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
4 Comments

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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: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/forbidden%20love/

And here is the review that Lindsay Christians wrote for The Capital Times: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/theatre/opera-review-fellow-travelers-is-a-certain-kind-of-wonderful/article_0ebc5a83-afbe-5f50-99eb-51e4baa4df0e.html

What did you think?

Leave your own review or reactions in the Comments section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: How is the bad flu epidemic affecting classical music in Madison?

February 3, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It seems like every news report has an update on how the bad flu epidemic this winter continues to get worse, filling emergency rooms and hospital beds, and killing especially the young and the elderly.

So here is what The Ear wants to know: How is the bad flu epidemic affecting the classical music scene in Madison?

After all, the second half of the season is just getting underway. This month will see performances by the Madison Opera, the University Opera, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Wisconsin Union Theater,  various performers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and many more.

He wants to hear both ideas and first-person stories or experiences from performers, presenters and audience members.

Has the fear of getting sick kept you, as an individual or group, from performing or affected your performance?

Has the flu affected the overall attendance of performances?

Has the flu, and fear of catching it, already kept you personally from being in a crowd and attending a performance or concert? How about in the future?

What could local music presenters do to help the situation?

Do you think providing surgical face masks would help?

How about providing cough drops?

Should people exhibiting symptoms be asked to leave, either by other patrons or by an usher or another official representative, as The Ear heard was done recently at a volunteer food pantry?

Should organizations make it easier to exchange dates or get a refund if you are ill?

Leave an answer or suggestion in the COMMENT section.

And let us all hope that the deadly flu epidemic starts to ebb very soon.


Classical music: The superb final concert of the Madison Early Music Festival took the audience through an Elizabethan day with inventive fun

July 20, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to early music advocate, scholar, conductor and performer Grant Herreid (below), who once again was a major player in the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival, which wrapped up this past Saturday night.

MEMF 2016 all-festival Grant Herreid

What could have been a scissors-and-paste job to wrap up the celebration of music in Shakespeare and Elizabethan England was turned by the creative Herreid into an event that was thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly inventive.

What the final All-Festival Concert did was to bring together what seemed a very large number of students, faculty and guest performers.

MEMF 2016 all-festival all forces

Then what the combined forces did was offer a sampler of a typical Elizabethan day. That day included the usual routines from waking up, exercising and going to bed, but also included prayers, romance and entertainment.

It used snippets from plays by William Shakespeare (below) and snippets by many composers of the period including Thomas Tomkins, Anthony Holborne, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes, John Bennet, John Coperario, Thomas Ravenscroft, John Dowland and Thomas Tallis as well an anonymous composers and reconstructions.

shakespeare BW

The formula must have appealed because it drew a large and enthusiastic audience.

Since it was such an ensemble effort, it is difficult to single out individuals for praise or criticism.

Instead, The Ear simply wants to mention a few of his favorite things with photos to illustrate them.

Here is what The Ear liked:

He liked that the entire 90-minute program of sacred and secular music was done without an intermission. Once you were in the zone, you didn’t have to leave it and then have to get back into it. Plus, the unity of the day was preserved.

He liked the diverse and always highly accomplished singing.

He liked seeing the unusual period string and wind instruments that are beautiful as well as useful.

MEMF 2016 all-festival strings left

He liked how the entire hall, not just the main stage, was used, including the balconies from which a fanfare opened the concert:

MEMF 2016 all-festival balcony

He liked the many “actors” who stepped to the edge of the Mills Hall stage and did an exceptional job reading the excerpts of Shakespeare that were kept short and to the point:

MEMF 2016 all-festival Shakespeare reader

He liked the period and very energetic dancing with handkerchiefs and leg bells:

MEMF 2016 all-festival dancing

There was more. But you get the idea.

Once again, if you can’t make it to other concerts in the Madison Early Music Festival’s annual week-long schedule, try to make it to the impressive All-Festival Concert at the end.

In 17 years, it has never disappointed.

That is a record to be envied and praised.


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