Towards the middle of Leonard Bernstein’s extravagant Mass, a soloist bemoans their biological destiny:
I never had a choice Or I would have been a simple tree… Anything but what I must be: A man A man A man!
In context, “man” is clearly meant as shorthand for “human.” But every time I listen, I hear a note of transfeminine yearning: When you’re desperate to escape the constraints of masculinity and don’t have the language of dysphoria, turning into a tree can seem pretty appealing.
I couldn’t help but think about that moment while watching Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, a Midwestern fairy-tale opera by Grey Grant that received a workshop production on Oct. 12 at Dixon Place. Michigan Trees tells the story of Orna, a Michigan trans woman who heads into the forest one day to become a towering white pine. But Orna hasn’t reconciled her self-love and self-loathing, and the tension literally tears her new form apart. The inscrutable Mother of Trees — a vocal trio comprising Hayley Boggs, Zoe Hart, and Samantha Kao — presides over the action, offering gentle encouragement and facilitating the various arboreal transformations.
Orna’s inner tension is so great that she is played by two performers: Orna As She Sees Herself (Allison Prost) — an idealized fantasy where she erases her past, to not only be read as cis, but to actually be cis herself — and Orna As She Feels She Is Seen (Grey Grant) — a negative fantasy built by Orna’s dysphoria and self-loathing.
Grant wrote their own libretto, and there are moments of striking poetic intensity in it. When Orna As She Sees Herself sets out to become a tree, she says she will “become lichen / first, if I must / and regrow into myself.” Orna As She Feels She Is Seen laments her self-division, saying she has “cried the Huron / into its current state.” When the two finally reconcile, it is with the line “let us grow a new canopy.” Elsewhere, however, language dissolves, Orna As She Feels She Is Seen’s stuttering “I, I, I” pulling apart into extended wordless cries.
The score undergoes similar distortions and dissolutions. Musically, the work’s home base is a plainspoken, aching folk idiom, but its seams are unsewn, and it slips easily into anarchic collages, minimalist ecstasies, and abstracted soundscapes of pouring water. (The Mother of Tree’s solo interludes, in particular, were resolutely discordant.) At the work’s midpoint, the percussionists, Tanner Tanyeri and Riley Palmer, stepped to the front of an instrumental ensemble positioned in the middle of the stage, and slowly poured a massive bag of dry lentils into a metallic tub. The stage was otherwise silent and empty, but it was a spellbinding moment all the same, a cryptic ritual of earth and time. (In addition to the two percussionists, the ensemble comprised the Converge New Music string quartet, and was conducted by Karl Ronneburg, who also directed the production.)
Prost brought a lively, forward-looking energy to her role, straining forward towards a future even at the risk of trampling her own past. Grey was raw and ravaged in theirs, jumping repeatedly between a firm baritone and a haunting falsetto. Boggs, Hart, and Kao aptly navigated the tricky material for the Mother of Trees, skillfully blending together into an unsettling composite entity. Tanyeri, Palmer, and Converge New Music played with precision and expression throughout.
This being a workshop production, there are still some wrinkles to iron out. The libretto is clunky in places, sometimes being overly literal about the piece’s metaphors—as when the Mother of Trees dutifully and redundantly explains, “There is a part of you / unaccepted by yourself.” A more polished production doubtless will clarify the show’s dovetailing timelines and add dramatic focus to the sometimes lackadaisical choreography.
As with Orna, Michigan Trees has some growing to do. But the bones are all there, and in the right places, conjuring up a forest of metamorphic, unsettling dreams.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.