Composer: Gregory Spears
Librettist: Greg Pierce
Conductor: George Manahan
Director: Kevin Newbury
American Composer Orchestra
Aaron Blake: Timothy Laughlin
Joseph Lattanzi: Hawkins Fuller
Devon Guthrie: Mary Johnson
Vernon Hartman: Senator Potter and Bartender
Marcus DeLoach: Estonian Frank, Interrogator and Senator
Christian Purcell: Potter’s Assistant, Bookseller and Priest
Paul Scholten: Tommy McIntyre
Alexandra Schoeny: Miss Lightfoot
Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Lucy
After two very satisfying evenings in the familiar confines of the Metropolitan Opera and the David Geffen Hall earlier in the week, on Saturday afternoon I walked a bit further down the Upper West Side to the much less familiar but wonderfully intimate Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the New York premiere of Fellow Travelers, one of the most eagerly awaited productions of the Prototype Festival’s sixth season.
Inspired by Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel by the same name, Fellow Travelers takes place in Washington, D.C. during the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, when homosexuals were purged more efficiently, albeit more discreetly, than communists from the U.S. government. Therefore, there was little doubt that the forbidden relationship between the two gay men in the heart of the story would provide plenty of drama and an unhappy end, which of course made it the perfect topic for an opera.
The world premiere of Fellow Travelers in Cincinnati, Ohio, last year was by all accounts a resounding success. Unsurprisingly, the positive buzz made it all the way to New York City, where a particularly excited crowd filled the theater to near capacity, hopefully not just out of political correctness, but also in the name of intellectual curiosity and in support for risk-taking artists.
Among the already paltry number of new operas being produced these days, few of them deal with issues from the recent past or the present, despite the wealth of material to be found there. Although the 1950s are not exactly recent past or present, and significant progress has been made in many areas since then, being reminded how incredibly fragile and constantly threatened those advances still are is a good thing, especially when those reminders are delivered via compelling artistic endeavors.
As Timothy Laughlin, the young New Yorker who has just arrived in D.C. and is finding out the hard way how complicated being gay is when McCarthyism – and Catholicism – are looming large, tenor Aaron Blake was a painfully shy, dutifully milk-drinking radical with a clear and appealing voice. As the opera progressed, his seemingly anti-hero looks and demeanor made his steady resolve against adversity all the more commendable, and if he ended up being badly shaken by the whole thing, he nevertheless remained fundamentally true to himself.
Baritone Joseph Lattanzi looked almost too young and good-natured for the experienced, care-free and cynical State Department employee Hawkins Fuller, a self-confident man about town who would eventually give in to outside pressures regardless of his genuine feelings for Timothy. His charisma was undeniable though, and so were his singing abilities, making the powerful attraction he exerted over fresh-faced Timothy truly palpable.
In Mary Johnson, Hawkins’ friend-assistant and Timothy’s ally, soprano Devon Guthrie had an originally inconspicuous role that slowly blossomed into a full-fledged character who had to face her own set of challenges, but who admirably never lost her moral compass. Her beautiful voice delivered some of the most moving singing of the entire performance as she was becoming a firm advocate for understanding and acceptance.
The smaller parts were all handled very well, with quite a few singers impersonating more than one character. The most memorable impressions came from baritone Paul Scholten as quintessential fixer Tommy McIntyre, baritone Vernon Hartman as gruffly Senator Potter, baritone Marcus DeLoach as devious Senator McCarthy, and soprano Alexandra Schoeny as relentless busybody Miss Lightfoot.
The production kept the fifteen short and crisp scenes flowing smoothly thanks to seamless transitions, the cast moving and transforming the versatile pieces of furniture and props with impeccable efficiency. The costumes quickly brought us back to the 1950s, and the lack thereof during the slightly over-extended seduction scene gave it a raw quality. The use of lights was understated, yet yielded unmistakable results, such as the glow on Timothy’s face turning increasingly warmer as he was having his epiphany.
In the end though, the unusual score turned out to be the real star of the opera. Adroitly combining elements from American minimalism and medieval troubadour tradition, including a few superfluous melismas, Gregory Spears came up with a composition that is deceptively quiet, brilliantly inventive, and hauntingly effective. Two of the most heart-breaking scenes were Timothy alone in church struggling with his passion for a man and his devotion to God, and Hawkins alone in their secret love nest realizing that the affair simply had to end. They did not have any flamboyant arias, but they were riveting. On the other hand, the festive office holiday party proved that the ever-crafty composer could effortlessly master ensembles too.
The reliably adventurous and capable American Composer Orchestra was in fine form on Saturday afternoon, making sure to take the time to express the characters’ complex emotional journeys while keeping up a good pace under the baton of their music director George Manahan. The subtle nuances of the various colors were keenly brought out, and the big sweeping moments had all the necessary punch and élan.
The opera ended on the devastating image of all the characters, except for Mary, literally turning their backs to Timothy. All one can hope is that audiences will embrace Fellow Travelers.