Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Fellow Travelers
Minnesota Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arthur's reviews of Underneath the Lintel, Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales and Equivocation and Kit's review of Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady / The Show


Andres Acosta and Hadleigh Adams
Photo by Dan Norman
Even the most casual student of American history is familiar with the Red Scare of the 1950s—the campaign led by Senator Joe McCarthy, among others, to root alleged communists and socialists out of government and other realms of public life. Far fewer are aware of the concurrent Lavender Scare, a campaign to expel gay and lesbian men and women out of government—also promoted by McCarthy and his camp. Their rationale was that homosexuals, referred to as persons with "deviant behavior," were prime targets for blackmail and therefore security risks. In April 1953, soon after his inauguration, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 codifying the common practice of discrimination against gays and lesbians into federal policy. This cost far more government employees their jobs—over 5,000 during the 1950s—than did accusations of communism. Many lost not only their jobs, but their family and friends; some took their own lives. Needless to say, an atmosphere of extreme secrecy and fear among the gay community pervaded the nation's capital throughout the decade.

The 2016 chamber opera Fellow Travelers, based on the 2007 same-titled novel by Thomas Mallon, is set in the midst of this calamity. It honors the subjects' historical base, providing key touchstones to how the Lavender Scare was lived both by its perpetrators and its victims. However, it is far from a mere screed against intolerable discrimination, but a full-hearted story of two very real people caught in the web of this dark time, whose love is victimized by the torrent of public opinion. Gregory Spears' score is romantically lush, bringing to mind ripe symphonic film scores of the 1950s, but without the exaggerated flourishes used by those scores to tip off audiences before the next "big moment." The libretto by Greg Pierce is authentic in the way the characters would speak and finding the poetry in their feelings without forcing artifice upon them.

Timothy Laughlin is a fresh-faced new college grad from New York City with an internship in D.C and a dream getting a job on Capitol Hill. Hawkins Fuller is an admired State Department employee several years older than Tim, whose self-confidence and easy sexuality contrast sharply with Timothy's naiveté and Irish Catholic morality. In the opening scene, Hawk (as friends call him) spots Timothy eating lunch on a park bench. Within minutes we know that Hawk is bent on seducing this sweet boy, though it is less certain how Timothy will respond. As they part, Hawk bestows the nickname Skippy on his new friend—a nickname that portends a sense that whatever relationship develops will be between a man and a boy, rather than two men.

Timothy is elated to land a job as a speech writer for Senator Charles Potter (an actual personage, who served on McCarthy's committee), and then learns that Hawk had recommended him for the job. When Hawk shows up that evening, the heat between them rises and there is no turning back for either. It is clear that while for Hawk, his "Skippy" is a delightful new diversion, Timothy's connection to Hawk shines a new bright light on who he is and what he wants in life, even in defiance of his strongly held faith. His awakening is linked completely with Hawk; he cannot envision one without the other. The need to conceal their love moves each of them in a different way, making it impossible for them to find a life together. Hawk appears to be a user, content with inconstant relationships, knowing that, under the conditions of his world, that is all he can have. Timothy is, perhaps, braver in his belief that there can be more—or, perhaps, afraid to face the reality of what his identity will cost him.

Minnesota Opera has, for the first time, mounted a production in Minneapolis away from its home base in Saint Paul. The Cowles Center, a venue most often used by dance companies, is ideally suited for this intimate production. A seventeen-member orchestra, conducted by Daniela Candillari in her Minnesota debut, brings the Spears' rapturous score to life. If anything, perhaps the score is too consistently rapturous. By that I mean there are a number of times when a more jarring musical motif might have seemed appropriate—when Hawk is cross-examined, or a scene featuring Joe McCarthy himself, for example. Much as I love the music and found most of it perfectly attuned to the narrative, a bit of variation might have underlined the more fraught moments.

Director Peter Rothstein engages everyone on stage at any given time, with no one idly waiting for the spotlight to hit them. The focus of each scene seamlessly passes between characters as they chime in with their piece. When only Hawk and Timothy are on stage, a palpable tension is created—sometimes veering toward joy, other times toward heartache—but there is always an edge that draws us in to this intimate relationship.

Andres Acosta brings both beautiful voice and open emotionality to the role of Timothy. We see his reserve melt upon receiving Hawk's touch, and joy radiate from being with his love, just as surely as we see the pain written up and down his body when he is betrayed. The solo in which he goes to church after his first night with Hawk, struggling between his faith and his bliss, is breathtaking. Hadleigh Adams, in his Minnesota debut, has the handsome bearing to believably portray Hawk, matching Acosta with the soaring beauty of his voice, and projecting the ease of a man whose advantages in life have enabled him to conceal a collection of deceits. Adams showcases Hawk's capacity to be charming, playful and generous, yet self-absorbed.

Adriana Zabala brings tenderness and regret to the role of Mary Johnson, the one person to whom Hawk and Timothy can reveal their relationship, using her rich soprano to reach into her roiling emotions as she once harbored her own ill-fated designs on Hawk. Sidney Outlaw makes a solid impression as conniving political operative Tommy McIntyre, though the role is underwritten. Hye Jung Lee has even less to do as snoopy Miss Lightfoot, but does well depicting a citizen caught up in the fervor to ferret out the "deviants" among them.

The work is superbly enhanced by Mary Shabatura's lighting design, designating degrees of freedom these fellow travelers have to pursue their lives with the amount of light upon them. The use of slotted beams of light, as if stealthily passing between closed venetian blind is a repeated and awfully effective motif. Sara Brown has designed a stylish set, which easily transforms between the park, government offices, Tim's spare apartment, and other locations, though an oversized crucifix descending from above in the church setting seemed a bit ominous, as if Timothy is at risk of being crushed by this symbol of his faith. Trevor Bowen's costumes and Priscilla Bruce's hairstyles capture the 1950s office drone and punch-bowl office party vibes, with dapper Hawkins consistently outclassing the others.

Twin Cities audiences are fortunate to have an opportunity to experience this musically rich new addition to the canon of contemporary opera in such a well performed and lovingly staged production. All the more, Fellow Travelers offers a history known by too few among us, and a history we must be on guard not to repeat. To illustrate that point, on January 17, 2017, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a much belated apology to victims of the Lavender Scare. On January 20th, Donald Trump was inaugurated as President, and Kerry's apology was officially retracted.

Fellow Travelers, through June 26, 2018, by Minnesota Opera at the Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $104.00. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.

Music: Gregory Spears; Libretto: Greg Pierce, based on the novel by Thomas Mallon; Developed and Co-Commissioned by G. Sterling Zinsmeyer and Cincinnati Opera; Conductor: Daniela Candillari; Stage Director: Peter Rothstein; Scenic and Properties Design: Sara Brown; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Hair and Make-Up Design: Priscilla Bruce; Assistant Director: Sophie Peyton; Répétiteur: Jessica Hall; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek.

Cast: Andres Acosta (Timothy Laughlin), Hadleigh Adams (Hawkins Fuller), Nicholas Davis (Senator Potter, General Arlie, bartender), Calvin Griffin (Potter's assistant, bookseller, party guest, technician, French priest), Jasmine Habersham (Lucy), Hye Jung Lee (Miss Lightfoot), Sidney Outlaw (Tommy McIntyre), Andrew Wilkowske (Estonian Frank, interrogator, Senator McCarthy), Adriana Zabala (Mary Johnson).


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