Fellow Travelers
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In Review > North America

Fellow Travelers

Prototype Festival

In Review Fellow Travelers lg 418
Joseph Lattanzi and Aaron Blake, Hawk and Tim in Fellow Travelers
© Jill Steinberg

FELLOW TRAVELERSan opera with music by Gregory Spears and libretto by Greg Pierce, based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, had a buzz-worthy New York debut on January 12 as part of this season’s Prototype Festival. The work, which had its world premiere at Cincinnati Opera in 2016 to glowing reviews, is indeed something remarkable—an absorbing, gripping, thoroughly attractive piece with considerable contemporary relevance and complex, three-dimensional characters. The story hurtles ahead propulsively, and the musical motifs actually lodge themselves in your brain. How many modern operas can claim that? 

Mallon’s story, efficiently adapted by Pierce, concerns the secretive gay love affair between Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official, and Timothy Laughlin, a young aspiring journalist. The opera takes place during the Red Scare of the 1950s, and, more pertinently, the simultaneous “lavender scare,” during which homosexuals in government were targeted with the same vehemence as communists, under the pretense that their “deviant” tendencies could make them the targets of blackmail. Hawk and Tim meet on a park bench; the fluttering, triad-anchored music supporting their chatty, shop-talk dialogue tells us that they are immediately drawn to one another. Soon, Hawk has gotten Tim a speechwriting job for a senator, Tim sends Hawk a thank-you gift, Hawk drops by Tim’s apartment, and one thing leads to another. As my companion commented at the end of Act I, “This doesn’t end well, does it?”

It doesn’t. Tim, young and inexperienced, becomes consumed by the relationship. Hawk demonstrates his cavalier approach by suggesting a threesome with the new office boy. In the end, Hawk shockingly betrays Tim, in what he sees as the only way to break off the doomed affair.

Pierce’s prose libretto is unmetered, conversational and shrewdly spare, leaving the music plenty of room to create the emotional world of the opera. Spears does this with a winning combination of cheerful, pulsing minimalism and stylized Baroque ornamentation (both vocal and instrumental), whose elegance seems somehow appropriate for official Washington. The music propels the drama with assurance, and the melodic lines, perfectly contoured to the texts, often have great sweep. It’s also relentlessly tonal and triadic, the kind of score in which an augmented fifth registers as a strikingly unusual harmony. One senses that the composer was determined that not a single listener would be put off by any of that nasty dissonance so endemic to modern music. Spears is highly skilled, to be sure—his eager-to-please chords manage to have a bright freshness to them, and he’s an inventive orchestrator, but the would-be intense scenes, such as the interrogation Hawk faces about his alleged homosexuality, lack the necessary harmonic weight to land with the intended impact. At other times, however, Spears’s musical language suits the moment perfectly, as in Tim’s rhapsodic aria about his first night of romantic ecstasy with Hawk (“I died last night”).

Virtually the entire first-rate cast was intact from the Cincinnati Opera production (and the resultant, well-captured CD recording). Aaron Blake’s Tim and Joseph Lattanzi’s Hawk showed remarkable dramatic chemistry and vocal compatibility, with Blake’s glowing, youthful tenor and Lattanzi’s capacious, charismatic baritone immediately establishing the relationship’s balance of power. Devon Guthrie as Mary, Hawk’s devoted and observant office assistant, emerged as the moral center of the opera; with an affecting tremor of emotional authenticity in her voice, she took advantage of some notable opportunities to soar resonantly. Vernon Hartman was quite good as Senator Potter, who enthusiastically hires Tim after hearing a snippet of a speech he has drafted. Also spot-on were Paul Scholten as a likably arrogant D.C. fixer; Marcus DeLoach as both the sinister Interrogator and the brash, confident Senator McCarthy; Alexandra Schoeny as the catty secretary Miss Lightfoot; and, in multiple supporting roles, Christian Pursell, whose cavernous bass-baritone gave him considerable authority, particularly in a brief appearance as a Priest. 

Cecilia Violetta López, the only newcomer to the cast, played Hawk’s possibly self-deluded young bride and made a fine vocal contribution to the Act II quartet, one of several beautifully written, outstandingly performed ensemble numbers. Members of the estimable American Composer’s Orchestra performed expertly under conductor George Manahan, who led a clean, confident performance. Fellow Travelers will definitely stay with you, and it can certainly be judged a success by that standard. —Joshua Rosenblum 

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