Love. Fear. Politics. For centuries, opera has reflected, critiqued, and influenced societal conditions using music and drama to make audiences consider their world in a new light, starting conversations about humanity and society with themes crossing the boundaries of time and place.
On February 7 and 9, Madison Opera continues that tradition with performances of Fellow Travelers, an acclaimed contemporary opera composed by Gregory Spears. Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, the opera tells of two men embarking on a relationship during the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts, which also encompassed persecution of gays and lesbians.
In 1953, Executive Order 10450, enacted by President Eisenhower, enabled the federal government to fire workers suspected of being gay or lesbian under the theory that closeted gays could be easily blackmailed into revealing government secrets. The crusade to find them was dubbed the “lavender scare,” and resulted in thousands of individuals losing their livelihoods and even their lives.
Fellow Travelers starts with recent college graduate Timothy Laughlin, who is an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy, eager to do his part to fight Communism. A chance encounter on a park bench with a State Department official, Hawkins Fuller, leads to a government job and Tim’s first relationship with a man. Tangled in a web of fear and necessary deceit, Tim struggles to reconcile his political convictions and devout Catholicism with his forbidden love for Hawkins. The two men’s friends and colleagues, from trusted confidantes to Senator McCarthy himself, weave a nuanced picture of individuals grappling with their beliefs and emotions, making all-too-human decisions against a deeply political background.
Fellow Travelers premiered at Cincinnati Opera in 2016 and was praised as “a near-perfect example of fast-flowing musical drama” by The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Mr. Spears’ subtle, lyrical music is beautiful without being obvious or sentimental.” At a time when dozens of new American operas are premiering every year, Fellow Travelers has risen to the top on the basis of its moving storytelling and beautiful music, making it a vital part of 21st century opera repertoire.
While the Communist witch hunts are studied in history classes, the related lavender scare is less well-known. Spears notes that “So much of gay history—it’s not even that it's forgotten, it’s that it was never recorded, in a certain way. And [so] it was forgotten before it was remembered.” Fellow Travelers uses opera’s unique power to share our history, moving audience members and tapping into their shared empathy.
I first saw Fellow Travelers in 2018, and knew before it was over that I would be producing it in Madison. I had already fallen in love with the music and characters, and while I was expecting an emotional payoff, the one that came was more powerful than I had anticipated. Indeed, I was surprised at how nuanced the story was; who would have thought of writing one victim of the lavender scare to be a devotee of Joseph McCarthy? Such shades of grey would have been true in the time period, and makes these characters and the tragedy of their lives all the more powerful. I was further impressed with how well-written the female lead was, making her more than just a female confidante—one who confronts her own challenges.
Madison Opera’s production stars Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson. The production is directed by Peter Rothstein and conducted by John DeMain, and takes place in the beautiful Capitol Theater.
In addition to the performances, we are offering a range of events so our community can connect with the opera on multiple levels, continuing the conversation with a documentary screening, panel discussions, and multimedia presentations that explore a part of our history that is not often told. Opera thrives because it is continually expanding to tell new stories through a centuries-old art form; the exciting performance of Fellow Travelers is living proof of that.