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Heat Zone in the Cold War

FELLOW TRAVELERS , based on the acclaimed novel by Thomas Mallon, has its world premiere this month at Cincinnati Opera. The author ponders the story’s "operatic" dimension.
by Thomas Mallon • illustration by Robert Neubecker. 

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  Illustration by Robert  Neubecker  

IN WASHINGTON, D.C., WHERE I LIVE, news of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death brought many mentions of the mutual love of opera that played a part in his ideology-transcending friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (In fact, Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera by Derrick Wang about them, had its world premiere over in Virginia last year.) It’s perhaps worth noting that neither of the Supreme Court’s two great opera-lovers was ever a “swing” vote. Metaphorically, at least, Justice Ginsburg sits furthest left on the Court’s bench, just as Scalia sat furthest right.

Perhaps this says something about the outsized nature of opera’s passions, enough at least to make me, a writer of fiction, think about the adjectives derived from each art form’s noun. “Fictional” is a neutral term, but “operatic” is a loaded one, mostly pejorative when applied to anything except opera. In my writer’s mind, “operatic” seems connected to “melodramatic,” a descriptor for excessive feeling and display, something to be avoided on the page, lest one’s villains become too villainous and one’s heroes too saintly. Understatement is supposed to be the tonal route to three-dimensionality.

And yet a work based on one of my books, Fellow Travelers—the story of Timothy Laughlin and Hawkins Fuller, two government employees caught up in the homosexual purges of the early Cold War—is about to have its premiere this month at Cincinnati Opera. When first approached several years ago about the book’s adaptation, I was somewhat surprised. A decade before, I had green-lighted an attempt to make an opera from an earlier novel of mine, Henry and Clara. That effort didn’t cross the finish line, but I understood right away why it seemed to have potential: Henry and Clara, about the couple who occupied the box at Ford’s Theatre with the Lincolns on the night of the President’s assassination, was bursting with war, mental illness and two separate murders. However restrained my telling of it may have been, there was no denying the “operatic” qualities of the material.

But Fellow Travelers? So much of the action is furtive, and necessarily so. The book’s characters are masked, strategically secretive, playing out a private drama in claustrophobic spaces on which the shades have been drawn against the larger, hostile world. But as the opera developed, the idea of the book’s transformation—a more accurate word than “adaptation”—made more and more sense to me. My increasing acquaintance with the splendid previous work of its composer (Gregory Spears), librettist (Greg Pierce) and director (Kevin Newbury) led me to a point where I came to believe that the book may all along have been waiting for a musical expression of itself.

I look back at the Washington Post’s generous review of the novel and see it referring to “hyperbolic gestures,” an “over-the-top” aspect and a certain “artificiality”—all of these things remarked upon in a complimentary way, and none of them qualities I was conscious of while writing. But they refer, I realize, to extravagances that are there—intense behavior squeezed from the characters by the circumstances oppressing them. If they couldn’t be fully themselves in the outside world, these fictional figures would be twice themselves behind closed doors. The excess comes not from freedom but from suppression.

At one point in the book, as the two drive from Washington to Charlottesville, Timothy Laughlin, the callow protagonist desperately in love with the more worldly Hawkins Fuller, feels “exhausted with relief” from a moment of forgiveness he’s been granted by the slightly older man. I note a passage in that scene containing what may be the only direct reference to opera in any of my novels: “He slept until the beginning of a bright orange sunset made itself felt through his closed eyelids and woke him to the sight of a hundred pink flowering trees, the smell of their blossoms rushing through the car’s open windows like the surge of violins on one of his sister’s Puccini records. He burst into sobs.”

I often have instrumental music playing in my study while I write, and it occurs to me now that when I worked on Fellow Travelers I sometimes listened to an old cassette-tape compilation called Opera Without Words. I know that when I wrote the long seventy-four-word sentence in which Fuller decides at last to say “I love you” to Tim—a declaration that will lead him to execute an almost immediate, self-defensive betrayal—I was trying to make the words crescendo toward a crash that would feel inevitable, unstoppable, as when the music in “Quando me’n vo’,” unable to control itself any longer, seems to explode in a starburst. 

I still handwrite my first drafts on lined paper, and Fellow Travelers is the only book I can remember literally pushing away from myself, one night when the pain of the material—some of it obliquely autobiographical, displaced through time—seemed more than I could stand. Years would pass before I heard the soft ostinato, with which Greg Spears’s opera begins, but when I did, I felt the pulse of the music pushing me toward something I had still not fully allowed myself to feel. spacer 

Thomas Mallon’s most recent novel, Finale, was published last fall. 



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