'Fellow Travelers' — Opera adaptation of Thomas Mallon novel at Presidio Theatre

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Saturday June 1, 2024
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'Fellow Travelers' lead performers Joseph Lattanzi and Jonathan Pierce Rhodes
'Fellow Travelers' lead performers Joseph Lattanzi and Jonathan Pierce Rhodes

In acknowledgment of Pride Month, Opera Parallèle and the Presidio Theatre present the West Coast premiere of "Fellow Travelers" by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce for three performances June 21—23 at the historic Presidio Theatre in San Francisco.

There is delicious irony in the performing venue. The subject matter of the opera would have been taboo in the 1950s when the U.S. Army still occupied the post. Cold War McCarthyism was sweeping the nation and the resulting witch-hunts led to another hysterical Capitol Hill crusade called the "Lavender Scare." Exposing and firing accused homosexuals working in the federal government and military was the objective and like all hate-filled campaigns, the cost to innocent lives was awful.

Composer Gregory Spears  

Based on Thomas Mallon's ambitious novel, recently adapted to a sprawling TV series for Showtime, "Fellow Travelers" is an improbable opera, but a highly successful remembrance of the almost forgotten purge.

A "story of passion, loyalty, and ultimate betrayal" is certainly popular fodder for the operatic stage. Spears and Pierce have focused their energy on the love story at the center of the drama. Their nuanced exploration of human response during trying times remains relevant in a nation once again divided.

Librettist Greg Pierce  

Double lives
Opera Parallèle (OP) Stage & Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel explained his new staging as a concept "inspired by the "cruel 'double-life' the gay community was forced to live during the McCarthy era."

The modular set (Jacquelyn Scott, Scenic and Props Designer) moves seamlessly using silhouettes and projected paintings from the period as an overarching metaphor for the shell LGBT people lived in.

Leading the 17-piece orchestra and singers in the beautiful and immediately accessible score is Guest Conductor Jaymes Kirksey, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Performer Victoria Lawal  

OP's immensely talented cast and creative team form the latest collaborators in the continuing saga of "Fellow Travelers." Since the world premiere in 2016, developed and co-commissioned by G. Sterling Zinsmeyer and Cincinnati Opera, the opera has won acclaim at New York's 2018 Prototype Festival, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Minnesota Opera, and Boston Lyric Opera.

Composer Gregory Spears cites the massive collaborative energy as evidence of the viability of opera as an art form. When asked what he likes most about opera he answers, "the singers." He might as well say the humans and his librettist Greg Pierce would agree. The underlying theme of "Fellow Travelers" is empathy, and music has the power to move us to understanding.

Guest Conductor Jaymes Kirksey  

The OP cast features tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes as Timothy Laughlin; baritone Joseph Lattanzi in the role he originated as Hawkins Fuller; soprano Victoria Lawal as Mary Johnson; baritone Kurt Winterhalter as Tommy McIntyre; soprano Elena Galván as Miss Lightfoot and soprano Cara Gabrielson as Lucy. Baritones Daniel Cilli, Matthew Worth and bass-baritone Matthew Lovell each sing multiple roles. They are lucky to have an admirer of singers writing for them. For a taste of the score, hear snippets on YouTube or listen to the entire opera on Spotify.

Related events
There are many ancillary events surrounding the production, but two of the most fun and practical happen Saturday, June 8 at 1 p.m. An open rehearsal of staging and music with the cast at the Chan National Queer Arts Center, 170 Valencia St. It's free with advance registration.

Friday through Sunday, June 21, 22 & 23, join 'Transportation, Tour and Lavender Toast,' a premium pre-performance Queer History Bus Tour from the Castro to the Presidio Theatre, and return ride, plus a pre-show "Lavender Toast" included. Pick up and return at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th St.

Expansive trans events
As ongoing evidence of OP's extraordinary commitment to LGBTQ artists and audiences, the intrepid company, in collaboration with The Transgender District, will help launch the first-ever statewide Transgender History Month in August.

'Expansive' artists (L-R) Lucas Bouk, Wilford Kelly, Queen Angelina and Afrika America  

The third edition of "Expansive," a showcase of transgender and nonbinary classical artists, has two performances at 7:30pm on August 8 and 9 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street.

Three talented trans artists make their own choice of classical and contemporary works to perform with San Francisco's Afrika America returning to the stage as the evening's high-spirited host.

Lucas Bouk, baritone; Wilford Kelly, bass-baritone; and Queen Angelina, violinist are the featured artists. New to this year's performance, Opera Parallèle has commissioned a song by award-winning composer Joy Redmond set to lyrics by writer and filmmaker Kimberly Reed that will be performed by Lucas Bouk. Taylor Chan provides piano accompaniment.

The Transgender District was co-founded by three Black trans women in 2017, originally as Compton's Transgender Cultural District. It is the first legally recognized transgender district in the world. The district encompasses six blocks in San Francisco's southeastern Tenderloin.

Opera Parallèle General & Artistic Director Nicole Paiement "is excited in continuing to deepen our relationship with the Transgender District and continue to give a voice to a growing diversity of artists."

General Admission 'Pay What You Can' at the following prices: $10-$50 Pay What You Can. The first four rows will be held as Community VIP seating, to be distributed by The Transgender District to local transgender community organizations.


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