On January 12, the Prototype Festival presents the New York premiere of “Fellow Travelers,” an opera with music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Greg Pierce that debuted at Cincinnati Opera in June 2016. Prototype is bringing the Cincinnati Opera production directed by Kevin Newbury to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College for four performances from January 12-14.
The opera is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, which tells the story of the illicit love affair set during the 1950s McCarthy era between handsome State Department official Hawkins Fuller and recent college grad Timothy Laughlin, who is eager to join the crusade against Communism. Their forbidden relationship takes place against the political background of the Lavender Scare led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy that targeted homosexuals working in the State Department as possible security risks, subversives, and traitors to the “American Way of Life.” Like many operas, the political and the personal intertwine, ending in tragedy for a pair of forbidden lovers — but the twist here is that the lovers are two men.
Composer Spears and director Newbury spoke to Gay City News about the challenges of telling this story in music and how it speaks to today’s America in the era of Trump and the religious alt-right.
ELI JACOBSON: “Fellow Travelers” is set in the 1950s Lavender Scare. Today, alt-right Republicans are targeting the gay community as the boogeyman to unify their Christian conservative base against a perceived foe to Christian and American values. Can the progress and sacrifices made by the gay community in the last 60 years be erased in Trump’s America? What does this story set in the 1950s have to tell us today and what themes are resonant with contemporary society?
GREGORY SPEARS: The Lavender Scare shows one of many historical examples of how a group of people can be scapegoated in service of another person’s pursuit of political power. This is something we must always be working against.
KEVIN NEWBURY: I believe so strongly that we stand on the shoulders of the generations that came before us. The queer community fought for our rights during the pain and humiliations of the Lavender Scare, Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, the fight for gay marriage, and everything in between. We will continue to fight and, as artists, we will continue to share pieces like “Fellow Travelers” that share our history and make sure we don’t allow it to be repeated.
EJ: Opera is very good at dramatizing personal conflict — most operas deal with forbidden or doomed love affairs like the one involving your two protagonists. Political issues are not as well suited to musical drama. What were your dramatic and musical solutions for tackling that problem?
KN: Like Thomas Mallon’s novel, Greg Pierce and Greg Spears’ opera vacillates between the personal and the political, both intertwining in surprising ways. Audiences respond to seeing political characters they know —like McCarthy — but it’s the personal that really resonates.
GS: Actually, I would say one of opera’s greatest strengths is its ability to dramatize the political through the lens of a personal conflict, for example “Don Carlos,” “Tristan und Isolde,” “Tosca,” “Norma,” and countless others. In that way we saw opera as uniquely suited to this story.
EJ: Mr. Spears, what should the listener be aware of in taking in your score? Were the musical content and style dictated by the story? What kind of sound world were you as the composer aiming for?
GS: Opera thrives on stories with rich subtext, where characters cannot fully express themselves in words. My goal was to craft a musical language for “Fellow Travelers” that would foreground the undercurrent of clandestine machinations and forbidden longing churning under the surface of Greg Pierce’s elegant adaptation. Particularly in Tim and Hawk’s public interactions, love cannot simply speak its name. Music must bridge the gap.
I was interested in going back to the original idea of opera as sung speech. It was very important for me that the characters felt like ordinary people whose emotions could expand into operatic passion or bravado when needed. The musical fabric is made from a combination of rhythmic minimalist textures and melismatic singing inspired by early troubadour melodies. The tension between those two modes of music-making was meant to dramatize the tension between the DC political machine and the private longings of the characters.
KN: Audiences are welcome to listen to the commercial recording before attending the show but I recommend coming in blind and letting the music and story surprise and move you!
EJ: Many younger millennial members of the gay community take their current freedoms for granted, are ignorant of the pioneering work of gay activists, social reformers, and protesters of the older generations, and often look down on the older generation for having been closeted and self-loathing. What would you wish younger gay people to learn from this story?
KN: As a 40-year-old openly gay man, I can see both ends of the queer experience over several decades and consider it my mission as an artist to bridge the gap between generations. We must honor the people whose shoulders we stand upon and ensure that history does not repeat itself.
GS: Homophobia, history, and politics aside, I think this piece is about the dangers and joys of falling in love under any circumstances. Love always takes courage and vulnerability — even more in a time or place where love could cause you to lose your job, family, faith, and your community. I think it can be hard for those who didn’t grow up in a society permeated by homophobia to understand that experience.
Like so much gay history, the 1950s Lavender Scare seems to have been forgotten before it was properly remembered. I think it’s important for historians and artists to revisit this past in as many ways as possible so that we have some record of those stories.
EJ: What did you learn from working on the 2016 Cincinnati premiere of this work? In 2018 “Fellow Travelers” is premiering in New York City and in Chicago. Is the piece being adapted or revised in these revivals or has it remained the same? How is your relationship with the opera evolving over time?
KN: We learned that audiences are starving for new pieces that are simultaneously politically engaged and emotionally moving. The piece continues to evolve as time passes, but the heart of it remains the same.
FELLOW TRAVELERS | Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 524 W. 59th St. | Jan. 12-13 at 8 p.m.; Jan. 13-14 at 2 p.m. | $30-$75 at prototypefestival.org/show/fellow-travelers | Two hrs., five mins.