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REVIEW: It’s the Journey and the Candy in Fellow Travelers (Minnesota Opera)

The cast of Minnesota Opera’s Fellow Travelers. Photo by Dan Norman.

Fellow Travelers, a fantastic new opera that opened at the Cowles Center on Saturday, is one of Minnesota Opera’s best newer works of recent years. The music is beautiful and interesting, the story fraught with passion and the lure of forbidden fruit, and (such that it matters) there’s man candy a-plenty, enough to fill a calendar.

I should take you to Bermuda. Ever been?

This opera is the work of two Gregs and a Thomas. The 2007 source novel was written by Thomas Mallon, the libretto by Greg Pierce, and the musical score by Gregory Spears. After a world premiere in 2016 at Cincinnati Opera, the opera was staged by Lyric Opera of Chicago in March of this year. Minnesota Opera’s production is only its third public presentation. It is, as the Chicago Tribune‘s John von Rhein noted, “a doomed 1950s gay romance…[with a] steady drumbeat of untruths and intrigues.”

Hawkins Fuller (Hadleigh Adams) and Mary Johnson (Adriana Zabala) discuss the situation in Washington. Photo by Dan Norman.

Programming this opera during PRIDE month appears to have paid off handsomely, with Saturday’s opening night performance selling out. The Cowles Center is a fine size for this intimate drama, not to mention being just down the street from The Gay 90s and other nightlife. Acoustically, it is also more appropriate for this English-language work, especially with the paucity of supertitles in some extended passages. Its two and a half hours pass quickly.

The opera is beautiful to behold from the moment the overture begins, with its use of dynamically shifting shadows, reflections, and castings of light (Mary Shabatura designed the exquisite lighting and Sara Brown did the scenic and property designs). There was also much casting of light on the half-dressed leads Andres Acosta (as Timothy Laughlin) and Hadleigh Adams (as Hawkins Fuller), especially light through drawn window shades – a symbol, perhaps, of the paranoid environment of the Lavender Scare during which the opera is set, but also a mesmerizing image in itself.

The music by Gregory Spears is pregnant with lushly erotic music in several scenes featuring Timothy Laughlin (Andres Acosta) and Hawkins Fuller (Hadleigh Adams) in less than full dress. Photo by Dan Norman.

A few factual inaccuracies aside (the Battle of the Colmar Pocket is conflated with the Battle of the Bulge, and some small liberties taken with chronology), the narrative is a gripping period piece set in and around the State Department in the early 1950s. Protagonist Timothy Laughlin (Acosta, a Cuban-American tenor with a sweetly lyrical voice) meets the older and more established Hawkins Fuller (Adams), who soon mentors him in more than just his career. They mingle with a rotating cast of senators, generals, and bureaucrats played by Andrew Wilkowske and Nicholas Davis, with commentary from the office ladies Mary Johnson (Adriana Zabala) and Miss Lightfoot (Hye Jung Lee).

I have a little Estonian growing inside me.

There’s an intentional dissonance between first impressions and private takes in this opera. Some of the most interesting duos and trios result from the mix between public discourse and private commentary, especially as Laughlin and Fuller become less guarded in their relationship. One of the compositional devices used by Gregory Spears is the repetition of short phrases, which helps knit what could have been mere recitative into more interesting, interlocking ensemble numbers – and is often used to quickly and slyly point out different characters’ contrasting reactions to an event.

A government witch hunt in progress, featuring Andrew Wilkowske as the Interrogator, Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre, and Hadleigh Adams as Hawkins Fuller. Photo by Dan Norman.

Seeing the opera live for the first time, it’s easy to understand why this work has become so talked about in new opera circles. Acosta shines in “Last night. How many? How many kisses?”, Laughlin’s confession aria, a sweeping yet intimate piece with great scope and tremulous music. In its darker counterpart, Hawk’s tragic aria “Our very own home, Skippy”, Adams’ performance sent tears streaking down cheeks.

-Don’t you want–

-A “Lucy” of my own? No thanks. What’s the point?

Although there are many ensemble pieces of different sorts, there is one piece that has the feeling of a true quartet, set in Mary’s kitchen near the end of the opera. In it, we learn of a stark, blindsiding betrayal, unfolding in rapid fashion between Mary (Zabala), Hawk (Adams), Timothy (Acosta), and the Interrogator (Wiklowske). It’s a thrilling piece, one which could easily be elongated without tiring. The final scene, although poignant, is really just an epilogue after that.

Director Peter Rothstein’s treatment of Fellow Travelers is equal parts sweeping love affair and tragic circumstance. To some, the events will feel comfortably distant for this doomed period romance. For others, they will seem all too-real and possible in this day and age. It’s a powerful combination.

Fellow Travelers plays through June 26 at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine