“I remember being sceptical for a second because you kind of have to be of anything that tells a minority story, especially your own,” she says. “It is important to take a moment to go, OK, but what is this actually like? So I sat down and when I read it I felt I just had to do it. It was so important that I got to be involved with this piece.”
Enyart has conducted the work three times now and will add another entry to her CV when she leads Gertrude Opera’s production of As One at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne this month. It may be contemporary in both theme and form but with close to 40 productions in the past half decade, it ranks as the most produced opera in North America today. And while the canon of opera may historically be a conservative one, Enyart says the sheer number of productions As One receives means it’s already become part of that canon.
The opera was created by US composer Laura Kaminsky, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed (the latter a transgender artist herself). Its structure is novel: the protagonist Hannah is sung by two performers, one termed “Hannah Before” and the other “Hannah After”, while their interactions also suggest the notion of a third Hannah who is both at once.
Musically the opera is just as intricate. “It has this unique sound,” says Enyart. “There are rhythmic grooves and patterns to it and the tonality of it is, in a way, almost minimalistic, except it doesn’t really conform to minimalism in a traditional sense, where something happens repeatedly. It’s more like these small fragments and ideas pick themselves up and go over and over again to create these larger shapes constructed throughout the piece. I feel like it’s a lot of building blocks that become this larger structure.”
Enyart says that pitch also plays a crucial role in As One’s characterisation and “is really significant in the piece in terms of where Hannah is at any given moment. How stressed she may be, how lonely she is, or how fulfilled she is.” Presenting one role across two performers allows for intriguing ways of dramatising the internal conflict of a character, or expressing in vocal terms the contradictions that can exist within an individual.
Though it’s never stated explicitly, Hannah’s story takes place mostly in Montana. Co-creator Reed grew up in the state and has shot video there that features in the show (she is an acclaimed filmmaker in her own regard). Montana might be a long way from Enyart’s Kentucky, but some things connect small towns the world over.
“I wonder what it would have been like had I not lived somewhere where to be trans was to be so rejected,” she says. “I remember other people around who were trans and the environment there was very toxic for them.”
Like Hannah, Enyart left her town to make for herself a new life and is now music director of Chicago’s Thompson Street Opera as well as guest conducting for other companies in the city.
The specifics of Hannah’s tale might ring true to her but reviews of As One also praise the way it speaks to more universal experiences and Enyart says that “in a lot of ways it’s a coming-of-age story and a finding-yourself story stacked on top of each other”.
There are a few elements to the story that are particularly American but beyond that “the piece has the legs to go anywhere”, she says.
“It’s really a story less about a before and after, and more about being who you are and being buried alive and then digging your way out so you can be yourself again. Really taking off what other people have put on you.”
As One is at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, from January 22.