As One for Transgender Awareness Week
(L-r): Sarah Bissonnette, Micha Broekaert, Geneviève Leclair and Phillip Addis in rehearsal for As One. Photo: Taras Kulish

To honour International Transgender Awareness Week on Nov. 20th, Orchestre classique de Montréal (OCM) presents a Quebecois premiere of As One starring baritone Phillip Addis (Hannah before) and mezzo-soprano Sarah Bissonnette (Hannah after).

As One is an English-language chamber opera in which two voices share the part of one transgender protagonist. With empathy, humour and music, audiences grow with Hannah from small town to college years as she uncovers truths about herself.

“Hannah before is going to be aware that there’s another Hannah, but not necessarily able to envision [her]. Hannah after will, certainly at the beginning of the opera, spend a great deal of time trying to remember what she started from and what she went through,” said As One Stage Director Eda Holmes. “That relationship of awareness of each other in different ways is going to be the wonderful, exciting work of this.”

Phillip Addis (Hannah before). Photo: Kristin Hoebermann

OCM’s 75-minute semistaging with subtitles was originally prepared for a live audience. However, it will be streamed online instead due to reinforced COVID-19 regulations. Luckily, As One was written for two soloists and a string quartet so it is both economical and pandemic-adaptable. Geneviève Leclair will be conducting.

“We had to radically reduce our plans for it because we originally were going to have an audience and singers who could move around,” Holmes said. “Because of the realities of being in a red zone here in Montreal, we can’t have any kind of public performance and we also have to keep the singers continuously a minimum of two meters apart.” 

Holmes is Artistic and General Director of the Centaur Theatre and prior was Associate Director for the Shaw Festival from 2010 to 2016. Before that, she was a professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet and Ballet Frankfurt.

“It’s a story that turns opera on its head in a way because opera is so gendered because of voice–baritones are always men, sopranos are always women,” Holmes said of As One.

Addis, who replaced baritone Dominique Côté in the baritone role, “loves performing lead roles such as Figaro, Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin, Billy Budd and Pelléas” he said in a press release. Bissonnette (Hannah after), hailing from Boucherville, QC, has performed in Ghost Opera as the Exorcist in Calgary, and then L’Italiana in Algeri as Isabella in Lunenburg

Sarah Bissonnette (Hanna after)

“Given that we’re the same character, Phillip and I, it might be a little bit of discovery for us to know how to make that come through with the distanced staging,” Bissonnette said. “It’s still very accessible and very beautiful [with] a lot of high emotional moments.”

“There’s also a lot of times where there are contradicting emotions happening at the same time,” Bissonnette said of ‘sharing’ a role with Addis. “It’s nice to have two different parts of the whole person showing clearly these two different emotions.”

With a score by Laura Kaminsky and libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed (all American), Opera America named As One “the most produced new opera in North America.” Yet, despite plentiful stateside performances, the show has only been staged once before in Canada by Newfoundland’s Opera on the Avalon in 2018.

“Hannah’s such a beautiful character, and I think everybody’s going to love her by the end of the opera; I love that it’s such a vibrant and positive character telling the story,” Bissonnette said. “It’s not meant to be a story about [all] ‘trans people,’ it’s just meant to be Hannah’s story.”