Cher Public

Purple hearts

“If I loved you, time and again I would try to say all I’d want you to know.”

The composer Gregory Spears is a unique example of this maxim: one must be “deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.” 

This argument, advanced by the theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber, is clearly something of a paradox; radical thinking is possible only when one is deeply invested in the past. The true way to be an iconoclast is to have studied, with great diligence, the icons. Otherwise, their shattering is meaningless and facile.

Spears’ work, while startlingly fresh—at times, almost radical—demonstrates a compelling reverence for its musical forbears. In other words, Spears utilizes the best practices of music history in order to create something original. He appears to be invested in the traditions of Western music, while at the same time pushing and prodding for new modes of expression.

However, while one can sense a vast intelligence coursing through Spears’ work, there is never the feeling that he is out to merely impress. I find his compositions remarkably non-oppositional. And he is unique among his contemporaries in his self-assured posture, his refusal to kowtow to any trends, to ape a cerebral perspective as some kind of rhetorical maneuver. His work is far too generous, far too exuberantly charming—almost rhapsodic in its preoccupation with form and beauty. This is not to say that his music is not difficult—it is. But, its difficulty is in service to beauty.

Despite the dour subject material, Spears’ opera Fellow Travelers is a prime example of the ebullient musical textures he has worked with throughout his career. With a libretto by Greg Pierce, based on the Thomas Mallon novel, the opera imagines a relationship between two men in Washington D.C. during Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunts.

In September 1953, Timothy Laughlin meets Hawkins Fuller while sitting on a bench in Dupont Circle. Timothy is naïve and Catholic; Hawkins is worldly, cynical, and seductive. The two experience an immediate attraction. After Hawkins—informally known as “Hawk”—uses his influence at the State Department to get Timothy a position as a speechwriter for Senator Charles Potter, the two begin a covert romance, despite the paranoid, homophobic sphere in which they circulate.

Fellow Travelers premiered at the Cincinnati Opera in 2016 with Aaron Blake in the role of Timothy Laughlin, Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins Fuller, and Devon Guthrie as Mary Johnson, Hawk’s assistant and best friend. And the three reunited last night for the New York premiere of the opera, with the Prototype Festival mounting the same Cincinnati production.

Blake was perfectly cast as Timothy. His tenor was clear and sweet, vigorous and lithe. He projected Timothy’s guilelessness, transparence, and sincerity. And he moved between disparate emotional registers with preternatural ease: longing, joy, sorrow. His performance was courageous.

In contrast, Lattanzi was coy and reserved as Hawk. His baritone seemed too thin for the role, which required a virile swagger, a smooth, crooning quality with pinpoints of rage and aggression. Instead, as a dramatic tactic, he seemed to disengage emotionally. This served the early scenes, where Hawk’s mysteriousness only added to his erotic appeal. However, during the more emotionally vulnerable moments, especially Hawk’s gorgeous Act II aria, Lattanzi’s performance felt hollow.

The character of Mary is an interesting figure within the plot. She represents, just as much as Timothy and Hawk, the “fellow travelers” of the title. As Hawk and Timothy move tentatively into their affair, Mary, too, nurtures a growing feminist consciousness. Where her colleagues might insult homosexuals with cruel epithets, she opens her heart and mind to other possibilities. And like Timothy, her developing political consciousness is connected inextricably to her personal experience.

As Mary, Devon Guthrie performed with warmth and grace. Her vocal finesse was especially exceptional; the soprano, sounding radiantly healthy, leapt through the score’s more arduous passages. And she displayed an emotional, dramatic commitment beyond her years.

These performers, and the material they brought to life, would have been served by a more competent production. Kevin Newbury’s direction lacked imagination. Where Pierce’s libretto called for simultaneity and seamless movement between different settings, Newbury failed to clarify these important distinctions. Moreover, the primary sex scene between Timothy and Hawk was quite awkward, lacking spontaneity and realism, despite the rapturous soundscape provided by Spears.

The sets, by Victoria “Vita” Tzykun, were cursory, small sketches rather than fully realized images. And while the narrative trotted along efficiently, George Manahan’s conducting felt a little sloppy; his reading lacked precision—Spears’ score deserved better.

