PostHeaderIcon Lyric’s Truly Unlimited Opera

Make haste! You have only until this Sunday (March 25) to catch the exciting new opera, “Fellow Travelers”, that Lyric Opera is presenting at the Atheneum Theatre. It is part of its “Lyric Unlimited” series, following on last year’s successful production of “Yardbird”, about jazz legend, Charlie Parker.

“Fellow Travelers” is a smaller-scale chamber opera. It had a reduced orchestra of approximately 16 musicians and an abbreviated schedule of four performances. It was limited in that sense. However, it was “unlimited” in terms of vocal talent, a great score and libretto, an ingenious stage set (that made imaginative use of basic gray file cabinets) and pure heartfelt emotion. The audience greeted the opening-night performance with lusty, sustained applause. As you can tell, I found it riveting and inspiring!

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack - Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack – Photo by Todd Rosenberg

The opera is set in the 1950s in a politicized Washington, D.C., much like today. Instead of Donald Trump, there’s the demagogic Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy, and his closeted, ruthless associate, Roy Cohn. It opens with Timothy Laughlin, an aspiring reporter, sitting on a park bench at Dupont Circle, a Washington focal point. He is soon joined by Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

Both men share an attraction and soon begin a homosexual relationship, a dangerous move in the midst of Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunt against gays and “Commies”  in the State Department. The opera depicts the dynamics of office politics realistically, interspersed with moments of great tenderness. It ends with  an all-too-common Washington ritual, the betrayal of a good man.

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack – Photo by Todd Rosenberg

What makes the opera groundbreaking is that it tells the story of two gay men from a gay perspective shared by its creative team, composer Gregory Spears, librettist Greg Pierce and talented director, Kevin Newbury. The action also depicts Laughlin and Fuller passionately embracing, kissing, and jumping into bed together quite realistically, all perhaps too strong for a full-scale production on Lyric’s mainstage.

Special recognition must be given to the male leads, Jonas Hacker (Timothy) and Joseph Lattanzi (Hawkins), both fine singing actors, Spear’s engaging score and Pierce’s masterfully concise adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s novel of the same name.

“Fellow Travelers” points to a new cultural moment developing in opera. And it’s all to the good. Composers, librettists and directors are turning to real life for opera material, as Mozart and Puccini did in centuries past. There is the aforementioned “Yardbird”, “Dead Man Walking” and “Bel Canto.” I hear that an opera, based on the Vietnam My Lai massacre, is being adapted.

In just the past month, I have seen a very imaginative production of “Elizabeth Cree” by Chicago Opera Theatre and now this triumph, which received its world premiere two years ago at Cincinnati Opera. Such productions, sporting more melodic scores than previously and gripping stories, should  enjoy second lives and adoption by other companies. These are the kinds of operas that will ensure this beloved genre’s bright future.

The remaining performances are March 21,23 and 25. For tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org or call 312/827-5600. Atheneum Theatre is at 2956 N. Southport Avenue.

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