When most people think of opera, they think of pieces like “La Traviata” or “Carmen,” written hundreds of years ago and performed in another language. This is just one of the reasons “Fellow Travelers” — an American love story between two gay government employees in the 1950s, is such a bold new experience, entrenched in McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare. Gregory Spears’ opera “Fellow Travelers,” based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Mallon, premiered in the U.S. with the Boston Lyric Opera, from Nov. 13 to 17. In the story, Timothy Laughlin (Jesse Darden), a young man beginning his career on the Hill, initiates a passionate love affair with an official in the State Department, Hawkins Fuller (Jesse Blumberg), while Senator McCarthy (David McFerrin) tries to identify and expel gay and lesbian government employees.
Effectively utilizing the DC backdrop, the opera deftly weaves fact and fiction, personifying the suspicion and mayhem of that political era through a deeply compelling love story. The Lavender Scare, in parallel with the more broadly known Red Scare, rooted out gay and lesbian people with the presumption that “sexual deviants” would be more susceptible to bribery and corruption from outside forces. In a contemporary moment similarly marked by unrest around gay rights and the suspicion of foreign influence, the story feels incredibly relevant. That said, the opera does assume a certain degree of familiarity with figures and events from the time, constantly referencing Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s attorney, Senate consultant David Schine, and McCarthy’s conflict with the army. This backdrop may not be widely accessible, particularly to younger audiences.
The romance at the heart of the opera is, for the most part, gripping and heartbreaking. Laughlin and Fuller have a connection from their first chance encounter, but as their relationship unfolds they’re persistently plagued by Laughlin’s struggle with his faith, the imperative of keeping their relationship a secret, and the knowledge that they can’t have a real future together. Both characters are deeply flawed, making the heartbreak unfold realistically. Yet, the relationship is also based on a slightly uncomfortable power imbalance, in which it seems that Hawk holds the reins the whole time. From their first encounter, Hawk makes fun of Timothy for drinking milk, calling him a “growing boy.” Later Hawk also helps Timothy get a job, and when he pursues Timothy and guesses he’s the first man the younger man has been with, claims that he now owns him. The relationship and the hurdles it confronts are complicated enough by the myriad environmental factors around then, but Hawk’s dominating role and repeated instances of emotionally hurting Timothy can range from frustrating to unsettling, even if they’re realistic. Still, the audience finds itself desperately rooting for the two until it becomes obvious that their relationship only brings pain to both of them.
In terms of the music, each member of the cast delivers an incredible vocal performance. Blumberg and Dardens’ voices blend together wonderfully, and several members of the supporting cast including Vincent Turregano and Michelle Trainor are real scene stealers. Overall, the non-stop score successfully captures the show’s overt and repressed emotions. However, there are some conversations and lines for which the opera treatment feels slightly odd, particularly mundane, relatively emotionless phrases delivered with passionate singing or repeated several times. In some scenes, the combination of characters and the lines they’re singing at once on stage are also curious — for instance, it’s unclear why a supporting character Mary sings on stage in a different setting yet simultaneous moment as a critical encounter between the two main characters. The experience of constant music also brings to mind the critical emotional potential in silence, letting the aftermath and consequences of a moment speak for themselves. That said, the operatic music seamlessly combines with the modern dialogue, and lyrics provided on the screen help the audience follow along easily.
“Fellow Travelers” also shines in its set design and staging. The stage is framed by an arc of six marble columns, reflecting both DC’s monuments and a sense of the enclosure the social setting imposes. From the opening scene, a tree branch’s shadow across the whole stage captivates and sets the stage beautifully. Each different scene has several different pieces and unique decorations, efficiently distinguishing each space and the emotions within it. Reflective of the production as a whole, the design is carefully-thought out, complex, and communicates its message with warmth and depth.
—Staff Writer Jenna X. Bao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.