Fellow Travelers is a multifarious work of art. Its discourse is not confined to pre-Stonewall sexual practices; it bleeds into our own contemporary conversations on monogamy, queer itinerancy, and politics. While the plot may appear simple enough, its clean, linear structure reveals latent depth and complication. And though it is a period piece, Fellow Travelers is still poignantly relevant, worthy of repeated viewings.

Fortunately, the opera will be given a new production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where I hope the slight deficiencies of the Cincinnati iteration will be transformed. The score and libretto certainly call for a more cohesive, artistically ambitious mounting. No matter what, Prototype’s Cincinnati production is worthwhile viewing, if only because of the material’s merits; and it’s especially gratifying to see an opera of this quality enter the repertory.

Photo: Jill Steinberg

  • Paul Robertson

    This “review” is ridiculous. Were you even at the show? Newbury’s direction was brilliantly moving and Lattanzi had the audience in tears with his aria.
    If you weren’t moved by this production, it says a lot about you. Sorry, you’re out of touch. Don’t quit your day job!

    • Armerjacquino

      Blimey. If you’re this angry about a basically very positive review, I hate to think what you’d have done if he hadn’t liked it.

  • Camille

    Very interesting indeed and I could not agree more with the above-referenced quote. Indeed, I am always on the lookout for a composer who proceeds from this postulation, in vain! I shall look forward to hearing this from Chicago when the time comes.

    • Donna Annina

      Chere Mme, Spears has written some terrific choral music and I suggest you check out “Paul’s Case,” based on the Cather short story. It’s a gem.

      • Camille

        Yes, and thank you so much for kind referral. I was unable to attend the performances of Paul’s Case as I was out of town or something. It’s a masterpiece of short story writing and would have gone for that reason alone. As either La Cieca or her amanuensis JJ wrote a rather warm and glowing review at the time, there was cause to note this composer and so perhaps I’ll go dig it up in the architectural archives and review it.

        Hope you are not too cold this winter there, as are we and looking forward to that eventual broadcast of the Pelléas of yours! Just last night I happened to have heard the Ansermet recording and I am finally beginning to really love it and that has taken quite a bit of time and attention in my case.

        Tante belle cose!

        • Donna Annina

          It’s coming up sooner than you think!! Pelleas will air on Jan. 28 at 8 pm. If you can’t listen on that date, I think you can stream it for up to a week following the broadcast. I look forward to your critique!

      • aulus agerius

        D.A -- I have tried to find a recording of Paul’s Case and have failed except for the short clips in YT. Do you know of anything else. Otherwise I guess I have to wait for the announced recording from Urban Arias. Oddly, I haven’t seen notices of it being produced anywhere in future. I would be willing to travel to see it.

        • Donna Annina

          A.A., I loved your precis of Spears’ music and the grandeur of this piece. Bravo!
          UrbanArias is indeed hoping to produce the recording of Paul’s Case and they launched a crowdfunding web page but whether or not they reached their goal isn’t clear. Cincinnati Opera raised initial funds for the FT recording and then got additional funding from their board and other sources.

  • aulus agerius

    I just saw it tonight. Spears was very evident in the lobby before & intermission. I think he’s done some revising. There were passages that seemed unfamiliar cf. the Cincinnati broadcast.

  • Ken Howard

    According to the LOC website, the production crew is the same. Of the three principals, one change -- Jonas Hacker will sing Timothy.

  • aulus agerius

    Yesterday’s program notes for Lattanzi state new production for LOC. Then there’s St. Paul in June. The novel is excellent & affected me deeply last summer. A lot more nuance to Hawk.

  • Luvtennis

    Wonderful, insightful review! One question: How would you characterize the prevailing musical style of the piece? I am unfamiliar with composer, and would love to get a sense of what his music sounds like. I know such descriptions can often be misleading, or limiting, but I would love to get your “sensory impressions, of the operas sound world.

    Thanks for the review!

  • Thanks for this, Patrick. I am not familiar with Spears’s music but will seek it out!

