Composer Gregory Spears: ‘Fellow Travelers’ And ‘The Nature Of Homophobia’


‘Part Of Our Country’s History’

Even without the unforgivable attack on the Pulse in Orlando last week, composer Gregory Spears’ world premiere of Fellow Travelers has the potential for controversy. Now, in the wake of so such inexcusable violence, the intensity is amplified around Friday’s debut in director Kevin Newbury’s staging at the Cincinnati Opera, Mark Gibson conducting.

“My hope is that by looking at history we can learn something about the nature of homophobia and how and why it persists. Whether we like it or not, it’s part of our country’s history and also its present.”
Gregory Spears

Fellow Travelers is set in the 1950s Washington, amid the targeting of government employees suspected of being gay. A kind of subset to the “Red Menace” of Communist Party witch hunts that Sen. Joseph McCarthy conducted, the “Lavender Scare” triggered mass firings in the State Department and other divisions of the government, damaged careers and wrecking lives as so much of McCarthy’s work did.

It’s worth pausing to note that the middle of the last century was an era of extremist political fear-mongering that could hardly be more instructive during this year’s presidential election cycle. When you hear candidates call for banning people on the basis of religious affiliation, ethnicity, nationality, have a look back at the ’50s and you may understand better why xenophobic bluster on the campaign trail is so alarming.

#MusicForWriters regulars will be interested to know that Spears’ opera, with a libretto by Greg Pierce, is based on Fellow Travelers, the historical novel by Thomas Mallon (Vintage, 2007). Another book uses the “Lavender Scare” phrase in its title, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, by David K. Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

The plot of the opera is centered on an unintended romance between government workers in the McCarthy era. In an interrogation scene, Pierce’s libretto puts Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller on the hot seat. He works in the State Department’s Bureau of Congressional Relations. The interrogator says:

We have sufficient reason to question you…Let me be frank, Mr. Fuller. Eighty percent of these investigations end with an admission of … behavior. As you know, the moral perversion and emotional immaturity of a sexual deviant make him the prime target of blackmail by anyone seeking to undermine the government of the United States.

Hawk’s relationship with Timothy Laughlin becomes the human-scale context in which the government’s persecution of homosexuals is played out and includes an act of betrayal that was replicated in so many cases during this era of pressure tactics and institutionalized bigotry.

Our interview with Spears is a quick one because production week is a complex time of long days of work. We hope to have the opportunity to post some music from Spears’ score, as well, but of course a proper rendition has yet to be recorded since the piece only goes up in full production Friday.

His music, while leaning toward a modernist minimalism, tends to have a quiet sense of luxury to it. Something cool is always nearby. While not a vocal piece, as Fellow Travelers is, you might want to hear the serene mystery of his Buttonwood in this excerpt played by the JACK Quartet. (Our #MusicForWriters JACK Quartet interview with John Pickford Richards is here.) You might also appreciate this recording, which he conducts, of his Requiem, from New Amsterdam.

In our exchange with Spears, we started with my own comparison of this kind of near-contemporary story in operatic form, recalling, for example, Nico Muhly’s superb Two Boys.

‘Forbidden Love’

Thought Catalog: Greg, for my money, the most powerful operatic experiences have been ones that deal with our own time, our near-history. They have so much more resonance for us than the Old World operas that we love but which means nothing to our lives today. How easy do you find it to approach such crucial, contemporary work of this kind in an idiom that many still think of as based on older arts? I guess what I’m asking is do you sense any pushback from the audience-at-large, beyond the Cincinnati Opera world, to the idea of modern events treated in operatic contexts?

Gregory Spears: I think the best way to talk about the present is to look at the past.

While the McCarthy era is history, political paranoia, fear mongering and the insider world of DC politics feels more present than ever. The most well-known American operas have addressed contemporary events and recent history—like Nixon in China [by John Adams] and Einstein on the Beach [Philip Glass], or more recently JFK [David T. Little].

So in a way, for an American composer, writing an opera about recent history seems quite natural.

The other theme of the opera, forbidden love, is of course eternal and also central to the operatic tradition.

TC: In working with the Mallon book, and with Greg’s libretto, what have you found musically the most challenging about the project?—What’s the hardest thing to do in a case like this with voice and orchestra?

GS: The vast majority of the libretto is conversational, which was somewhat new for me. For me, writing music to animate the play-like quality required a whole new way of imagining scenes.

Often I would write large scenes as if they were arias and then split one melodic line between two characters. Sometimes they alternate quickly, or sing in canon, or harmonize, or cut one another off and yet the sum of the conversation is a sort of collaborative melody.

I’ve always thought a conversation, of any sort, as a collaboration in search of a melody.

“As a composer I love it when music seems in some way contrasts the dialogue it’s supporting—hopefully adding a layer of ambivalence and subtext to the affect being expressed.”
Gregory Spears

TC: Is this a difficult show to cast? One of the reasons I’m asking is that opera is fairly famous (infamous?) for casting people who sing gloriously but physically and in terms of characterization have next to no relation to the characters they play. It seems to me that casting something from our contemporary or recent time frame is slightly trickier in this regard, in that it might be harder for an audience to accept casting that veers too far from the characters’ relatively modern reality.

GS: We were very lucky to find a cast of extraordinary singing actors who also happen to be very close in age to the characters they play: mostly DC office workers in their 20s and 30s. Hopefully that gives the show a verisimilitude.

TC: The bits I’ve been able to hear of your score are almost luxuriantly meditative, even hovering—quite beautiful. While I know the piece revolves around action and story, of course, is there an element of Fellow Travelers that should hang in our minds like a memory-dream? Certainly as a cultural memory, a very bad one, this qualifies for that treatment. I wonder if this is something you’re going for in the luminous treatment you’ve given the composition?

GS: Perhaps you heard Hawk’s aria, which certainly has a suspended feel. That excerpt was very inspired by troubadour music, which was music composed on themes of idealized or forbidden love.

That placid musical style alternates with a more motoric music in the piece, which represents the churning DC political scene. A lot of the most painful dialogue is set against a different type of hovering music.

As a composer I love it when music seems in some way contrasts the dialogue it’s supporting—hopefully adding a layer of ambivalence and subtext to the affect being expressed. I’m always trying to avoid writing music that feels too “on-the-nose.”

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TC: While I know you’re focused on staging the show, it’s important to ask for any thoughts you have in the wake of the unspeakable events in Orlando. What we see in Fellow Travelers is a terrible moment in history when a major element of governmental action was targeted at the LGBT population. The battle isn’t over yet, is it?

GS: Unfortunately hate and fear persist. My hope is that by looking at history we can learn something about the nature of homophobia and how and why it persists.

Whether we like it or not, it’s part of our country’s history and also its present.