This year’s Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF) theme is “A Season of Self-Discovery” and that was reflected in last weekend’s two performances of “As One,” a story about Hannah, a young transgender woman. Through fifteen songs and a three-part narrative, the opera reveals Hannah’s experiences from her youth in a small town to her college years, and then traveling to Norway.
“As One” premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014 and is currently in its 52nd production – making it the most produced American opera of late. This chamber opera is 75 minutes long with a phenomenal orchestral quartet (violin 1 – Patrick Yim; violin 2 – Maxine Nemerovski; viola – Daria D’Andrea; cello – Kate Rietman). The violins were divine; their high notes so pure.
Saturday night’s cast featured Evan Bravos (as Hannah Before) and Ashley Armstrong (as Hannah After). Bravos played the role of Don Giovanni in HPAF’s 2017 production, and he and Armstrong performed “As One” together with Opera Santa Barbara.
Their HPAF performance was exquisite. Armstrong was petite compared to Bravos, yet the singers moved flawlessly as individuals and in mirror image, “as one.”
Conductor Alexis Enyart, clearly a force to be reckoned with, joined the cast briefly as a teacher leading the class in reciting John Dunne’s meditation “No Man Is An Island.” As dynamic as she is as conductor, I also marveled at the quartet, and how they could continue playing for 75 minutes with nary a break. The quartet and Enyart also sang background Christmas carols while playing their instruments during the first Christmas not-at-home scene, “Home for the Holidays” – what stamina!
Rahzé Cheatham and Amanda Staub performed as the second cast for Sunday’s matinee. Sunday’s show was a very different experience for me. I could understand the directors’ Sunday pre-show explanation about not using the word “transgender.” The sensitive subject matter is about transitioning from a male to a female, a story of self-discovery, self-loathing, self-acceptance, and all that goes with being alive, which is greater than the “transgender” aspect. The art transcends the topic.
On Sunday, I understood pieces of the libretto that I had missed Saturday night, which helped me understand more of the story, and I could hear the humor and react in laughter that I missed in the previous performance. I was moved to tears on Saturday night during the reading of the names of trans persons who were murdered in hate crimes, and had the same reaction on Sunday when talented Cheatham sang the word “love” when Hannah Before was reading/singing a Christmas thank you letter from Hannah’s mother in “Dear Son.”
But the outstanding performance in this HPAF “As One” show belongs to Amanda Staub. She was brilliant and beautiful – what a jewel. She captured Hannah without pretense, simply and sincerely. I don’t know how much coaching she needed from Stage Director Beth Dunnington, but her acting was flawless. Staub is listed in the online HPAF program as a “Developing Student.” As Hannah After, she was impeccable, and her 17 minutes of continuous singing at the end was mindboggling for this reviewer.
Kudos to Dunnington for her beautifully crafted, fully realized stage direction of “As One,” and to the Festival for fulfilling their mission to promote the appreciation and advancement of classical music and musical theater, to offer a world-class music training and performance program in the inspirational setting of Hawaii, and to improve the education and elevate the spirits of all who participate, especially the local community.
Listen to a “Behind The Curtain” event with Stage Director Beth Dunnington and Conductor Alexis Enyart.
About the author: Rona Lee studied theatre arts and film at SUNY Purchase (Conservatory – College of Performing Arts) and Communications at the University of Arizona. She traveled abroad with Up With People! (1983-84) and moved to the Big Island from New York in 1990.
Photos: Steve Roby
Performance dates: 9-10/July/2022
A full calendar of HPAF events and tickets for all events are available by visiting https://hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org/. Tickets for Kahilu Theatre events may be purchased at https://kahilutheatre.org/ or via phone at (808) 885-6868.