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: 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: The timing and political climate could not be more relevant for seeing the Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

You might recall from a previous blog posting that this weekend, the Madison Opera will present its production of the 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers.”

(A preview from the Minnesota Opera’s production, which featured the same sets and many of the same singers at the Madison Opera’s production, can be seen in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Performances are this Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

Here is a link to more background and details about American history, the production, the cast and tickets.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/01/14/classical-music-background-discussions-lectures-and-documentaries-lead-up-to-madison-operas-production-of-the-new-lgbtq-themed-opera-fellow-travelers-on-feb-7-and-9/

Today, all The Ear wants to do is to point out how timely this story about the “Lavender Scare” of purging and punishing gays during the Red Scare, anti-Communist witch hunt of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The opera’s story is about a young man (below) who supports Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and then finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to another man who works in the State Department, one of McCarthy’s favorite targets.

He then has to deal with hypocrisy, with the contradictions between his personal life and his political beliefs as he goes from being victimizer to victim.

The political climate for such a work exploring fear and prejudice couldn’t be more relevant .

A lot of the credit for that can go directly to President Donald Trump (below), the master of “Fake News.”

Trump is a right-wing fear-monger and name-smearer, constantly raging against “radical left-wing Democrats.” He has even called Sen. Bernie Sanders — a Democratic candidate for president — a “Communist,” even though Sanders describes himself as a democratic Socialist along the lines of Western European socialists.

It is also no secret that in addition to such unfair and insulting name-calling, Trump and his homophobic supporters – including Vice President Mike Pence and Christian Fundamentalists – are looking to roll back the civil rights and human rights of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

And they want to do so even at a time when an openly gay man who is married, Pete Buttigieg, is running for president and seems to have just won the Iowa caucuses.

Moreover, there is a direct link between McCarthyism and the homophobia of the Liar-in-Chief.

Remember that McCarthy’ lawyer was a closeted and self-hating gay man named Roy Cohn (below right, with McCarthy). There is some evidence that McCarthy himself was secretly homosexual too.

After the humiliating end of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the premature death of McCarthy, Cohn went into private practice in New York City.

And that is where Cohn became the lawyer – and a role model of thuggish public behavior — for a young real estate developer named Donald Trump (below left, with Roy Cohn).

Such partisan times as the present seem to call for and inspire didactic art – better called “message art.” The Ear hasn’t seen the opera yet, so he can’t say how well it fits the bill.

But at first glance, the opera sure seems to fit the times we live in and the personalities of many of those who determine such a disturbing political and social climate. As The Nation magazine put it, “Trumpism is the New McCarthyism.”

In short, the opera’s plot seems both pertinent and realistic, one that could take place in today’s Washington, D.C.

The Ear is anxious to find out more and to make up his own mind, including about the music to be sung by the cast and played by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

He also hopes many of you will see the opera, and then leave your reactions and comments here, be they positive or negative.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Background discussions, lectures and documentaries lead up to Madison Opera’s production of the LGBTQ-themed, McCarthy-era opera “Fellow Travelers” on Feb. 7 and 9

January 14, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera continues its foray into 21st-century operas with Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers on Friday night, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

(Production photos below are by Dan Norman of the Minnesota Opera production, which is being encored in Madison. You can see and hear a preview of the Minnesota Opera production in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The acclaimed 2016 opera is set in 1950s Washington, D.C. The “Lavender Scare,” in which suspected homosexuals saw their livelihoods and lives destroyed, has enveloped the U.S. government. (Below are Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin and Sidney Outlaw as Tommy McIntyre.) 

Against this backdrop, Timothy Laughlin, a recent college graduate and an ardent supporter of Wisconsin’s anti-Communist Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, meets Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

The two men (below, Acosta on the right) embark on a relationship, tangled in a web of fear and necessary deceit. Their friends and colleagues fill out a story of individuals grappling with their beliefs and emotions.

With a libretto by Greg Pierce that is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers was praised as “a near-perfect example of fast-flowing musical drama” by The New York Times and tells of the very human consequences of prejudice and fear, with compassion, nuance and incredible beauty.

The opera will be sung in English with projected text.

The performance will last approximately 2 hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

For more information, go to: www.madisonopera.org/FellowTravelers

Tickets are $26 to $118 with discounts available for students and groups. Go to the Overture Center box office at 201 State Street or call it at (608) 258-4141 or go online to www.MadisonOpera.org/Tickets

“When I saw Fellow Travelers, I knew before it was over that I would be producing it in Madison,” says Madison’s Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “I fell in love with the haunting music and the well-drawn characters, and the emotional impact at the end was even more powerful than I had anticipated. I am truly looking forward to sharing this modern masterpiece with our community.”

Peter Rothstein (below) directs this production in his Madison Opera debut. Rothstein, who received his MFA from the UW-Madison, directed Fellow Travelers for Minnesota Opera in 2018.

The Twin City Arts Reader called his production “equal parts sweeping love affair and tragic circumstance. To some, the events will feel comfortably distant for this doomed period romance. For others, they will seem all too real and possible in this day and age. It’s a powerful combination.”

Making his Madison Opera debut as Timothy Laughlin is Andres Acosta (below), who performed this role to acclaim at the Minnesota Opera.

Ben Edquist (below), who debuted at Opera in the Park this past summer, sings Hawkins Fuller.

Adriana Zabala (below, of Florencia en el Amazonas) returns as Mary Johnson, who works with Hawkins and is a friend and voice of conscience for him and Timothy.

Returning to Madison Opera are Sidney Outlaw (below top, of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet) as Tommy McIntyre, a political insider, and Alan Dunbar (below bottom, in a photo by Roy Hellman, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) in multiple roles, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and a government interrogator who puts Hawkins through a lie detector test.

Andrew Wilkowske (below) debuts in several roles, including Senator Potter and General Arlie.

Filling out the cast is Madison Opera Studio Artist Emily Secor (below top) as Miss Lightfoot, who works in Hawkins’ office; soprano Cassandra Vasta (below bottom) as Lucy, whomHawkins marries; and Madison Opera Studio Artist Stephen Hobe in five different roles.

John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) conducts, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Madison Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers” is sponsored by: Fran Klos; Sally and Mike Miley; David Flanders and Susan Ecroyd; John Lemke and Pamela Oliver; Sharyn and Carl Stumpf; and Dane Arts. Community events are sponsored by The Capital Times.

RELATED EVENTS

In addition to the two performances, Madison Opera offers several events to allow deeper exploration of the opera and its historical background.

They include a free discussion of the “Wisconsin Dimension” of this period in history at the Madison Central Library and a free showing of The Lavender Scare documentary at PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television).

OPERA NOVICE: WELCOME TO THE 21st CENTURY

This Friday, Jan. 17, 6-7 p.m. FREE and open to the public at the Madison Opera Center (below), 335 West Mifflin Street

New to opera? Not sure how you feel about modern opera? Come to the Madison Opera Center for a short, fun and informative evening, led by General Director Kathryn Smith.

Learn about some of the new American operas that are shaping the operatic landscape in the 21st century, including Fellow Travelers. Studio Artist Stephen Hobe (below) will sing an aria from Fellow Travelers, and there will be plenty of time for questions. It’s the perfect jump-start for the opera-curious.

FELLOW TRAVELERS: THE WISCONSIN DIMENSION

This Sunday, Jan. 19, 3–4:30 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at the Madison Central Library, 201 West Mifflin Street

 Join us for a discussion of how the Lavender Scare and its fallout was felt in Wisconsin, led by R. Richard Wagner (below top), activist and author of We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History (below middle), and Susan Zaeske (below bottom), a UW-Madison campus leader in the arts and humanities who has taught an experiential-learning course on LGBTQ history.

THE LAVENDER SCARE– Documentary Screening

Friday, Jan. 24, 7 p.m.; FREE and open to the public at PBS Wisconsin, 821 University Avenue

PBS Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin Public Television) presents a screening of The Lavender Scare, the first documentary film to tell the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual.

Narrated by Glenn Close, the film was praised as “a gripping, nimbly assembled documentary… vivid, disturbing and rousing” by the Los Angeles Times. The screening will be followed by a discussion.

OPERA UP CLOSE: FELLOW TRAVELERS

Sunday, Feb. 2, 1-3 p.m.; FREE for full-season subscribers; $10 for two-show subscribers; and $20 for non-subscribers; at the Madison Opera Center, 335 West Mifflin Street

Join the Madison Opera for a multimedia behind-the-scenes preview of Fellow Travelers. General Director Kathryn Smith will discuss many aspects of the opera, including the historical events that provide the story’s backdrop, the novel on which it is based, and how this 2016 opera swiftly spread across the country.

Principal artists, stage director Peter Rothstein, and conductor John DeMain will participate in a roundtable discussion about Madison’s production and their own takes on this acclaimed 2016 work.

PRE-OPERA TALKS

Friday, February 7, 2020, 7 p.m. and Sunday, February 9, 2020, 1:30 p.m. FREE to ticket holders at the Wisconsin Studio in the Overture Center

Join General Director Kathryn Smith one hour prior to performances for an entertaining and informative talk about Fellow Travelers.

 


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s annual FREE Opera in the Park returns this Saturday night, July 20, in Garner Park and celebrates 18 years plus a glimpse of the upcoming season

July 15, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about one of the most highly anticipated musical events of summer, one that offers lots of family-friendly fun and serious musical enjoyment:

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park (below, in a photo by James Gill) celebrates its 18th year on this coming Saturday night, July 20, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park, on Madison’s far west side at the intersection of Rosa Road and Mineral Point Road.

The annual free concert of opera and Broadway favorites closes the company’s 2018-19 season and provides a preview of the 2019-20 season. (You can hear a sample of past years in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

A Madison summer tradition that often attracts over 14,000 people, Opera in the Park is an enchanting evening of music under the stars, featuring selections from opera and Broadway.

Opera in the Park 2019 features soprano Jeni Houser, soprano Michelle Johnson, tenor David Blalock and baritone Ben Edquist.

Jeni Houser (below) has sung many roles with Madison Opera, most recently in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and she returns next season as Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Michelle Johnson (below) scored a major success with Madison Opera as Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana last season.

David Blalock (below) debuted with Madison Opera in 2014 and returns this season as Orpheus in Orpheus in the Underworld.

Ben Edquist (below) is making his debut, and will return to the company as Hawkins Fuller in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers, about the Lavender Scare against LGBTQ peoplein February.

The four soloists are joined by the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

The evening is hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and WKOW TV’s 27 News co-anchor George Smith (below, in a photo by Simon Fowler).

Opera in the Park is the greatest performance in Madison Opera’s season,” says Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). “It offers a truly magical blend of beautiful voices, music from many centuries, and thousands of members of our community relaxing together under the same night sky. I am grateful to all of our supporters who share our belief in the community-building power of music and help us produce this concert every summer.”

Opera in the Park 2019 features arias and ensembles from Verdi’s La Traviata, which opens the 2019-20 season in November; Spears’ Fellow Travelers, which will be performed in February; and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which will be performed in April.

The program also includes selections from Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny); Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love and Don Pasquale; Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City); Romberg’s The Student Prince; Funny Girl; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel; and more. As always, this spectacular evening will include one number conducted by the audience with light sticks (below).

Garner Park is located at 333 South Rosa Road. Parking is available in the CUNA Mutual Group and University Research Park lots. Attendees are encouraged to bring picnics, blankets and chairs. Alcohol is permitted but not sold in the park.

On the day of the concert, Garner Park will open at 7 a.m. Audience members may not leave items in the park prior to this time. Lots of porta potties will be provided. Transportation via golf carts is available for those who have limited mobility.

The rain date for Opera in the Park is Sunday, July 21, at 8 p.m.

For more details about attending Opera in the Park and for more extensive biographies of the singers, go to: https://www.madisonopera.org/2018-2019-season/oitp/

While Opera in the Park is free to attend, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations, and individuals who believe in the importance of music in the community.

Madison Opera is grateful to the sponsors of Opera in the Park 2019.The Presenting Sponsor is the BerbeeWalsh Foundation. Other sponsors are the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation; Full Compass Systems; the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation; University Research Park; Colony Brands; the Evjue Foundation; Johnson Financial Group; MGE Foundation; National Guardian Life; the Wisconsin Arts Board; Dane Arts; and the Madison Arts Commission.

WKOW, Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida are media sponsors for this community event.

RELATED EVENTS

The Prelude Dinner at Opera in the Park 2019 is at 6 p.m.
This annual fundraiser to benefit Opera in the Park helps support Madison Opera’s free gift to the community.

The event includes dinner catered by Upstairs Downstairs, VIP seating at the concert, and a reception with the artists following the performance. Tickets are $150 per person or $1,150 for a table of eight.

More information about Opera in the Park and about the 2019-20 season, including subscriptions, is available at Madison’s Opera’s home website  www.madisonopera.org


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Classical music: A new opera takes listeners back to The Bad Old Days of anti-gay America – and reminds us of the bigotry today that camouflages itself as religious freedom

July 2, 2016
1 Comment

CORRECTION: Yesterday’s post about the fourth annual Handel Aria Competition had a mistake about when it will be held. The correct time is next FRIDAY, July 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The Ear regrets the error. General admission is $10. Here is a link with more information:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/classical-music-handel-aria-competition-announces-2016-finalists-to-sing-next-thursday-night/

By Jacob Stockinger

Issues pertaining to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are much in the news these days.

Of course there were the shootings and mass murder at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida.

And there were the so-called “bathroom laws” enacted against transgender people and designed to protect “normal” people who ere never really threatened.

In contrast, the military announced that transgender people could serve under the usual conditions and regulations.

Then President Obama declared the Stonewall Inn (below) in Greenwich Village in New York City, a national historical landmark. In 1969 a police raid against the gay bar led to riots that, in turn, sparked the gay liberation movement to secure human rights and civil rights for homosexuals.

stonewall inn

This week saw a U.S. District Judge in Mississippi ruling against so-called “religious freedom” laws that many states have enacted in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage a year ago.

Such laws were ruled to discriminate against LGBT people and to unconstitutionally favor certain religions or forms of religion.

A lot of the proponents of such laws seem to have a false nostalgia for the good old days.

Well, maybe they were good for some people. But they were terrible times for many others, including LGBTQ people.

Gregory Spears’ new opera, called “Fellow Travelers” (below is a crucial scene in a photo by Philip Goushong for the Cincinnati Opera) has an interesting take on that historical era with its “Lavender Scare” that parallels the Red Scare of McCathyism.

Fellow Travelers and Lavender Scare CR Philip Groshong for the Cincinnati Opera

Here is a story that aired on NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/06/18/482307467/a-new-opera-illuminates-the-lavender-scare-a-little-explored-era-in-queer-histor


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