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Pioneering opera about a transgender woman comes to the UK

When As One was announced for the London Festival of American Music, reaction from some corners of the classical music world was less than supportive. That shows why it is so necessary, writes Claire Jackson.

The baritone sang of stuffing socks into a stolen blouse while outwardly pretending to be the “perfect boy”.

Meanwhile, his future self – a mezzo-soprano – describes her joy at being recognised as a female (“pardon me miss”); both describe the searing pain experienced along this path to understanding and acceptance.

A dancer represents Hannah’s liminal development, a silent presence on stage for the entire duration of As One, thought to be the world’s first opera about a transgender woman.

The work premiered in the US in 2014 and has become the most produced contemporary opera in North America.

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It has just had its first UK performance: As One headlined this year’s London Festival of American Music, held at The Warehouse, close to Waterloo station.

Laura Kaminsky’s score cleverly integrates the voice types throughout the 75-minute chamber opera, so that the vocal parts for Hannah Before (sung by Simon Wallfisch in the recent UK premiere) and Hannah After (Arlene Rolph) intertwine and, right at the end, meet in unison.

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When the UK premiere was announced, the response in some corners was less than supportive

Key issues are explored – in a disturbing section, Wallfisch reads a long list of those who have been murdered as Rolph recalls a transphobic attack – but, pleasingly, Hannah gets a happy ending, finding peace as her true self.

It was a bold programming choice by artistic director Odaline de la Martinez, creatively presented by director Benjamin Davis. When the UK premiere was announced, the response in some corners was less than supportive. “Woketastic” and “thanks for the warning” were some of the more benign below-the-line comments on one classical music news site – surely making this run of As One all the more necessary.

Controversy of a very different sort surrounded Classic FM’s recent gala concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Nigel Kennedy pulled out of a scheduled performance at short notice after a spat with organisers over repertoire. Kennedy claims that the radio station prevented him from performing a Jimi Hendrix tribute, requesting that the superstar violinist play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – a work that Kennedy recorded back in 1989 – and insisting he play with a conductor.

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Kennedy had been due to perform with Chineke!, an ensemble founded in 2015 by double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku to provide opportunities for young black and ethnically diverse classical musicians.

“This is musical segregation,” Kennedy told The Guardian. “They’re effectively saying that Hendrix is all right in the Marquee Club, but not in the Albert Hall.”

It does seem a strange decision on Classic FM’s part – the broadcaster regularly features music that is often not, strictly speaking, classical. Guitarist Miloš has recorded Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow and Street Spirit (Fade Out) by Radiohead for the Classic FM sessions and I once heard the Ayoub Sisters perform Scottish folk songs at Classic FM Live. And Welsh opera singer and Classic FM favourite Katherine Jenkins has never, to my knowledge, sung in an opera.

Anyone who has been to a Nigel Kennedy concert knows that he generally leads the orchestra himself, without a conductor, and that pop improvisation is an important – and enjoyable – part of his set.

“The Berliner Philharmoniker, the best orchestra in the world, never asked me to have a conductor,” said Kennedy, adding, “I’ve got a name for Classic FM: Jurassic FM.” At least the furore is well timed: Kennedy’s new memoir and three-CD box-set, both titled – appropriately – Uncensored, are due for release on November 4.

@claireiswriting

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