The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Opera’s superb and sensual production of “Fellow Travelers” broke both hearts and new ground | February 14, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

Walking out into the heavy snow last Sunday afternoon, The Ear left the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” – done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center – feeling sad and moved, but also satisfied and proud. (Below is the full cast in a party scene. All performance photos are by James Gill.)

He was proud that the Madison Opera chose this 2016 work by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce — based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon — for its annual winter staging of a modern or contemporary opera.

It was a brave choice.

For one, it focuses on a same-sex love affair in the oppressive political environment of the McCarthy era with its Lavender Scare, which, during the larger Red Scare, tied gays to communists and tried to purge and ruin them lest they be blackmailed.

In addition, the opera speaks to today’s politics of smear and fear, as practiced by President Donald Trump and conspiracy theory proponents on the far right. The Madison Opera wasn’t afraid to point out possible parallels in the program notes.

But the real affirmation of the opera’s contemporaneity came from the first-rate quality of this memorable production.

The cast of nine made a tight ensemble in which each member proved  equally strong in singing and acting.

The two leading men who played federal government workers – tenor Andres Acosta (below right) as the young Timothy Laughlin and baritone Ben Edquist (below left) as the older Hawkins Fuller – turned in outstanding performances from their first meeting on a park bench, through their sexual encounters, to the final breakup.

Particularly moving were the same-sex love scenes and moments of casual affection. Perhaps there are precedents in the history of other Madison Opera productions, but no one seems to know of any.

The two men in bed — wearing only boxer shorts while kissing and caressing each other — seemed like another brave first for the Madison Opera. The explicit scenes of the two men being intimate were tasteful but also sensual and realistic, erotic as well as poignant. (Below are Andres Acosta, left, as Timothy Laughlin and Ben Edquist, right, as Hawkins Fuller.)

Acting seems the real fulcrum of this chamber opera, with the appealing music underscoring the scenes and the acting rather than standing on its own. Yet the two men proved to be powerful singers, especially in their solos and duets. (You can hear Andres Acosta sing an aria in the Minneapolis production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The haunting music was always accessible and atmospheric, disproving the notion that music in new operas is always discordant or hard to listen to. True, The Ear heard no tunes to take away from the opera, no earworm arias from a first hearing. But the singing by all the cast members was uniformly strong.

John DeMain’s conducting exuded both control and subtlety. He maintained a balance from the Madison Symphony Orchestra players in the pit and never overwhelmed the singers.

DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) knew exactly when to pull the music into the background and create a context for the action; and then when to push it to the foreground to accompany the singers or set a scene.

Stage director Peter Rothstein (below), who also staged the opera for the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis with some of the same cast, kept the show moving at a brisk and engaging pace.

The 16 scenes moved quickly throughout the two-hour show, thanks in part to the austere and portable but convincing sets.

The atmosphere of the 1950s, for example, was believably evoked by a simple office setting — a desk, a few filing cabinets, an American flag and a portrait of President Eisenhower. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.)

Particularly effective and disturbing was the interrogation scene, from the embarrassing questions about whether Hawkins Fuller walks or talks like a homosexual to the lie detector test. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller, Stephen Hobe as the Technician and Alan Dunbar as the Interrogator.)

One outstanding performance involved the resonant and expressive Sidney Outlaw (below) as Tommy McIntyre, the bureaucrat who knows all the secrets in the office of Senator Charles Parker (played by Andrew Wilkowske) and how to use them in order to get his way. (Below, from left, are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.)

Another outstanding performance came from Adriana Zabala (below) as Mary Johnson, the secretary who finally quits her job and leaves Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Timothy by the aptly nicknamed “Hawk” Fuller and the government inquisitors. (Below, from left, are Ben Edquist as Hawkins Fuller and Adriana Zabala as Mary Johnson.

Throughout the entire opera, the audience proved amazingly quiet, rapt in their attention as they laughed out loud at humorous moments and openly cried at the heart-wrenching plot.

At the end the audience — gay and straight, men and women, old and young – gave the singers and orchestra players a prolonged standing ovation and loud applause.

And walking out, you heard many people talking about the opera in the most positive and approving ways.

The underlying irony, of course, is that an opera with this much insight into both the human heart and the exploitative politics of oppression could never have been staged in the same era it depicts.

