Opera Columbus’ latest production is leaning on the contributions of a Clintonville man to make sure it reaches the people who might need to see it most.
“As One,” a 75-minute chamber opera, uses elements of film and a string quartet to tell the story of self-discovery through a single protagonist, Hannah, a transgender woman. The character is portrayed by two singers – baritone Michael Kelly and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert – as she comes of age through more than a dozen songs.
“As One” takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Southern Theatre, 21 E. Main St. in downtown Columbus.
Clintonville resident Ashton Colby, a consultant specializing in transgender issues who advised Opera Columbus on cultural competency and marketing the show, will be among the panelists at the free “As One” Community Conversation, planned for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at the theater.
The process to bring the show to Columbus started more than two years ago, said Peggy Kriha Dye, general and artistic director of Opera Columbus.
“It’s one of the most-produced operas in North America right now,” Dye said. “It has a Grammy-nominated score, and it’s an incredible piece of art. It’s simplistic storytelling that makes it so clear and easy to understand.
“Sadly, it’s one of the only operas addressing the LGBTQ audience right now, and this is the only one that is specifically about a transgender person. As a producer, I feel responsible to present art that relates to everyone in my city.”
To make the production unique for a Columbus audience, organizers partnered with the Columbus Association of Performing Arts to produce a 20-minute documentary, “Visibili-T,” featuring six local people who share their experiences as members or allies of the transgender community. It will be screened immediately following both performances of “As One,” Dye said.
Colby, 27, started transitioning in 2012 and said there “isn’t a one-size-fits-all transition journey.”
“Every transgender person has their own story,” he said. “It’s called ‘As One,’ and it’s really that story of integrating your trans experience into the rest of your life and becoming the person you’re meant to be.”
Colby said the opera’s theme of inner conflict would resonate with everyone.
“What’s beautiful about this opera is that everyone has had a point in their life where they’ve had an internal struggle,” he said. “Maybe no one else around you can see it, but you’re trusting in that internal sense of self, and when you push through the fear, it really pays off.
“That’s why I think people can relate to the transgender experience ... when you get beyond the body. The transition process starts way before surgeries or even coming out to another person. Your process can start years before – just learning that there’s a name for this feeling.
“There’s a scene in which (Hannah) discovers that there is a word for this. It’s so powerful to put a name to a feeling that you have.”
Other panelists featured at the free community-conversation event include composer Laura Kaminsky and Siriah Miller, the Columbus filmmaker who directed “Visibili-T.”
Dye said Colby’s input has been vital.
“The more I listened to Ashton, the more I realized I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I learned so much from one conversation and he was so gracious.
“The community conversation happening on the Saturday in between the shows is meant to be a dialogue in a safe space for people to discover each other.”
Colby said one of the biggest misconceptions about being transgender is that “it’s not just about the body, the surgery or the physical aspects of transition. Everyone’s narrative is different.”
He said he hopes the Columbus presentation of “As One” helps to further “humanize” the transgender community.
“The terminology changes day to day and the best way to go about it is to humanize people,” Colby said. “It’s so easy for me to fragment the part of my life before transitioning and not really recognize who that is, but I really want to live as one person. I’ve been Ashton this whole time; even though you maybe know me by a different name, this is just more of who I am.
“You have permission to be happy and thrive in every area of your life.”
Dye said those who see “As One” need not be gay or transgender to appreciate it.
“Art is supposed to be a safe place to learn and to ignite your thinking,” she said. “To me, it is the best way to grow as a person so it’s a great way to learn about the topic.”
For more information or to purchase tickets, call 614-469-0939 or go to operacolumbus.org/as-one.