Ben’s “Gay” Breakdown | Arizona Opera takes a heartbreaking look at history with “Fellow Travelers.”

It is the era of McCarthy. The “Red Scare” is in full effect and the country is whipped up in anti-communist fever. A young man is sitting at a park bench. He is busy writing when he is spied upon by an older man, who then makes friendly overtures towards him. They introduce themselves to each other. The older man is Hawkins Fuller and the younger man is Timothy Laughlin. Hawkins, or Hawk as he likes to be called, works for the State Department. Timothy works as a news reporter but wants a job on The Hill. Hawk, already enamored with this young man, engineers it so that Timothy becomes the speechwriter for Senator Potter. This allows for Hawk to pursue young Timothy. However, there is now a witch hunt going on for all men and women who might be thought of as “emotionally immature” and engaging in deviant behavior, making them unfit to serve in government positions. The “Lavender Scare” is upon them.

When Arizona Opera elected to start introducing new works as part of their Red Series (no pun intended), this allowed for them to bring some operas that might be considered outside of the norm, or different from what most people equate to be opera. This also allowed for Arizona Opera to stand and make a statement regarding social equality and justice, and they have done that with the opera Fellow Travelers. Taken from the 2007 book of the same name by Thomas Mallon, composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce created a piece of art that can only be regarded as transformative. The story itself is powerful enough to generate conversation and thought, but Spears has broken with the convention of what is generally believed to be modern opera, that being the sometimes atonal, and many times unmelodic, piece of musical work. Instead, Spears created something that sounded like an unusual blending of Puccini lyricism with the minimalist structure of Philip Glass. These are two styles that seem as disparate as possible, and yet Spears brought it together in a way that at times can be described as heart-wrenchingly beautiful. From the opening piano notes of the opera he hints at something that is to come, only to fully realize it in the emotional meeting between Hawk and Timothy with a sound that I label as the love chord comprised of (what sounded to me) an open fifth with a suspension, and this mesmerizing sound would be revisited throughout the piece all the way to the end of the work, leaving the audience with that suspension and without proper musical resolution, emphasizing the tragic ending this story delivers.

Many of the cast are members of Arizona Opera’s Marion Roose Pullin Studio Artist Program, which gives singers opportunities to hone their craft as both opera singers and as actors. However, the two principal roles for this work were provided by tenor Jonas Hacker as Timothy, and as Hawkins Fuller, we have baritone Joseph Lattanzi, who was a recent graduate of the company’s Studio Artist Program. Fellow Travelers could not have been better equipped than to have these two magnificent singers in this opera. As Hawk, Lattanzi’s rich baritone voice has just the right amount of dark tones to it suggesting that maybe there is something seductive about Hawk, and yet there is also just the right amount of brightness showing that he too is as much of a victim of these times and that his own heart is capable of being broken. As Timothy, Hacker displays a youthful innocence that is necessary for the role. His bright tenor voice has a lyrical beauty that perfectly matched with Lattanzi’s, and when they sang together in harmony it made for moments that left me afraid to breathe. They both sang with a delicateness that gave legitimacy to these characters. Moreover, their acting was nothing less than superb. These two singers understand these characters intimately (Lattanzi helped create the role of Hawk when the opera had its debut), so when it came to telling their love story, they both did it with respect and emotional integrity. Even as the two men have their first kiss on stage, accompanied by the aforementioned “love chord,” the moment left the audience mesmerized. This quality of performance continued through to the end of the opera, whereas much as they each convincingly portrayed the love that Hawk and Timothy had for each other, they then delivered the heartbreak that each man was experiencing, creating an emotionally devastating ending.

As for the production, Arizona Opera called upon Kevin Newbury’s original concept direction as well as the stage directing from Marcus Shields. The result is an almost cinematic approach to telling this story with the almost seamless way of moving sets and props on and off the stage by the remaining members of the cast, who at the same time sometimes served as something of a Greek Chorus to the action on the stage. As for this opera’s ending, the presentation was as heartbreaking for me as it was for the characters of Hawk and Timothy. Between the powerful acting and singing, along with Spears’ unbelievable music, I was left sobbing hard by this human tragedy. I love a happy ending as much as anyone, but for the drama and the horror of the Lavender Scare to be properly communicated it is necessary to see how the lives of gay men and women were ruined and how many people ended up taking their own lives out of shame. This is further illustrated by a surprise reveal in the opera’s very final moments that were so emotionally impactful that even as I left the theater I found that I could not stop sobbing.

I have said that when art is at its finest that it can become transformative. Even as an openly proud gay man, the person I was when I walked in before I saw this opera is not the same man who walked out. Fellow Travelers changed me. The images fill my mind. The music and singing echo in my soul. Fellow Travelers haunts me, and I know it will continue to haunt me for a long time to come. For that I am grateful to all those responsible for bringing this piece to life, and I am grateful to Arizona Opera for their willingness to sing out this message of inclusivity, and most of all I am grateful to this magnificent cast, especially Jonas Hacker and Joseph Lattanzi, for having the courage to take on these roles and tell this beautiful, and tragic, love story between two men at a time where such behavior was publicly condemned.

There have been many grand operas with sad endings, but none resonate like Fellow Travelers, because this is our history and it tells of the rights and recognition we have fought for and continue to fight for, especially the right to love without fear of persecution or discrimination. It is best summed up in the most heartbreaking dialogue in the final scene where Timothy expresses that he feels he didn’t exist, and in a moment of anguish Hawk replies with YOU DID. WE BOTH DID!

Fellow Travelers will continue its run with Arizona Opera with two showings at the Tucson Temple of Music and Art, Saturday, November 16, 2019 – 7:30 PM, and Sunday, November 17, 2019 – 2:00 PM.

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