Lavender scare on the opera stage

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Wednesday March 28, 2018
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Lavender scare on the opera stage

It seems like it was only yesterday (it was 2015) that I read and was horrified by Douglas M. Charles' "Hoover's War on Gays: Exposing the FBI's 'Sexual Deviants' Programs." It infuriated me as much as did James Comey's more recent and willful tearing the Band-Aid off "But her emails," before, in my still-seeing-red eyes, he redeemed himself in Congressional testimony.

I briefly met Robert Mueller, Comey's ramrod-straight, imposing but infinitely polite FBI predecessor, in my final years in America; he treated me with reflexive but palpable respect. But in the early days of November 2016, my respect for the FBI plunged again. My takeaway is that if you think that anyone is going to protect us except us, there's a book you oughta read (and I don't refer to the upcoming Comey tome I also droolingly await).

I hear there's a new guy running SF Opera and a burgeoning number of small regional opera companies that are closing the artistic bravery gap. One of them might consider producing Gregory Spears' and Greg Pierce's "Fellow Travelers," recently released on CD (Fanfare Cincinnati) by its commissioning company, Cincinnati Opera, superbly led by Mark Gibson. It has since been revived, in New York last January.

"Fellow Travelers" is based on the 2007 novel of that name by Thomas Mallon, the title's phrase referring to the code homosexuals used to identify each other during the perilous McCarthy years. Its topic is the 50s "lavender scare," when exposure could bring ruin or death.

The piece is so distilled that the baked-in claustrophobia is as likely to do you in as the homophobia. The largely expository first act feels particularly constricted, like the blurry, jagged-lined images on an old black-and-white TV. It feels like anachronistic minimalism until, late in the act, the tone takes on the whispered menace of Britten in the all-male cauldron of "Billy Budd."

This opera is far from all-male, though the action is focused on the forbidden desire (and largely one-sided love) between State Department functionary Hawkins "Hawk" Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) and cub reporter Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake). In redemptive if predictably exploited ways, women figure, none more than Mary Johnson (Devon Guthrie), who works for Hawk (having once carried a torch for him) and befriends the more vulnerable Tim.

But what at first seems like retro-minimalism turns into updated Virgil Thomson (I mean that as a compliment), a kind of "The Bugger of Us All," if you will. Act II blazes into color. Mary has a radiant aria that morphs into a duet with Tim that speaks of the power and dangers of sexual desire. Hawk's "This can't go on" threnody to Tim sounds like it could have risen from the melismatic ashes of Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo."

Inevitably, Hawk rats on Tim, "for [Tim's] own good," he tries to convince Mary. Tim makes a getaway after a devastating farewell with Hawk - in Dupont Circle, of course.

In ways that could hardly have been anticipated when the work was in progress, the new menace to gay freedom is foreshadowed everywhere. Tim's bittersweet parting from Hank takes place on the roof of the Old Post Office. Just this weekend, Scott Pruitt burst into a whiny arioso when the subject of detention camps was raised. For how many of us does Mary wail, "I can't take this town any longer?"