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: As Pride month comes to an end, let us proudly recall LGBTQ classical composers and musicians. Plus, you hear a concert of queer composers and performers

June 30, 2019
6 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

This past weekend, this whole past month, the Rainbow flags (below) have been flying openly and high.

We saw all sorts of major Pride parades for LGBTQ rights as well as the 50th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that eventually gave birth  to a worldwide movement to ensure that queer people receive the human rights they deserve.

Since today is the last day of June, of Pride month, it seems fitting to recall the many LGBTQ composers and performers in classical music.

The gay rights movement has opened the closet doors not only of individual lives today but also of historical figures.

So here are several lists that may teach you something new about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer musicians.

Some of the calls seem iffy, unconvincing or overstated. Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, for example, lived when homoerotic friendship did not necessarily mean a queer sexual identity. But one way or the other, historical proof and documentation can be hard to come by. And clearly there is much more to know about the past.

But take a look. At least you will see how scholars are undertaking new research and often undermining the heterosexual assumption that has wrapped so many historical and even contemporary figures in wrong or mistaken gender identity.

And if you find someone missing, please leave the name and appropriate information in the comment section.

Freedom, acceptance and respect are not zero-sum games in which one person or group can win only if another one loses. There is enough of each to go around. All can celebrate pride.

So enjoy the information, whether it is new or not, and the respect it should inspire for the central role of LGBTQ people in the arts both past and present.

Here is a pretty extensive and comprehensive list, in alphabetical order, from Wikipedia of LGBT composers, both living and dead. It includes Chester Biscardi (below) who did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Pauline Oliveros who did a residency at the UW-Madison several years ago. You don’t have to click on each name. Just hover the cursor arrow over the name and you will see a photo and biographical blurb.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_composers

And here is a list, also in alphabetical order and also from Wikipedia, of LGBT musicians and performers, not all of them classical. It works by clicking on sub-categories that include nationality – though one wonders if musicians from extremely homophobic countries and cultures are included.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_musicians

Here is a more selective list from The Advocate, an LGBTQ magazine, of 18 queer composers — including Corelli — who made history and you should know about:

https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2017/2/08/18-queer-composers-who-made-music-history?pg=full

And here is a similarly selective list from radio station WFMT in Chicago of 15 LGBT composers — including Handel and Lully — you should know about:

https://www.wfmt.com/2015/06/25/15-queer-composers-know/

And in the YouTube video at the bottom is a Pride concert — 1 hour and 43 minutes long — recently held in New York City at the Greene Space, and hosted and recorded by radio stations WQXR and WNYC.

It features music by queer composers and performances by queer artists. Metropolitan Opera star Anthony Roth Constanzo performs. Also playing are pianists Steven Blier and Sara Davis Buechner, who have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, respectively. The New York Gay Men’s Chorus sings. The Ear found the concert timely and moving.

If you have questions, comments or additional names, please do leave word in the comment section.

Happy Pride!

The Ear wants to hear.


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