On Saturday, Transgender Day of Remembrance — and Resilience — an event in Lowell, Mass., will give voice to the community in a special way.
As One, an opera about a transgender woman coming into her identity, will be staged by the Lowell Chamber Orchestra with, for the first time, an exclusively trans and nonbinary cast.
The piece, which premiered in 2014 and has had about 50 productions, features two vocalists portraying one character, Hannah — a baritone singing the part of Hannah Before and a mezzo-soprano as Hannah After as the opera traces Hannah’s evolution. Some productions have had one of the parts performed by a trans artist, but the Lowell staging will have Rahzé Cheatham, an agender person of trans experience, as Hannah Before, and Tona Brown, a trans woman, as Hannah After.
The performers and As One’s creators acknowledge the history-making nature of the production. “I feel a huge sense of responsibility, not only to Tona and myself, but to the GLBTQ community at large,” says Cheatham.
As One was commissioned and developed by American Opera Projects and had its first production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September 2014. The project had its origins in queer talent: Kimberly Reed, a trans woman, and Mark Campbell, a gay man, wrote the libretto, and Laura Kaminsky, a lesbian, composed the music.
Reed is primarily a filmmaker; she has directed films including the autobiographical documentary Prodigal Sons (2010), and she was a producer on The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017). Kaminsky had seen Prodigal Sons and approached Reed about doing a trans-themed opera. “I wasn’t super excited about talking about myself again, but it was clear that it was helpful to keep drawing on my own personal experiences,” Reed says. While many of the things that happen to Hannah are fictional, the opera is informed by Reed’s life, she says.
She is gratified by the acceptance of As One. “It makes me feel wonderful. ... We’re introducing folks to some new material, and that feels really, really good,” she says. For an opera to have 50 productions in just a few years is noteworthy, she says: “That’s quite an accomplishment in the opera world.”
Cheatham and Brown, like Reed, are multitalented. Cheatham is a model and stylist as well as a singer, Brown is a violinist and is writing a memoir, and both are teachers. While not minimizing the challenges faced by trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people, they all say there are opportunities opening up for this community in the arts. “I think it’s our time to shine,” says Brown.
“I really want people to know that this work is ours — it cannot be taken away from us,” adds Cheatham. Music can be a vehicle for representation of all identities, including intersectional ones — both performers are Black — and the identity of a “global citizen,” Cheatham says. Recognizing this as a young person, “I knew I wanted to drive that vehicle,” the singer says.
Brown was also drawn to music at an early age. “There are those beams of light that kind of send you a signal that you’re on the right path,” she says. Seeing a production of Peter and the Wolf at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., when she was in the fourth grade made her want to play the violin, and she has stuck with the instrument ever since. In singing, she was mentored by the late opera star Shirley Verrett, who gave her what Brown calls the best piece of advice she’s ever received: “You just have to find your own niche.” Brown’s many accomplishments include singing the national anthem for President Obama at an LGBTQ+ Pride event in 2011.
Brown and Cheatham are both committed to nurturing other trans performers and opening spaces for them. Cheatham says that instead of having a seat at the table, “I want to build my own table with my own hands.”
Reed and her collaborators are likewise committed, and they will soon announce an award aimed at fostering this talent, in partnership with a major cultural institution, she says.
The performers and creators of As One do not ignore the discrimination and violence faced by the trans community (2021 is the deadliest year on record for this population). “I’m very mindful of all the inequities that trans people face, all the violence that we face,” Reed says. “I hope our story draws attention to that violence so we can stop it.” But the opera has moments of humor and happiness as well. “It’s important to show trans joy and trans visibility,” Reed adds.
Saturday’s performance of As One will take place at 7:30 p.m. at Middlesex Community College in Lowell; admission is free. For more information about further productions of As One and upcoming projects for Reed, Brown, and Cheatham: