BWW Review: FELLOW TRAVELERS at Boston Lyric Opera
When I first saw Boston Lyric Opera's promotional images for Fellow Travelers, a new opera by Greg Pierce and Gregory Spears, in a production that premiered at Minnesota Opera, I was incredibly wary. Photos of conventionally attractive white men in their boxers clinging to each other in a fit of passion next to images of an un-subtle cross forebodingly hung on a stage used to advertise an opera (the art form relied upon to convey narratives of lovers separated by tuberculosis, conquests by Valkyries, and murders outside of bullfights) feels like an equation for overbearing reminders of overwrought queer storytelling tropes. My assumptions were proven resoundingly incorrect by what may well be the classiest gay porn to mask itself as high art since the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was completed in 1541. After opening the program and seeing pages of headshots that looked like a gay dating service, I was treated to an evening of intensely unchecked erotica, and maybe the horniest media (barring burlesque) I have ever consumed (and I've seen The 12 Men of Christmas, a Hallmark movie in which Kristin Chenoweth as a Miranda Priestly rip-off helps 12 hotties at a rural fire station put together a beefcake calendar to raise money). Based on Thomas Mallon's 2007 novel of the same name, Fellow Travelers tells the story of an ill-timed affair between government employees Timothy Laughlin and Hawkins Fuller during the 1953 Lavender Scare, in which Eisenhower's Executive Order 10450 required the firing of over 5,000 queer, ostensibly queer, or queer-adjacent government workers.
Pierce's libretto is refreshingly challenging and nuanced. It maintains the dirtiness and scandalousness of subversive sexuality present in 1953 Washington by establishing a sense of delicious taboo surrounding any direct language on the subject. Even from the balcony, flirtatious scenes feel tense and anxiety-inducing. Themes explored include a division between failing one's religion versus failing one's God, and a rift in the queer community between desiring to live a life that replicates that of a heterosexual and desiring to live a life that is lasciviously, freely gay. After an evening of passionate lovemaking, the devout Irish Catholic, Timothy Laughlin, goes to Church to pray. Despite some condemning statements from a priest in a confessional later on, Laughlin seems to find solace in allowing his faith and his queerness to intermingle. He clutches his chest and praises God for bringing a lover into his life. Sung by convincingly naive and undeniably sweet tenor, Jesse Darden, the soliloquy is a high point of the production. It epitomizes the overall idea of the libretto that reminds us that, before we wrangle with our rights to marry, to adopt, to be accepted by society, to work without fear, to express ourselves freely, to use public restrooms, or to buy cakes, we must first wrangle with our inner battles, instilled in us to make us feel that our very existence is wrong. It is a treat to watch two different characters approach these battles in very different ways, without a drop of sterilized "love is love is love is love" pandering to be found.
Spears' score successfully avoids the pratfalls that too many contemporary operas are susceptible to, either failing to mimic a classical sound or, by attempting to create an undeniably contemporary sound, inadvertently creating an evening of dissonance and discord to a point of annoyance for any audience. The score is sheerly cinematic. It carries us through moments of earth shattering betrayal (sung with heart-breaking dejection by soprano, Chelsea Basler), undiluted professions of lust, and even a gossip-ridden Christmas party (hauntingly infused with snippets of 'Silent Night'). Strange without ever becoming ugly, the only shortcoming with the composition is in moments of the quotidian. The sweeping orchestral arrangement that successfully conveys a surreptitious sexual encounter feels excessive in portrayals of job interviews, conversations on park benches, and lonely dinners. Unfortunately, the libretto begins with several un-theatrical scenes that disservice the score and get the evening off to a rocky start. However, the entrance of soprano Michelle Trainor as the ironically-named Miss Lightfoot, an office gossip who believes all her coworkers are gay until proven otherwise, sets the production in motion. Her presence is dubiously conspicuous and her vocals are piercing as she prances about the stage, cruelly mimicking a recently-fired man for his effeminate walk. It is wonderful for an audience to have someone who is so much fun to hate.
Director Peter Rothstein has delivered a production that seems to shoot electric sparks through the theatre; the staging frames touch in such a sacred way that the evening feels sensual, holy, and filled with anticipations of pleasure by proxy. There are very few scenes that blatantly depict sex, but the entirety of the plot seems intently erotic in Rothstein's hands. Though Sara Brown's unimaginative set is nothing beyond serviceable, Mary Shabatura's lighting picks up the slack and conveys atmospheres from fettered apartments to Catholic confessionals with precision and transformative clarity. Trevor Bowen's costumes equally serve in the period piece as they would down the street in a window display for Macy's or Primark, adding to the overall sexiness of the evening (BLO's social media brags that this production features three confirmed "Bari-hunks" and perhaps the only thing sexier than a man singing in his skivvies is a man singing in one of Bowen's well-tailored three piece suits).
Emily Senturia conducts the evening with such evident bravura and grace that, after watching her from my raised vantage point throughout the show, I was amazed to see her on stage next to the cast, all of whom stood head and shoulders above her. Though making her BLO debut with this production, hers is a name I will look for in future to guarantee a pristinely paced evening of music which pays attention to the dramatic structure of a piece and delivers fully on a score's potential.
Board of Advisors member, Russell Lopez, has done extensive historical research which is made available to audience members in a beautifully printed commemorative program. Additionally, his work which is made available on BLO's website provides concise, engaging background for the production which smoothly connects the history of Order 10450 with our current political climate (one of the Trump administration's first moves was to rescind the government's formal apology to all those fired) and gives insight on how the Lavender Scare affected the city of Boston. The program also calls well-deserved attention to BLO's Jane and Steven Akin Emerging Artists Program, which offers training and paid opportunities to opera singers early in their careers, and from which 5 of the 9 singers in the cast are alumnus (Brianna J Robinson is currently a part of the program, and holds her own as the unsuspecting Lucy).
Clearly an example of the unabashed embracing of queerness on stage, the audience is speckled with attendees who are visibly queer to a socially acceptable extent. While one could easily imagine the ghosts of our predecessors who maintained their high social statuses despite leading queer lives such as Edward Gorey or Gertrude Stein grinning down from the rafters, I still long for the day the spirits of Marsha P Johnson, Harry Hay, and Sylvia Rivera will feel welcomed in our arts spaces. With an overwhelmingly white, conventionally attractive cast, audiences are ready to explore more elements of the queer experience. However, it does not go unappreciated that the piece calls out McCarthy, Cohn, and other closeted gay men for the evils they perpetuated against their own.