On 27th April 1953, at the height of the “Red Scare”, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order #1040 which expanded the criteria for determining who and what posed a security risk. Previously, the focus was on divided loyalty, such as affiliation with a subversive organization; 1040 broadened the scope to include all federal employees and members of the military and “any criminal, infamous, immoral or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction or sexual perversion”. The fact that many members of the administration, including Eisenhower’s closest advisor, plus senators and congressmen, fell under one or more of these provisos did not prevent 1040’s zealous implementation. Thus the ongoing, parallel “Lavender Scare” received the imprimatur of the executive branch and a city, once dubbed “the capitol of Fairyland, USA” in the interwar years, turned on a significant part of its population. The State Department became a particular focus, but more than 5,000 federal employees overall lost their jobs under suspicion of homosexuality, outstripping by far those fired for Communist sympathies from 1947-1961.

Jesse Darden (Timothy Laughlin) and Jesse Blumberg (Hawkins Fuller)
© Liza Voll

This is the context for the human drama of Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers whose action is bookended by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1953 wedding and his funeral four years later. State Department employee and ambitious Washington insider Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller approaches recent Fordham graduate, and cub reporter, Timothy Laughlin. As he circles the park bench, teasing Laughlin, his predatory instincts become clear. He leaves, then secretly arranges an interview for a speechwriter vacancy on the staff of Senator Potter, an ally of Tim’s idol, Senator McCarthy. In gratitude, Laughlin buys a book which he delivers to Hawkins’ office, where he meets his assistant, Mary, and Miss Lightfoot, his secretary. That evening Hawk swoops down on his apartment and an affair begins between two people who turn out to be fatally incompatible. Hawk, above all, wants to maintain his perch in the DC pecking order; Tim, whom Hawk infantilizes with the nickname “Skippy”, discovers himself and truly desires a life together. That tension drives the narrative and leads to an act of betrayal so despicable it places Hawk foremost amongst the rich roster of cads in opera: After being accused and exonerated himself, he denounces his lover whose application for an important position at State is then rejected. The final scene returns to the same park bench with Tim about to leave Washington for good. Hawk, now married, is ultimately left alone to consider what he has lost and that the 1950’s dream of a devoted spouse and house in the suburbs just might be a closeted man’s worst nightmare.

Jesse Blumberg (Hawkins Fuller), Simon Dyer and David McFerrin (Interrogators)
© Liza Voll

Spears’ score is a unique mix of minimalist drive and repetition, with Baroque flourishes and medieval melismas in the conversational vocal line. The flute, oboe, clarinets and trombones in the 17-instrument ensemble allow for lush combinations in the orchestration and the autumnal colors which flare throughout. It is unfortunate, then, that the acoustics of the venue muffled the orchestra and, depending on where they stood, the singers as well. A steady, sharply defined pulse for each scene was also lacking, undermining momentum. The orchestra even seemed to fall out of tune. An odd sense of fatigue permeated most of a performance which never completely gelled.

Jesse Blumberg (Hawkins Fuller) and Jesse Darden (Timothy Laughlin)
© Liza Voll

Without exception, the singers were on top form. Jesse Blumberg faced the biggest challenge bringing Hawkins Fuller to life. On the page, the man seems irredeemably glib and manipulative, his betrayal unforgivable. Blumberg doesn’t shy from those qualities, but the warmth and yearning of his seductive baritone in Hawk’s second-act soliloquy/love song allowed a peek at the person he could be if only he had courage to be himself. Jesse Darden’s Tim, vulnerable and passionate, embraced his awakening sense of self while coming to grips with the conflict between his growing sense of identity and his Catholic faith. Chelsea Basler’s Mary was the most sympathetic and principled character in this DC shark tank, easily audible no matter where she stood, dramatically charging the florid embellishments stippling her part. The protean supporting singers often took on multiple roles, fluidly changing costume and appearance.

Michelle Trainor (Miss Lightfoot)
© Liza Voll

Boston Lyric Opera borrowed Sara Brown’s semicircular peristyle unit set from last year’s Minnesota Opera production, which Peter Rothstein also directed. With a minimum of set dressing, it allowed for Rothstein’s smooth and rapid transitions between the opera’s 16 scenes. However, given the acoustical challenges, it might have been better to bring both set and action further forward or even replace the peristyle with something solid from which the voices could bounce off.

Everything is in place for this production to come together and be something special, but opening night was, unfortunately, more like a dress rehearsal.