    • Luvtennis

      Right! Sometimes I just plain forget about them internets! ????

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    Looking forward to seeing it in Chicago in March.

  • Donna Annina

    Thanks for this excellent review. Your analysis of Spears’ music is spot-on, and one looks forward to his future works.
    I attended the Cincinnati premiere and found the production and the staging to be tremendously moving, The Pulse night club massacre took place 4 days before and with the 2016 election becoming more ominous, the performances took on a sense of urgency that this was a story that needed to be told. The production was designed for a small theater seating 750; I have no idea what Prototype’s space is like but the production elements were quite effective here.
    The Cincinnati conductor was Mark Gibson, head of the University’s College-Conservatory of Music’s conducting program, who led a superb reading of the score and small wonder, since he’d been working with Spears since the opera was workshopped here in 2013.
    Cincinnati Opera released a live recording this fall.

  • aulus agerius

    Gregory Spears has given us a remarkable muscial creation which meets my notions of an opera more, much more, than any other contemporary work I have ever seen. It looks like he has figured out how to write an opera and overcome the difficulties I usually feel are ignored -- mainly how to deal with the words. Fellow Travelers is immediately accessible, lyrical, complex, interesting to listen to and incisively emotional. The opera has a tinta, a recognizable soundscape. Spears gives us a very broad range of textures, sonorities and volume from the orchestra. He creates a steady river of sound that carries the words along -- they are prose, not verse, without meter but he manages to make it frequently sound like poetry. Probably librettist Greg Pierce deserves a lot of credit where others have failed. A tiny example comes early with the words “Calcium. Strong bones, for a growing boy.” Milk is iconic in the opera from the first moment to the last word. Spears sets these words in a cadence just like you would say them but with a melodic contour. This short phrase becomes a kind of motive that we have heard snatches of even before Hawk utters them and we hear the first few notes recur again and again -- rather like the melodic kernel of E lucevan le stelle. But it is so much more heavily laden with emotional meaning for the listener signifying and coming to define a crucial element of Hawk & Skippy’s relationship, and encouraging us to see similarity in our own experience.
    In this sweep of music there are clear arias, duets, trios and ensembles some of which are daringly big structural ideas with scenes bleeding into one another or happening simultaneously within a single musical structure. The wrenching climactic scene of the whole piece is like this as Spears manages to maintain dramatic tension over a very long arc through 2 duets and a trio and wrenches your heart out. The postlude allows us to calm down and cry as the orchestra recalls for us the very first scene and the tragic inevitability of loss that follows gain. The human condition.
    There is an amazing pallete of sound drawn from such a small orchestra. No percussion save piano, a single brass instrument, a trio of winds, 11 strings. There is a lot of triple meter, as a matter of fact the opera ends in 3, almost like a big waltz. There is lots of repetition, of words, of single notes and phrases and themes. The orchestra often hints at what’s going on like the ominous change when the young men first lock eyes in the first scene or when the bubbly winds accompany small talk in a duet and changes to weeping strings as Mary tries to warn Skippy of emotional risk with Hawk.
    Within the great sweep of music there is minimalism I guess in the repetition, like the repeated flute single note at the beginning that comes back again and again. He also uses an apparent troubador song style especially in Hawk’s big aria with its melismata and harp or guitar like accompaniment. There is a lot of that melismatic ornament, kind of like a turn, instrumentally and vocally throughout.
    I did not care for the venue. I found the acoustics to be unsatisfactory especially for so small a space. When the singers used sotto voce or tried to sing in an intimate manner they were often hard to understand. Super titles helped. When they sang full out there was no problem. On the Cincinnati broadcast/recording the words are much easier to understand but that may be the handy work of sound engineers. All the singers were very good and the 3 leads were outstanding -- all of them fully actualizing the big moments Spears gives them.
    Earlier in the day I had seen Alagna give us his all at the Met and before that had viewed at the Library of Peforming Arts an archival video of a 1977 San Francisco gay lib theater production called Crimes Against Nature by the Gay Men’s Theater Collective. Both these were powerful events for one day but the peak of the acme was Fellow Travelers.