to tell a story like this was because, plain and simple, human rights are important to him.
"I do believe in equal rights and this opera, we hope, will help people understand that," he said.
When the audience leaves the theater, he hopes they are motivated to sign up and help transgender people gain equal rights.
"What I hope and what I have witnessed happening is that it opens up the conversation about transgender people as people," he said.
"As One" plays at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre on University Avenue from Friday, Nov. 10 to Sunday, Nov. 12. To buy tickets, click here. The opera is approximately 90 minutes, and the talkback is approximately 45 minutes.