‘Fellow Travelers’: Credible Romance As Eclectic Opera

A scene from Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce’s opera ‘Fellow Travelers’ at the 2018 Prototype Festival.
(Photos by Jill Steinberg)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Attraction, secrecy, conflict, and betrayal are a sure-fire recipe for heartbreak. When it’s a same-sex relationship that blossoms in the noxious hothouse of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, the drama takes on added depth and danger. Fellow Travelers, a new opera by Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce, combines sentimental and historical elements to create a compelling love story in a chilling setting with contemporary resonance.

Joseph Lattanzi and Aaron Blake play lovers in ‘Fellow Travelers.’

The opera headlined New York’s 2018 Prototype Festival, an annual two-week series of new opera. Co-founded and curated by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE Theater, the festival is in its sixth year, heating up January with well-attended contemporary “opera-theater and music-theater” events of every description. Prototype has presented works-in-progress, revivals, or U.S. premieres of recent works and premieres of operas that subsequently have been produced by mainstream opera companies. Fellow Travelers, the festival’s featured production, had an acclaimed first run at Cincinnati Opera in summer of 2016. Based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, the work is a well-crafted, moving, and accessible addition to the contemporary operatic repertoire.

The story takes place during the mid-1950s and revolves around McCarthy’s campaign to purge the U.S. government of a perceived infiltration by Communists. At the time, homosexuals working for the government were considered vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents and thus targeted for expulsion from government service. “Fellow traveler” was the label given to Communist sympathizers; as the narrative suggests, it was also a convenient way to target political opponents. The poisonous atmosphere on Federal Hill is the setting for this essentially old-fashioned love story, complicated by the dangerous politics involved.

Timothy Laughlin, a cub reporter newly arrived in Washington, is befriended by the charismatic Hawkins (Hawk) Fuller, who works at the State Department. After Hawk recommends Tim for a job as speechwriter to a veteran senator, Hawk seduces Tim, who is hopelessly smitten. The relationship is loving and passionate, but Hawk is both reckless and restless, and resistant to monogamy. Hawk emerges unscathed from an interrogation over whether he is a homosexual, but his idea of a celebration shocks Tim, who decides to enlist in the Army to escape this hopeless relationship. During Tim’s absence Hawk gets married and moves to the suburbs, but the two rekindle their relationship on Tim’s return, to the joy and increasing frustration of both. Finally, Hawk puts an end to their emotional impasse by  outing his lover.

A scene from ‘Fellow Travelers’ at the 2018 Prototype Festival.

The production is a model of elegant economy. Director Kevin Newbury, set designer Victoria Tzykun, and costumer Paul Carey, who previously collaborated on the lavish premiere production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe Opera, here worked on a more modest scale to create a moving, eloquent, and well-paced narrative. The opera opens and closes on a black stage, empty of all but a park bench. Sets consist of rolling furniture units, mostly file cabinets that reverse to suggest interior or external walls, plus a bed, a desk, chairs, a ceiling light lowered from overhead (lighting by Thomas C. Hase). Ensemble members execute the set changes with a balletic precision that, like their confining ’50s business suits and dresses, emphasize the restrictive society the two men are up against. The soloists suggest big moments with the smallest gestures, establishing relationships via meaningful looks and precisely calibrated body language.

Spears’ score incorporates elements from an array of mostly contemporary styles into a tonal idiom spiced with dissonance. The 17-piece American Composers Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan, provides a dynamic range and variety of instrumental colors that support the singers without overwhelming them at climactic moments. Energetic ensembles alternate with more leisurely solos or duos, with singer-friendly, mostly step-wise writing. Repetition emphasizes significant lines of text, while also drawing on the restless energy of minimalism, with its repeated motifs over a chugging accompaniment.

Alexandra Schoeny, Aaron Blake, and Joseph Lattanzi in ‘Fellow Travelers.’

When the two men are alone together, they ornament their lines with flourishes suggestive of troubadours and their songs of hopeless love – a listener might remember this technique from Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin. In a love duet, open intervals grounded by bass arpeggios recall an ecstatic moment from the Balcony Scene in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There is little in the way of memorable melody, but the vocal lines make sense as speech, and even with less than ideal acoustics it was easy to understand the words.

And the words are worth hearing – it’s one of the best contemporary librettos I’ve ever experienced. The scenario is an efficiently constructed drama in two acts of eight scenes each. The tempo is unhurried but taut, with paced scene shifts. In the first act, scenes are demarcated by musical interludes and set changes. After intermission the pace picks up as scenes run together, with dialogue from the end of one scene overlapping the beginning of the next, or even two scenes playing simultaneously, in a kind of visual counterpoint generated from the words. It’s a spoken-theater technique that is tricky to pull off with music, but here it works beautifully to convey the increasing tension and frustration. Soliloquies manage to avoid the extremes of both pretension and banality. Pierce’s language is timeless, expressive, and often witty, and it works with rather than against the music.

Aaron Blake and Joseph Lattanzi

The cast members – nearly all veterans of the premiere run in Cincinnati – were astutely chosen and worked as a tightly coordinated ensemble. Tenor Aaron Blake was Timothy McLaughlin, the nebbishy Bronx boy who followed his ambitions to Washington. His voice could be edgy or sweet, depending on the emotion of the moment, and he physically embodied the shy young gay man devastated by his first love. As Hawk, Joseph Lattanzi’s confident swagger and smooth baritone made the callous rake understandably irresistible. Mezzo-soprano Devon Guthrie, the senator’s assistant who became Tim’s friend and confident, conveyed warmth with voice and demeanor. Soprano Alexandra Schoeny gave a deliciously wicked portrayal of Miss Lightfoot, the scheming secretary. Baritone Paul Scholten was persuasively menacing as the manipulative Tommy McIntyre, part of McCarthy’s inner circle.

Fellow Travelers ended on Jan. 14, but the Prototype Festival continues through Jan. 20. For more information and to buy tickets, go here.

This production of Fellow Travelers, with a few cast changes, will have four performances March 17-25 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. For more information and to buy tickets, go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!