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Opera Fusion Nets Promising New Work

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 27, 2013 - 2:18:26 PM in reviews_2013

Marcus Shields (left) and Joseph Lattanzi in "Fellow Travelers" by Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce (workshop performance at Cincinnati Masonic Center)

Opera Fusion: New Works, a collaboration between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to foster the creation of new American opera, has netted three new operas so far: “Doubt” by Douglas Cuomo and John Patrick Shanley in 2011, “Champion” by Terrence Blanchard and Michael Christofer and “Morning Star” by Ricky Ian Gordon and William M. Hoffman, both in 2012.

The first two have already gone into production, “Doubt” at Minnesota Opera, “Champion” at Opera Theater of St. Louis.

“Fellow Travelers” by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce, given a partial public reading Tuesday evening (Nov. 26) in the small auditorium at the Cincinnati Masonic Center downtown, may be next. The product of a 10-day workshop/residency during which Spears, Pierce and director Kevin Newbury worked with students and professionals at CCM and Cincinnati Opera, “Fellow Travelers” appears headed for a bright future.

Based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, it is the love story of a young reporter and a state department official set in Washington D.C. during the 1950s, the era of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous hearings into U.S. government infiltration by agents working for the Communist party. Part of that effort involved ridding the government of homosexuals, who were believed to be vulnerable to Communist blackmail. This “lavender scare” (as opposed to the “red scare” proper) resulted in thousands of people losing their jobs, far more than the actual number of suspected Communists.

Heard Tuesday, with piano accompaniment by Junghyun Cho and Carol Walker and conducted by CCM’s Mark Gibson, were two excerpts from the work. One comprised the opening scenes of the opera (35 minutes), the other, closing scenes (25 minutes). All were compellingly sung and vividly acted (without costumes or sets) by a ten-voice student cast headed by Marcus Shields as reporter Tim Laughlin and Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins Fuller of the State Department’s Bureau of Congressional Relations.

The music – yet to be orchestrated – is neo-romantic/minimalist and quite beautiful, with use of dance-like textures and repeated-note motifs. The text is sung in a lyrical, declamatory style. There were some highly affecting love scenes, as in scene 4 in Tim’s apartment, where Lattanzi as Hawkins sang of taking Tim to Bermuda, culminating in a rapturous duet with Shields. There were soaring aria-like moments as well, such as Hawkins’ heartfelt solo in scene 14 in the house they share in Washington, where he declares that he and Tim “can’t be that,” i.e. a couple. (Troubadour songs were also an inspiration for the opera, Spears said in remarks following the performance.)

Other roles were performed to fine effect by Adria Caffaro and Talya Lieberman as Hawkins’ assistant and secretary, respectively, Conor McDonald as reporter Tommy McIntyre, Eleni Franck as Tim’s sister Francie, Erin Keesy as Hawkins’ wife Lucy and Dominique Waters, Stefan Egerstrom and Jeff Byrnes, each in triple roles. Newbury's direction resulted in a lively semi-staging, full of character and telling gesture. The students mastered the opera as it evolved through numerous adaptations, while continuing their own work at CCM. The opera as finally conceived was recorded in its entirety.

Two more workshops are envisioned for Opera Fusion, in November, 2014 and January, 2015. Open to American composers and composer/librettist teams of “proven merit” (with no age restrictions) and funded by a $300,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program is led by co-artistic directors Marcus Küchle, director of artistic operations for Cincinnati Opera, and Robin Guarino, chair of the opera department at CCM.

To be eligible, operatic works may be in progress or complete, but must not have received a professional premiere. Look for it to bear fruit on opera stages beyond Cincinnati in the near future.