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Opera looks at Lavender Scare
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2018-03-14

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Same-sex love stories have been in short supply across the 420-year history of opera. Only in the past century have openly LGBTQ characters started to appear in works like Alban Berg's Lulu ( 1937 ), Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place ( 1983 ) or Stewart Wallace's Harvey Milk ( 1995 ). Yet not all of these contemporary operas have worked their way into the standard operatic repertoire.

So hopes are high among LGBTQ opera fans for the critically acclaimed new work Fellow Travelers. Following its 2016 world premiere at Cincinnati Opera and a second run in New York earlier this year, Fellow Travelers receives a Windy City debut this month courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's outreach arm known as Lyric Unlimited.

Fellow Travlers is inspired by Thomas Mallon's 2007 historically inspired novel of the same name, which is set in 1950s Washington, D.C. A blossoming romance between fictional government workers Timothy Laughlin and Hawkins Fuller is threatened when Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee go on a rampage to root out and expose "subversives" in the Eisenhower administration.

"As an openly gay artist, I think it's so important to tell our stories and to learn about our history," said Fellow Travelers director Kevin Newbury. "In this case, it's the 'Lavender Scare,' which is a period of our history that people don't know very much about—that more than 5,000 men and women lost their jobs because they were gay in the government during the McCarthy era."

The idea of adapting Fellow Travelers into an opera originated with G. Sterling Zinsmeyer, whose film producing credits include Latter Days ( 2003 ) and The Deception ( 2012 ). Zinsmeyer approached Newbury to think of a writing team.

The two decided on composer Gregory Spears, who is acclaimed for his 2013 Willa Cather-inspired opera Paul's Case and the 2016 children's opera Jason and the Argonauts. They also sought out off-Broadway playwright/lyricist Greg Pierce, who is famed for collaborating with composer John Kander on musicals like The Landing ( 2013 ) and Kid Victory ( 2017 ), and for his own plays like Slowgirl ( 2012 ) and Her Requiem ( 2016 ).

"I loved the love story between the two guys, and also how [their heterosexual friend and co-worker] Mary fit into that," Pierce said. "One thing that I really loved was how complicated the gay characters were. I felt like we were emerging from this era where gay characters had to be 100-percent positive role models."

The complexity of the characters in Fellow Travelers also appealed to Spears when composing the music. Timothy and Hawkins have their flaws and are not just noble victims.

"What was important was that it was a real love story, and so it's not an idealized world at all. From the very beginning of the relationship, you kind of know it's not going to work," Spears said. "For me, I thought of the relationship between Tim and Hawk and Mary as a sort of metaphor for what was happening in the larger world around them."

Spears also felt free not to ape 1950s musical styles to underline the drama of Fellow Travelers. Instead, Spears wanted the opera's production design and the period slang and dialogue in Pierce's text to establish the sense of time and place.

"I actually bring in a lot of music that is counter-intuitive in a way," said Spears, though he does cite 20th-century gay U.S. composer Aaron Copland and contemporary minimalism as partial influences.

The Lyric is staging Fellow Travelers at the Athenaeum Theatre rather than its much grander home base of the Civic Opera House. Yet Spears and Pierce don't want the work to be labeled as a "chamber opera."

"Greg really delivered a libretto that is like a play and it has everyday, quotidian language—just people talking to each other so it's not heightened, poetic stuff," said Spears about Fellow Travelers' need for greater intimacy. "It's not an epic story with gigantic sets. The practical side of that means that the piece is easier to do."

Only time will tell if Fellow Travelers will gain entry to the permanent operatic repertoire, but there are hopeful signs. Newbury revealed that other opera companies have plans to present his production in future seasons, while Minnesota Opera will present Fellow Travelers this summer with a different directorial and design team.

Fellow Travelers has also taken on a more timely, if unfortunate, resonance in light of the 2016 U.S. elections. This was clear to Pierce while he watched Fellow Travelers this year in New York.

"I was wishing that it was a museum piece," Pierce said. "I was watching McCarthy spouting out all of this stuff that had no basis in fact, and was wreaking havoc and making everyone scared out of their minds for no good reason, and it just felt so current."

Fellow Travelers is staged for four performances only at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 17, Wed., March 21, and Friday, March 23, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, March 25. Tickets are $29-$75; cCall 312-827-5600 or visit LyricOpera.org .


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