NEW YORK: Overshadowed in history books by the communist witch-hunt, the McCarthyist era’s “Lavender Scare” destroyed even more lives as the US government outed and fired thousands of gays and lesbians.
A new opera aims to throw a new spotlight on the dark chapter of the 1950s, recreating a story of dangerous, illicit love for audiences that have seen major advances in gay rights.
“Fellow Travelers,” which will premiere on June 17 at Cincinnati Opera, takes place in the backdrop of the rise of Joe McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin who waged a vicious campaign against supposed subversives.
The opera begins in Washington’s Dupont Circle, where boyish newspaper intern Timothy Laughlin, played by tenor Aaron Blake, is sipping milk and reviewing notes about McCarthy’s wedding as he encounters a dashing State Department official, Hawkins Fuller.
“Fellow Travelers” charts the furtive romance between Fuller, portrayed by baritone Joseph Lattanzi, and Laughlin, who not only needs to evade scrutiny of his private life as he starts a Washington career but also wrestles with his Roman Catholic faith’s condemnation of homosexuality.
“It’s just a story that hasn’t been told,” director Kevin Newbury said after a preview of “Fellow Travelers” in New York on Sunday.
“There are all sorts of dramatic works on stage or on screen about the Red Scare or about communism but the Lavender Scare has received relatively little attention.”
Historians estimate that at least 10,000 suspected gays and lesbians lost their jobs, some driven to suicide, after being outed, far more than the number of US government employees explicitly accused of communism.
While McCarthy was soon discredited, the United States did not fully lift its ban on gay government employees until 1995 under president Bill Clinton.
Gay rights have since progressed rapidly, with the Supreme Court last year ruling for nationwide marriage equality.
Nonetheless, activists note that most US states do not legally protect gays, lesbians and transgender people from job discrimination.
Composed by Gregory Spears, known for his minimalism and interest in early music, “Fellow Travelers” is set to a chamber orchestra of 17 players including strings, piano and two trombones.