Less than a week after the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, audiences gathered for the critically lauded Cincinnati Opera world premiere of Fellow Travelers, a new opera co-commissioned by G. Sterling Zinsmeyer with music by Gregory Spears and libretto by Greg Pierce. Centered on a secret love affair between two men during the lavender scare—the anti-gay, government-sanctioned witch hunt on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. during the McCarthy era 1950s—the opera is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, by the same title. Despite it’s historical setting, the opera has proven itself both timely and deeply relevant.
Moved by the emotional love story, Zinsmeyer felt that opera was the only medium that could accurately convey the power of the novel. “I gave the book to several different people to read and suggested that maybe it would make an opera,” Zinsmeyer says. “No one that I gave the book to thought it could make an opera.” When he shared Mallon’s novel with Kevin Newbury, who would go on to direct the piece, Newbury agreed with Zinsmeyer and joined forces with him. “It's a pretty dense political novel,” says Zinsmeyer. “I can see why a lot of people think it wouldn't be possible.”
Given Zinsmeyer’s work in film, especially gay films like Latter Days, opera may seem like an unusual approach for him to some. “I worked in classical music in my early days in New York, so I understood some of the fundamentals of the power of opera,” he says. “I attend the opera in Santa Fe, but I'm not an opera queen by any means.” Other aspects of the novel make opera seem like an unlikely medium for adaptation as well, but also provide significant reasons to create the show.
“I don't think the McCarthy period has been captured by the opera world sufficiently,” says Zinsmeyer. “And, of course, there's a timing thing going on here with what's been going on in our own political situation and across the world with the rise of nationalism,” he adds. “This comparison to the McCarthy period is not totally out of line with what's going on around the world in terms of the surge towards nationalism.”
Telling a modern story that is relatable to contemporary audiences makes Fellow Travelers compelling to people of all ages, including younger patrons. Audiences and critics alike have expressed how well the performance speaks to all. “There's nothing preachy about this opera. It doesn't have a political agenda as such,” explains Zinsmeyer. “We just sort of told it the way it was, examine the bravery it takes to stand up to political oppression, and to be one's self. To me, that was the essence of the opera.”
Naysayers may claim that there is an agenda any time someone tells a ‘gay story,’ but there is more at work in Fellow Travelers than that. “There are no real good guys, no bad guys. It's not a victim mentality,” Zinsmeyer says. “Music conveys the contradictions that we all have in our nature better than any other form. Music can also convey the subtlety of the inner contradictions that we all have.” But, he also notes that it’s important to tell stories like this one too. “I want to tell our stories. I'm all for assimilation, but I don't want us to forget where we came from and the shoulders of people who we stood on,” he adds. “I just think it's important for us to understand what came before, and the people who made it possible for all of us to progress.”
While the production in Cincinnati wrapped earlier this year, the enthusiastic response piqued curiosity about the opera and, in January, it will make it's long-awaited New York City debut. Fellow Travelers will run from Friday, January 12 through Sunday, January 14, 2018 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on 524 W. 59th Street, NYC. Tickets can be purchased here.
Photography: Philip Groshong