Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review - Fellow Travelers - Minnesota Opera - Some Light In a Dark Time - 5 stars

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this may be the first time I’ve seen an opera since I was in college. (And we won’t get into how long ago that was - suffice it to say, a while.)  I didn’t get the opera gene as a gay man for some reason, even though my Grandma and Granddad loved the opera.  Seeing the new opera Fellow Travelers at the Minnesota Opera, though, I can understand a little of what kept drawing them back again and again. 

“How many earthquakes?  How many kisses?”

Even though it’s a modern rather than a classical story, the scale and sweep of the production here is still huge and impressive.  The music from composer Gregory Spears is gorgeous.  The voices of everyone in the ensemble are powerful.  Mary Shabatura’s lighting constantly casts Sara Brown’s scenic design and Trevor Bowen’s costume designs into sharp relief with evocative light and shadow, either making colors pop or lines and angles seem more ominous.  The outsized passions of these people really need the scale of the world on stage and the strong voices of opera to do them full justice.  Bonus points - even though the love affair, of course, is doomed (this is opera, after all - and they give you a full synopsis of every scene ahead of time so you can more easily follow along), nobody’s a prostitute and nobody dies.  As someone who went in not entirely sure he had the capacity to fully appreciate an opera, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

“I don’t have a telephone.”
“Are you Amish?”

Fellow Travelers is set in Washington D.C. of the mid to late 1950s when Joseph McCarthy (Andrew Wilkowske)’s crusade against communist sympathizers in the government sought to root out homosexuals (“sexual deviants”) as well, fearing they could be too easily blackmailed into betraying their country.  This subplot of McCarthy’s Red Scare was known as the Lavender Scare.  This is also pre-Stonewall Riots by more than a decade, so life in general for members of the LGBTQ community was already fairly clandestine and bleak.  All the same, people still found one another, and a way to live their lives.  This story, adapted by librettist Greg Pierce from Thomas Mallon’s novel, centers on young Timothy Laughlin (Andres Acosta), a reporter who longs instead to work on Capitol Hill.  A chance meeting on a park bench with State Department employee Hawkins Fuller (Hadleigh Adams) completely alters the course of his life.

“What would you rather be doing?”

Tim and Hawk’s conversation remains innocent enough, but is definitely flirtatious.  Hawk puts in a good word at the offices of Senator Potter (Nicholas Davis), and Tim quickly finds himself hired as the senator’s speechwriter.  A thank you gift of a book from Tim, with his address written inside it, launches Tim and Hawk’s passionate affair.  After their first night together, Tim goes to church but finds it impossible to regret the encounter.  In fact, this new chapter in his life propels him into singing the production’s one big aria in act one, and it’s a stunner.

“The insane asylum where Ezra Pound is writing poetry.”

Hawk’s assistant (and long-time friend) Mary (Adriana Zabala) also becomes Tim’s confidante as the secret relationship continues.  Hawk is a bit too cavalier about keeping that secret and briefly runs afoul of McCarthy’s investigators, but presents himself as “normal” enough to escape punishment.  Meanwhile, all around them are whispers and bad news, of government people run out of their jobs or driven to suicide.

“Stay, just stay.”

Hawk can’t quite bring himself to settle down with Tim exclusively, even though it’s clear Hawk’s emotions are real and their connection is strong.  They try to live separate lives - Tim enlists in the army, and Hawk gets married to a nice woman named Lucy (Jasmine Habersham) - but the pull between them remains, so their affair resumes.  Hawk’s aria in act two is just as intense as Tim’s which came before it, but more subdued - since Hawk has realized that, as much as he loves Tim, Hawk is bad for him.  Even without a government purge hanging over their heads, the society Tim and Hawk live in doesn’t make room easily for couples like them.

“I know him well.  There are times I wish I didn’t know him so well.”

Recently I’ve been taking issue with the idea of homosexual suffering as entertainment, but Fellow Travelers surprised me by not falling into this trap.  Tim and Hawk suffer their share of heartache, sure, but they don’t live in constant misery, and they’re not helpless victims of the society around them.  They live their lives fully and intentionally, and they have great moments of happiness.  Oddly, the events and decisions that finally drive them apart for good are also the crucible that turns them into the kind of men who could finally be a decent partner to one another - if only they didn’t already have all this history between them.  It hurts, but it hurts because it meant something.  And again, nobody’s a prostitute, and nobody dies, so you can call it a win.  There’s sex and there’s skin on display, but it’s the genuine intensity of the emotion between the two central characters that makes Fellow Travelers more than just another story about an ill-fated gay love affair.  If you feel that deeply, why wouldn’t you sing?  And who wouldn’t fall for a guy who could sing to you like that?

“I’m off to shoot a few ducks, then Monday we can straighten out this damn country.”

The scenic design is a great combination of grandeur and standard government office practicality.  The stage is bracketed by powerful columns that reach to the heavens, and can dwarf the human beings who move beneath them.  Yet within those columns, tables and chairs and desks of steel and green roll around into different configurations.  Fluorescent office lights are just as likely to descend from the heavens as a crucifix or a tree branch. Just as director Peter Rothstein gets beautiful performances out of the entire ensemble here (which includes Hye Jung Le, Sidney Outlaw, and Calvin Griffin as well), he also choreographs the dance of the various locations in the characters lives elegantly and simply.  In addition, there’s a fair amount of whimsy going on around the edges.  For instance, occasionally a cast member will be holding up what appears to be a bathroom mirror for another character, and they’ll extend a hand, as a convenient place to hang their hat.

“Did you hear the one about Roy Cohn in church?  Ah - men.”

One of the things that helps keep Fellow Travelers so engaging is that it never loses sight of the human characters in the larger sweep of history.  The story gives us just enough facts for context but doesn’t get bogged down in exposition.  However, the passing of time does continue to add new wrinkles.  When this opera first premiered in New York in 2016, the U.S. government still hadn’t apologized for the Lavender Scare which drove 5,000 men and women out of their jobs during the Eisenhower administration.  In early January 2017, Secretary of State John Kerry issued an official apology on behalf of the State Department.  Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, that statement mysteriously, or perhaps not so mysteriously, disappeared from the government’s website.  While we’re not living in the 1950s any more, it seems we all still have to watch our backs.  (Given all that, I have to give a quick shout-out to the diversity visible both onstage and in the creative team offstage.  More and more I’m finding that it’s much more interesting to me if it isn’t exclusively just a whole bunch of white people making the theater.  That’s on ample display in the artists of Fellow Travelers.)

“Let me hold you for an hour.  That’s what we get.”

Whether you’re a hardcore opera aficionado, or a neophyte like myself, there’s a lot anyone can find to like to Fellow Travelers at the Minnesota Opera.  (Side note: I saw it from up in the balcony and it looks great from up there.)  Fellow Travelers turns out to be a fitting offering for Pride Month in ways I never expected.  (runs through June 26, 2018 at the Cowles Center)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

[Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Hadleigh Adams as Hawkins Fuller in the Minnesota Opera production of Fellow Travelers; Photo by Dan Norman] 

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