Much has been written about the almost-spiritual connection gay men feel for opera, but few operas have portrayed queer relationships and desires in an authentic manner. Gregory Spears offers a corrective with Fellow Travelers, which premiered at Cincinnati Opera in 2016 and comes to New York as part of the 2018 PROTOTYPE Festival. Set in 1950s Washington, D.C., against the purge of confirmed or suspected homosexual government employees known as the “lavender scare,” Spears and librettist Greg Pierce chronicle the joy and sorrow that accompany a sexual awakening taking place in the shadows of society.
Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same name, Fellow Travelers opens with the chance meeting of Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake) and Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) on a D.C. park bench. The two men could not be more different – Hawk’s devil-may-care attitude strongly contrasts Timothy’s fluttery nervousness – but one instantly senses an unspoken connection between them. A minor figure in the State Department, Fuller uses his influence to get Laughlin a job with Michigan senator Charles Potter; their nascent romance secretly blossoms in the corridors of power.
Potter plays a larger role in Mallon’s novel, as does the era’s most infamous politician: Senator Joseph McCarthy. Although echoes of the Red Scare can be heard throughout the work, Pierce’s libretto minimizes its impact as a parallel event. Instead, the opera squarely focuses the action around the central relationship between Hawk and Tim, with Spears’ music highlighting both their carnal and spiritual connection.
The devoutly religious Timothy reconciles the contrary teachings of his Catholic faith with his growing passion for Hawk. Spears punctuates his gorgeous aria “Last night” – presented as a confession to God after his first sexual encounter with Hawk – with distinctive wind solos that evoke the Catholic mysticism of Olivier Messiaen. When Hawk and Tim sing together, the score takes on a neo-Romantic texture reminiscent of Samuel Barber at his most ardent. And the fervent abandon with which the two men fall in love calls to mind that most amorous opera of all: Puccini’s La Bohème, the musical suggestion of which can be heard in the brightness of Spears’ orchestrations.
As the opera progresses, it becomes clear that the affair will eventually go south. The image-conscious Hawk looks to climb the employment ladder; doing so requires a respectable marriage to quiet any chatter about his sexual proclivities. (The prevailing attitude on Capitol Hill is that “one pansy can pollute an entire government office,” as Hawk sings during a tense moment with a fellow employee). Timothy possesses neither Hawk’s ambition nor his attitude of self-preservation. When Hawk asks Tim if he would consider a marriage of convenience, he offers a heartbreakingly matter-of-fact reply: “No thanks. What’s the point?” Tim already has everything that he wants; he understands Hawk’s position and asks for nothing more than for his love to be reciprocated. But Hawk knows that even the most undemanding lover can cause problems, and his awareness sets in motion the opera’s painful conclusion.
Kevin Newbury’s slick production – with austere sets by Victoria “Vita” Tzykun and period-authentic costumes by Paul Carey – suggests the filmic genres of melodrama and noir, where polished surfaces often hide torrents of grief. Thomas C. Hase’s evocative lighting design almost becomes a character, as it reinforces the inherent danger of Hawk and Tim’s affair. Against this backdrop, Newbury elicits finely shaded performances from his cast that transcend merely beautiful singing.
Blake’s pliant tenor suits Timothy’s music perfectly, and he creates a character both sure of his devotion to his lover and mired in religious uncertainty. Lattanzi acts the part of a cad with equal parts charm and smarm, but he also captures Hawk’s conflicted nature in the act two aria “Our Very Own Home.” He sings with refinement, even when his light baritone sounds slightly overparted. Although I was disappointed that the opera minimized the character of Mary Johnson, Hawk’s secretary and Tim’s faithful confident, soprano Devon Guthrie rounded out the underwritten role with grace. The veteran baritone Marcus DeLoach was a standout in a host of small roles, including the bombastic Senator McCarthy.
The intimate Gerald W. Lynch Theater would seem the ideal venue for what is essentially a chamber opera. Unfortunately, the hall’s poor acoustical balance often caused the orchestra to cover the singers, who in turn had to push their voices to the limit to be heard. A more sensitive conductor could have mitigated this, but George Manahan showed himself as little more than a second-rate time beater in that regard.
But even under less than ideal circumstances, the merits of this exciting and lushly musical new work were apparent. Fellow Travelers is the gay love story opera has been waiting for. Its intelligent and inventive musical writing, richly drawn characters, and still-relevant themes should make it a staple of the contemporary repertory.
Fellow Travelers runs to January 14, 2018. More production info can be found here.