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 does the Trump administration sound in mock-opera terms?

June 10, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been quite the week for President Donald Trump (below top), what with the Senate Congressional hearing of fired FBI director James Comey (below bottom).

How would this week and other happening sound in opera lingo?

Here is a satire — a fake news send-up of Trumpland — done with a famous aria from “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini — that reminds The Ear of The Opera Man skits with comedian Adam Sandler many years ago on Saturday Night Live.

That’s when Sandler would sing the news headlines in opera terms with pseudo-Italian words.

Anyway, here is the video on YouTube, which has received a good number of hits.

If you like it, share it with friends – or even with enemies!

And tell us what you think of it.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music news: U.S. House and Senate — plus President Obama — cut back on funding for the arts and humanities, even as Congress grows richer while we get poorer.

December 29, 2011
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, guess what?

SURPRISE!!!!!

The U.S. House of Representatives (below) and the U.S Senate – both of which have been so-o-o-o popular and so in tune with the American public lately – last week passed a bill to cut back on the arts and humanities (specifically, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities) even though those organizations might benefit their own constituents and their own children.

Instead the House and Senate have favored a time-honored historical group that is more conservative and less adventurous about new and contemporary culture: The Smithsonian Institution (below). And it looks like President Obama will sign the bill into law as a compromise measure.

That venerable historical institution of course benefits the city of Washington, D.C. — the very area where the Congressmen and Congresswomen spend so much time dithering in inertia.

Well, they need some place to go unwind and to pretend to be cultured, don’t they?

Do you think it has to do with the anti-intellectualism and pseudo-populism of the Republican Party and the Tea Party?

Good question.

Do you think it has to with federal debt and spending, so many will no doubt say?

Or do you think maybe those same groups see independent or critical thinking skills or art and beauty as dangerous to their agenda and underlying ideology?

Certainly The Smithsonian seems a safer and less creative choice, although no one can deny it is certainly a deserving institution with great many valuable artifacts and exhibitions. (See the photo os its interior below.) And the new Museum of African American History is sure to add to its reputation.

But don’t these cuts also reek of the same know-nothing, take no prisoners partisanship that leads the House majority party to want to defund public radio and public television?

More good questions – especially for a Congress that, as we learned this week, has seen its net worth increase a lot while the average net worth of most Americans has declined.

Read all about it the citizen-politician wealth gap right here:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45793299/ns/politics-the_new_york_times/t/economic-downturn-took-detour-capitol-hill/#.TvtHRJjH1UQ

http://nation.foxnews.com/congress/2011/12/27/members-congress-net-worth-tripled-over-last-25-years-us-family-struggles

And here are links to read all about it the budget cuts to the arts and humanities:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/12/federal-budget-arts-spending-nea-neh-smithsonian.html

Read it and then let me know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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