BLO's "Fellow Travelers": Climax Change

Jesse Blumberg & Jesse Darden in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

It's always a pleasure to discover and share a sensational new opera such as Fellow Travelers. It's one of those rare anomalies these days, a contemporary work that manages to be challenging in some of its modern music while at the same time surprisingly filled with lovely tonal composition. As one opera buff noted many years ago in reference to Wagnerian operas, just focus on the orchestral parts and the singing will come through, as in the end it always must. That's certainly true of this opera, with Score by Composer Gregory Spears and Libretto by Greg Pierce. First performed in 2016 by The Cincinnati Opera, based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, now being given its New England premiere by the ever-adventurous Boston Lyric Opera (which exceeds even its recent triumphant Handmaid's Tale), it's yet another thoroughly engaging production by a company that also travels, from concert halls to skating rinks. Quality is often defined in part by the process of taking risks (and succeeding at them), and this portrayal manages to do so while reflecting the frightening parallels between the “Lavender Scare” of the Era of McCarthyism and the false promises of the Error of Trump. While there is no explicit connection between then and now in the opera, it serves as yet another reminder (as quite recently noted by this critic) that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Jesse Darden & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Since this is an unfamiliar opera, it necessitates a more comprehensive synopsis than most. It begins in September 1953 in a park at Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., where aspiring reporter, naive Timothy Laughlin (Jesse Darden), eating his lunch (with milk), is approached by the suave State Department employee Hawkins Fuller (Jesse Blumberg). “Hawk” flirts with Tim, later arranging for Tim to be hired as a speechwriter for Senator Charles Potter (James Maddalena), a friend of Senator Joe McCarthy (David McFerrin) who claims that the U.S. Government is full of “Communists, Soviet spies and homosexuals”. (Oh, my!). Tim drops off a thank-you gift for Hawk at his office, where he meets reporter Tommy McIntyre (Vincent Torregano), as well as Hawk's assistant and best friend Mary (Chelsea Basler), and his secretary Miss Lightfoot (Michelle Trainor). Tim is at home cooking soup when Hawk drops by, ultimately staying the night. The next day Tim enters St. Peter's Church, torn between his profound Catholic faith and his passion for Hawk. Miss Lightfoot overhears an intimate exchange between Tim and Hawk; Hawk is subsequently ordered to Interrogation Room M304 where an Interrogator (McFerrin again) tests his sexual orientation. Tim and Hawk discuss the interrogation, and Hawk's sexual encounters while alone in New York. The act ends rather abruptly (“what's in a name?”), leaving the audience unsure that it has indeed ended. But it's a very minor glitch among a scorefull of gems.

Jesse Darden in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

In Act II, Potter warns McCarthy he must give up helping Roy Cohn's friend David Schine to get special treatment in the Army, and give up Cohn himself. Mary is also in the warning mode as she describes (to Tim) Hawk's fickle nature, and tells Tim she is pregnant after a one-night stand. Hawk, rejoicing he's been cleared of homosexual allegations, wants to celebrate, which shocks Tim, leading to his enlisting in the Army. Mary quits her job with Hawk over the atmosphere of panic and persecution. Two years later, Tim writes to Hawk and Mary from where he's stationed in France. Hawk has married a woman named Lucy (Brianna J. Robinson) but implies he'd like to rekindle his affair with Tim. They rent a house in D.C. for their afternoon trysts, but Hawk warns Tim he cannot be for him all that Tim wants, resolving to end the affair. Hawk admits to Mary that he has secretly acted against Tim to end their relationship. In the last scene, at the same park at Dupont Circle where it all began, it is May 1957; the lovers face their futures.

Michelle Trainor & The Cast of "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The critical roles are those of the inexperienced Darden (his Catholic guilt in “Last night how many?”), the seductive Blumberg (“Our very own home, Skippy”) along with long-suffering Basler (“I worry, that's all”). All three are exemplary. McFerrin provides a creepily menacing McCarthy with his historically accurate harangues about “sexual subversives”. Several supporting roles, such as Potter's Assistant, a Bookseller, a Priest and a Technician, are sung by Simon Dyer. There are also two impressive operatic quartets in the second act. The production was Conducted by Boston University alumna Emily Senturia (the first time a woman has conducted this company's orchestra in two decades), leading a 17-piece orchestra. As she has described the score, it includes post-minimalist passages as well as baroque music (and heavy use of trombones) as well as patter in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, making for unusually accessible music for a contemporary work; in fact, it's been stated that the predominant musical strategy used by Spears and Pierce is one of indirection. The rest of the creative team, some duplicating work they originated for the Minneapolis run, included Stage Director Peter Rothstein, Set Designer Sara Brown, Costume Designer Trevor Bowen, and Lighting Designer Mary Shabatura.

Chelsea Basler & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Author Mallon (who observed “the scene” as a student at Brown and Harvard) calls his book a “political thriller”, with “outsized emotions...everything in the book is so claustrophobic, behind closed doors with drawn shades”. More to the point, he notes that “virtually every gay man has, at one point in his life, dated a guy who is mesmerizing but not good for them, ultimately”. It's been described as “Mad Men” meets “House of Cards”. Timothy doesn't see why he can't be a conservative and Catholic and still love whom he wants to love, and thinks their relationship is a gift from God, a view obviously at odds with the justly infamous Executive Order #10450 (banning homosexuals from government service). This represents a group described as almost entirely friendless, politically, making the opera's final betrayal (no spoilers here) all the more stunning. And stunning it is, to see such obviously mismatched a couple inescapably headed for an all but inevitable climax, so to speak.

Jesse Darden & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Lisa Voll)

Given the political climate at the time, it should not surprise that the opera's climax is a change from what one might expect today. And what more could one ask for in a contemporary opera? One needn't echo the famed line from the play Tea and Sympathy: “when you talk about this, and you will, be kind”, as, even apart from its political importance, the work stands as an engrossing story exceedingly well written and performed. BLO has outdone itself yet again with this opera for our time and for times yet to come. What an extraordinary feat.

At the close of the opera, the surtitles (appropriately written by Librettist Pierce himself) add historical heft: five thousand queers lost their jobs, only to receive an official retroactive apology decades later by former Secretary of State John Kerry on the last day President Obama was in office; that apology was quickly and quietly excised on January 20, 2017. Does this date ring any bells?

Hopefully, you made haste, fellow opera buffs, and traveled by November 17th to the Emerson Paramount Theater; but best you didn't tell them Joe (McCarthy, that is) sent you.

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