On Friday, June 17, 2016—less than a week after 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL—audiences gathered in the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts for the Cincinnati Opera premiere of Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers: an opera that traces the arc of a homosexual love affair between two federal government employees in the height of McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare. Prior to the performance, Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Evan Mirages recognized the unfortunately topical nature of Fellow Travelers, dedicated all performances to the victims of the Orlando shootings, and invoked Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Awards acceptance speech sonnet: “We rise and fall and light from dying embers/Remembrances that hope and love lasts long/And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.”
Based on Thomas Mallon’s historical novel by the same title, Fellow Travelers tells the story of the young, impressionable Timothy Laughlin (performed by Aaron Blake) and the suave, seductive Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (performed by Joseph Lattanzi). Their love affair unfolds against a backdrop of homosexual purges and anti-communist campaigns that permeated the federal government in the 1950s. Criticism of Mallon’s novel cited “hyperbolic gestures,” an “over-the-top” aspect, and a certain “artificiality,” yet the tangled web of politics, love, religion, and betrayal is ripe for the operatic genre and ultimately produces a libretto that—while perhaps hyperbolic for a novel—translates to an opera that is more relatable than many works in the standard canon.
Each scene of Fellow Travelers feels like a small vignette as realized through Greg Pierce’s libretto, Spears’ music, Kevin Newbury’s stage direction, and Victoria Tzykun’s scenic design. The libretto unfolds over a six-year period, and each scene reveals a small glimpse into the development of the relationship between Timothy and Hawk. The music serves the structure of the libretto by presenting material that is motivically unique and independent to each scene while maintaining the common linear thread of Spears’ compositional voice.
The music of Gregory Spears is an amalgam of styles including romanticism, minimalism, and early music, all of which are clearly perceptible in Fellow Travelers. His penchant for the Romantic takes the form of lush orchestral swells that accompany moments of both drama and tenderness. Influences of minimalism permeate the score with steady repetition, layered scoring, and carefully-controlled dissonances. Suggestions of early music practices include drone accompaniments and chant-like melodies tinged with florid melismas.
Fellow Travelers does not maintain the rubato-laden quality of many works in the operatic genre, and the insistently metronomic music lends itself well to the conversational style of much of the libretto. The rhythmic integrity of the vocal performances was highly commendable, and the execution of the pulse-based score was even more impressive in retrospect after attending a performance of the rambunctious and ever-fluctuating Die Fledermaus on Saturday. The constant rhythmic drive also provides a stark contrast to scenes where the pulse is momentarily halted—most notably, Timothy and Hawk’s first kiss, which weightlessly suspends the audience in time before returning to the driving narrative.
Spears’ treatment of carefully-controlled dissonance recalls both Renaissance polyphony and minimalism and proves crucial to the support of the libretto. After beginning in a charming and effervescent C Major, the first true moment of dissonance forebodingly occurs after Timothy and Hawk make love for the first time. Immediately following is Timothy’s heart-wrenching aria “Last Night,” sung with clarity and conviction by Aaron Blake, in which the battle between consonance and dissonance reflects Timothy’s internal struggle between love and faith. The scene in which Hawk is interrogated for suspected homosexuality begins with a brassy crash, and the first act ends with the chilling exchange between Timothy and Hawk that asks “What if they are watching us?” as the rest of the ensemble lurks behind a sheer black scrim.
In Act II, the motivic material from Act I returns, but with increasing points of tension in the harmonic language. In light of the building tension, the most striking moment of the second act is Hawk’s aria “Our Very Own Home.” Spears sets a melismatic vocal line—sung in a full, yet agile baritone by Joseph Lattanzi—over a drone-based accompaniment with strumming strings that invokes both early chant and troubadour songs at the same time. The stagnant texture of the score reflects Hawk’s inability to move forward in his relationship with Timothy, and the height of the dissonance is reached as Hawk realizes he must end things via an extreme act of betrayal.
The outstanding orchestration creates a full ensemble sound from a group of 17 musicians. The ensemble occasionally overpowered the voices, likely due to the acoustics of the 437-seat Jarson-Kaplan theatre, but the smaller venue was an appropriately intimate venue for Fellow Travelers. The clear diction and the projection from the entire cast was noteworthy throughout.
Though the term “transcendent” when applied to music often suggests some sort of Straussian journey beyond the physical realm, Fellow Travelers is transcendent in its own way—the music transcends style and influence to create an accessible opera for contemporary audiences, and the libretto transcends time to bring new, present-day relevance to haunting events of our nation’s past.