At the height of the McCarthy era in 1950s Washington, D.C., recent college grad Timothy Laughlin is eager to join the crusade against communism. A chance encounter with handsome State Department official Hawkins Fuller leads to Tim’s first job – and his first love affair with a man. As Senator McCarthy makes a desperate bid for power and as investigations focus on “sexual subversives,” Tim struggles to reconcile his political convictions, his love for God and his love for Fuller – an entanglement that will end in a stunning act of betrayal.
“Fellow Travelers” unearths a story buried deep beneath the American consciousness. Cincinnati Opera will stage the world premiere during its 2016 season this summer.
This opera is the first project Cincinnati Opera has taken through its Opera Fusion: New Works workshop to full production. It will be presented in eight performances, June 17-July 10, in the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. “Fellow Travelers” is a creative collaboration among composer Gregory Spears, librettist Greg Pierce, stage director Kevin Newbury and executive producer G. Sterling Zinsmeyer.
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, the story of homosexual oppression has been overshadowed, historically, by the communist witch-hunt led by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In fact, the hush-hush “Lavender Scare” quietly destroyed an even larger number of lives as the government outed and fired thousands of gays and lesbians.
“It’s just a story that hasn’t been told,” said director Newbury, during a New York press gathering in March. “There are all sorts of dramatic works on stage or on screen about the Red Scare or about communism, but the Lavender Scare has received relatively little attention.”
“What drew us to ‘Fellow Travelers’ is that it contains all the classic themes of opera: love, deception, betrayal and political intrigue,” said composer Spears. It is the universality of this forbidden love story that rings true even today, as the struggle for acceptance continues.
Librettist Pierce – who has stories, plays and a musical with composer John Kander to his credit – appreciates the story’s nuance, and the fact that it portrays “gay people as real people,” not as Hollywood stereotypes.
Mark Gibson, director of orchestral studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, will conduct a chamber orchestra of 17 players, including strings, piano and two trombones.
Spears is a composer on the rise, having received frequent rave reviews, especially for the immediacy and beauty of his music. His musical language for “Fellow Travelers” is a fascinating blend of contemporary minimalism and the writing of troubadours, French singer/songwriters of the 11th to 13th centuries, whose themes were often the romance of courtly love.
Troubadour music “really intrigued me because it sounds extraordinarily old, but it also sounds a little bit like pop music,” Spears said, presumably referring to the long, florid melodies somewhat reminiscent of current R&B and pop ballads. He uses the technique as an expressive device, to show the universality of the story and also emphasize the emotional rollercoaster of this turbulent tale.
Cincinnati has had a front seat during the germination of this new opera, which was part of the Opera Fusion: New Works program here in 2013. This collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and CCM Opera fosters the development of new American operas, offering composers and librettists the opportunity to workshop their projects utilizing talent, personnel and facilities of both organizations. The program is led by co-artistic directors Marcus Küchle, director of artistic operations of Cincinnati Opera, and CCM’s opera chair Robin Guarino, who is directing Cincinnati Opera’s “Die Fledermaus.”
Tenor Aaron Blake sings the role of Timothy Laughlin, after appearing with Cincinnati Opera in “Don Giovanni” (2013) and “La Calisto” (2014). Hawkins Fuller is portrayed by baritone Joseph Lattanzi, who helped birth the role during the 2013 workshop, while still a student at CCM. He is currently an Arizona Opera Studio Artist. ♦