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: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms join beer and brats at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s new FREE Summer Serenades starting this Sunday afternoon at the Union Terrace

June 13, 2017
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Spread the word but get your seat early!

This coming Sunday afternoon, beer and brats are about to mix with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at Madison’s premier summer watering hole when the new FREE Summer Serenades begin at the landmark Union Terrace (below).

The Ear likes that combination a lot along with classical concerts that last only about an hour. No details on the programs yet, but hey — for an hour you can be a sport and chance it.

“Casual high-brow” increasingly seems the way to go, especially in Madison. And fittingly, a lot of the performers chosen by the Wisconsin Union Theater have ties to the UW-Madison as professors, graduates and students.

All hour-long concerts are FREE and take place on Sundays at 5 p.m., except on July 2, which will begin at 5:30 p.m.

The Willy Street Chamber Players (below)
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Named 2016 Musicians of the Year by The Well-Tempered Ear Blog, their programming is adventurous, combining beloved classics and new music from contemporary composers.

Stephanie Jutt, flute (below top) and Thomas Kasdorf, piano (below bottom)

Sunday, July 2, 2017 at 5:30

Two of Madison’s most esteemed musicians will delight with melodies from their upcoming CD and will celebrate the Fourth of July weekend with patriotic tunes.

 Isthmus Brass

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Comprised of the finest professional brass players in the Midwest, Isthmus Brass (below) is Wisconsin’s premiere large brass ensemble. It has performed on concert series and music festivals throughout the Midwest.

An Evening of Arias and Art Songs

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hear a fun night of comic and classic melodies from your favorite operas. It features extraordinary lead singers from the School of Music and UW Opera Theater. Among them: Katie Anderson, soprano (below top); Courtney Kayser, mezzo-soprano (below middle); José Muñiz, tenor (below bottom); and accompanist Thomas Kasdof, piano.

Sound Out Loud and Lucia String Quartet

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sound Out Loud (below) specializes in contemporary music from the early 20th century to the present. They expand the realm of possibilities within contemporary chamber music repertoire through the implementation of experimental techniques, the incorporation of a variety of instruments and musical styles from the Middle East and Asia, innovative performance practice, and the use of live electronics.

The Lucia String Quartet (below) has been performing at events throughout the Midwest for over 15 years. The string quartet’s repertoire puts a fresh spin on many favorite rock/pop songs as well as eloquently performing classical pieces.

Summer Serenades are presented by the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Performing Arts Committee with support from the Bill and Char Johnson Classical summer Concert Series Fund.

This is the inaugural season But Ralph Russo, director of the Wisconsin Union Theater, adds: “The 2017 Summer Serenades is a pilot program. The coordinator has put together an excellent program in a very short time and I’m confident we’ll see a good audience response.

“Assuming all goes well I’m hopeful it will continue for many summers to come. But we won’t know for certain until we do a thorough evaluation at the end of summer and determine if the donor is interested and willing to continue funding the program.”


Classical music: Blue jeans for Beethoven? Will concert attendance rise if audiences dress more casually?

November 30, 2013
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As we come into the holiday concert season, many people who are not normally attracted to classical music concerts will be planning to attend musical events.

And on many minds will be one question: How should I dress?

It seems a small worry, but in a larger sense it is an important and interesting question.

What do we mean by casual?

No ties certainly, but what about sports jackets and sweaters?

Are blue jeans OK?

blue jeans pocket

And if the presenters of musical events accept very casual dress, what will performers think?

And will there be an increase in audience attendance? Will more young people or unusual audiences attend concerts? (That is something that seems possible, judging from the larger and enthusiastic crowds, below, of families and young people in jeans, shorts and T-shorts that I see at concerts given by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras.)

WYSO young audience

The terrific British pianist Stephen Hough (below), who has performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Overture Center with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recently blogged about this very question.

Hough makes some very good points, both for and against a casual approach to attending a concert.

It is well worth reading. And be sure to check out the many reader comments.

Here is a link:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100071710/dressing-up-dressing-down-does-it-affect-how-many-come-to-concerts/

Hough_Stephen_color16

What do you think?

Should people be allowed or even encouraged to come in casual dress, including blue jeans?

Does more formal dress show respect?

Will audiences become bigger and more diverse without any kind of dress code?

The Ear wants to hear.


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