At least on that score, we can say we have made some progress in confronting and correcting the injustices and bigotry we witness in “Fellow Travelers.”

But in the end the opera tells us to keep traveling.

You can see what other critics thought of “Fellow Travelers”:

Here is the review that Jay Rath wrote for Isthmus:

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times:

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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  1. […] the Madison Opera where he debuted in 2020 as Timothy Laughlin in “Fellow Travelers.” Critics raved about his interpretation, noting he turned in an “outstanding performance” […]


    Pingback by Artist of the Week: Andres Acosta - Opera Wire — November 1, 2021 @ 5:00 am

  2. Now, let’s follow up this success with another good, modern opera.

    Here are some possibilities:

    1) Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel (2016);
    2) Osvaldo Golijov: Ainadamar (2003-05);
    3) John Adams: Doctor Atomic (2005);
    4) Philip Glass: Waiting for the Barbarians (2005);
    5) Thomas Adès: The Tempest (2004);
    6) Kevin Puts: Silent Night (2011);
    7) Jennifer Higdon: Cold Mountain (2015);

    I’d probably choose 6 or 7. Silent Night tells the story of a Christmas truce between the warring nations in 1914. The opera premiered in Minnesota in 2011 and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It Premiered in Minnesota in 2011 and has since been showcased in Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Ireland, Calgary, Cincinnati, Montréal and Kansas City.

    Cold Mountain is an adaptation of the famed and powerful 1997 book by Charles Frazier (which was also turned into the Academy Award-winning film by Anthony Minghella), this opera received its world premiere in Santa Fe on August 1, 2015. Set in the Civil War, the opera follows a Confederate deserter as he attempts to return to his lover. A recording of the work was released in 2016 and was subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award. Higdon is also the composer of the renowned “Blue Cathedral.” She’s hot.

    The opera premiered in Santa Fe with performances following in Philadelphia. Minnesota will feature the work in 2018. Both 6 & & (like this opera) will have been featured in Minnesota so some cost reductions might be possible.


    Comment by fflambeau — February 15, 2020 @ 3:06 am

  3. This was one of the best opera experiences I have had in my long years of being an opera lover. I disagree with the Isthmus reviewer’s comment that it should be longer for character development. I thought that was the genius of the libretto: the characters are well-developed within this relatively short opera. Why else is the audience in tears at the end? And as to the comment that there’s no “tune you can hum” coming out of it – is there one in Wagner’s Tristan?? An outstanding production of a wonderful new opera. I would love to see it again.


    Comment by Melinda Certain — February 14, 2020 @ 12:01 pm

    • Dear Melinda,
      Thank you for taking the time to reply.
      I agree with you completely about “Fellow Travels” being one of the best opera experiences I too have ever had. That is why I called it superb, moving and memorable.
      Also, I agree that more length for character development is not needed. Frankly, I get tired of operas that go on forever. Two hours, about the length of a movie, worked very well in making the opera and characters cohere.
      About the lack of a tune to hum: I qualified it by saying on first hearing. I could well change my mind with more hearings of the score.
      You point to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” as example of an opera without tunes to hum and there I would disagree. The “Love-Death” theme lingers in your mind and heart from the very first time you hear it.
      But you are right that much of the singing in opera doesn’t become hummable and doesn’t need to be. I thought the music in “Fellow Travelers” was excellent. I just cannot recall an exact melody.
      The new opera is outstanding, as you say, and is fast becoming popular for good reason. I too would love to see it again, and expect I will have the chance in the near future. It seems to me it would lend itself very well to TV or a movie or even a “Live From the Met in HD” broadcast.
      Best wishes,
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — February 14, 2020 @ 2:31 pm

    • Melinda,

      Sorry you are wrong (and history backs me up on this) on Wagner’s Tristan having no memorable tune.

      Lots of great composers and musicians thought completely otherwise. I remember that Arthur Rubinstein was bowled over by it and wrote about it in his autobiography.

      Great operas do have great tunes and great stories. I am not sure this one does yet. Tosca does, Madame Butterfly does, Tristan does, The Magic Flute does, Don Juan does.

      This new opera will have to survive the test of time but it seems to have had an impressive start.


      Comment by fflambeau — February 14, 2020 @ 9:15 pm

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