‘Scarlet Professor’ Recalls Gay ‘Smut’ Target As Opera

Under study, the ‘deviant’ brain of Smith professor Newton Arvin (William Hite), accused on  ‘smut’ charges in 1960.
‘The Scarlet Professor,’ a new opera by Eric Sawyer and Harley Erdman, at Smith College. (Photo: Edward Check)
By Marvin J. Ward

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Amherst College professor and composer Eric Sawyer has a penchant for choosing historical events, especially local ones, as the subjects of his operas. This is the third that I have seen, each more polished and refined than its predecessor, with The Scarlet Professor scoring a 10/10 in my book.

The opera, which premiered at Smith College on Sept. 15, is based on a scandalous episode in the life of literary scholar Newton Arvin, the Smith professor forced into retirement in 1960 after pleading guilty to the possession of pictures deemed pornographic at the time. UMass Amherst professor Harley Erdman wrote the libretto, which was based on a long piece in The New Yorker and subsequent biography by Barry Werth; the author worked closely with Sawyer and Erdman during the opera’s development.

A supporting source was the 2005 PBS documentary film by Tug Yourgeau, The Great Pink Scare and Afterwhich was shown here by Yourgeau at a day-long Sept. 16 accompanying symposium “The Scarlet Professor: Sex and Surveillance in America.” The symposium also featured presentations of scholarly papers examining the Arvin case in light of contemporary attitudes and personal recollections by people (some personal acquaintances) who were at Smith or in the area at the time. An article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette summarizes the local events in the context of the ultimately groundbreaking court decisions that expanded civil liberties and threw out Arvin’s conviction; those events were pivotal in determining invasion of privacy policies that are the source of protections in place today.

Tenor William Hite as Newton Arvin (thescarletprofessoropera.com)

Newton Arvin (1900-1963, played by tenor William Hite, professor of voice at UMass Amherst) was an internationally recognized biographer of mostly New England authors including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. A shy, introverted person, Arvin was a homosexual, long self-tormented, who worked much in the same manner as Hawthorne wrote: The catch phrase “dismal chamber,” featured in one of the arias — YouTube clip here — is Hawthorne’s own description of the room in his parents’ home under the eaves where he retreated to write without having much interaction with the rest of his family. Arvin’s apartment, the location of some of the episodes, was in a similar location in a very similar Victorian house.

Three other people affected by the scandal were Smith colleagues Ned Spofford (sung by baritone Keith Phares), Helen Bacon (soprano Sarah Pelletier), and new faculty member Joel Dorius (who is not portrayed in the opera, only referenced). Here is Arvin’s friend Spofford singing an earnest aria of support, “Every day I’m alive”:

Truman Capote (countertenor Bryan Pollock), who was Arvin’s lover for a time, makes several very brief but effective appearances, some with typically cryptic and witty Capotean quips.

The Massacusetts State Police ‘smut’ office goes on high alert. (Photo: Edward Check)

The two “villains” – postmaster general Arthur Summerfield and Massachusetts State Police officer John Regan – were played by baritone Sumner Thompson and baritone James Demler, respectively. The Northampton State Hospital doctor who prescribed and administered the then recommended, now scientifically disavowed, treatments (including electro-shock) was played by soprano Kristen Watson. Arvin’s hospital room, where Arvin self-committed himself several times for refuge, was the setting for some episodes.

Soulmates via opera, Hester Prynne (Blythe Gaissert) and Arvin. (Photo: Jon Crispin)

In the opera, Arvin is conflated with The Scarlet Letter’s Reverend Dimmesdale, morphing with some amazing acting from the one into the other on several occasions in this stream-of-consciousness libretto. In the final minutes, after a choral number that resembles a civil rights hymn and ends with an unresolved chord, Arvin is seen carrying “obscene” magazines (not very different from today’s underwear ads) while walking away hand in hand with Hester Prynne (mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert), who has torn off her scarlet A.

The projections designed by David Wiggall and the stage direction of Ron Bashford offered a continuous flow of an hour and 40 minutes, so well imagined and executed that one simply did not sense the time passing. This work is solidly but pleasingly in the 21st century. Like all of Sawyer’s music, it is entirely tonal, although there are occasional harsh or jarring notes, and it incorporates at appropriate moments some blues, Broadway, and jazz elements of the day. The 11-piece instrumental ensemble, conducted by Eduardo Leandro, consisted of piano, percussion, flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and strings, with both electric and double bass.

Dancers Ian Spak and Paul Matteson in a rehearsal of the bar scene.

The libretto is likewise flowing, colloquial, and simple, with many linguistic felicities in the phrasing, some of which elicited chuckles from the audience. There is occasional rhyme, frequent alliteration, and resonant  “catch phrases” such as “punished not for our sins, but for our secrets.” A calming slow and fluid ballet, choreographed by Paul Matteson for two male dancers (Chris Phillips and Tom Vacanti) provides, near the midpoint of the work, the sole interruption of the steadily paced progressive flow. The spellbinding scene is set in a Springfield gay bar of the time, The Arch, with Arvin and Spofford coming in as customers, Arvin obviously never really at ease or comfortable in doing so.

There was almost no physical set, just a single multi-purpose space designed by Edward Check, with risers at its rear and period-appropriate props brought in and out. Wiggall’s projections indicated a variety of locales, among them Arvin’s apartment on the top floor of a subdivided Victorian house within walking distance of the campus; the postmaster general’s “smut” department office in the D.C. post office building, now the Trump International Hotel; the courtroom; and Arvin’s room at the enormous Northampton State Hospital, now gone.

The spare, fluid production utilized projections, scrims and light props. (Crispin)

At the time of these events, I was an undergraduate, junior  year, at a university 80 miles due West of Northampton, taking (as a double major in French and English) a survey course in American literature. I recall hearing professors talking about the events and probably saw some printed reports thereof, but only knew of Arvin by his scholarly reputation. It was moving to see this compelling and captivating work performed on the campus where the events occurred, perhaps an implicit expiation for the college’s actions at the time. But it is also a disturbing reminder that the issues are still not completely resolved some 57 years later, and that “the other” are often still vulnerable.

Special note: The Scarlet Professor project continues Sept. 23-24, as a second cast comprising young artists from the Five Colleges consortium of Western Massachusetts make the work their own. Click here for information.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding executive editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009. 

When ‘beefcake’ was taboo, Spofford and Arvin perused what the mail could bring. (Crispin)