Dangerous attraction in Arizona Opera’s “Fellow Travelers”
“It’s not my job to act evil,” says baritone Joseph Lattanzi. “Everyone’s the hero of their own story in their mind, right?”
The singer’s goal is to allow audiences to judge for themselves the character of Hawk, a State Department official, and his ill-fated affair with a young reporter during the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who relentlessly purged the State Department of “subversive” elements including homosexuality and communism.
”Hawk’s not ill-intentioned -- he’s faced with societal pressure, family pressure, government pressure...he compartmentalizes his public and private personas.” Lattanzi adds, “This is a love story more than anything. It doesn’t end happily.”
The opera is based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Mallon. Librettist Greg Pierce is a 41-year-old playwright who’s written chamber musicals with composer John Kander. “This is a very different style,” says Pierce. “The producer of Fellow Travelers knew my work in other genres and came to me.” He continues, “Coincidentally, I’d been friends with Thomas Mallon for years, and I really like his work.”
The librettist worked closely with composer Gregory Spears as they explored Mallon’s novel. “We talked a lot about the operatic core of the story,” says Pierce. “We figured out that it wanted to be a quick-moving opera -- almost a play with arias in it. When you read the libretto it should feel incomplete,” he asserts. “If it’s a complete play then there’s no reason for music.”
“It’s just about economy, really -- economy of language,” Pierce explains, “leaving enough space for Greg’s music to do its work emotionally. The music can actually do an awful lot -- something internal -- so I felt like I needed fewer words. When are the words and music working in tandem,” he asks, “and when are they at odds in a dramatically good way?”
An important difference between writing for a reader and writing for the stage? “Opera is in real time,” Pierce says. “You can’t close the book and walk away from it and think about it, and open it up again later,” he explains. “You’re writing for people who are sitting in these chairs, and they’re experiencing it right now.”
“It takes much longer to sing a line than to say a line,” admits Pierce. “Gregory taught me a lot about writing for the voice and being conscious of what vowels I was using -- being singable.” He adds, “That was all new to me.”
Pierce and Spears benefited from being able to workshop their opera with Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and singers like Lattanzi, who ultimately premiered the lead role of Hawkins Fuller with Cincinnati Opera.
“[Lattanzi] had a massive effect on the role,” says Pierce. “His aria in the second act...we spent a lot of time with Joseph talking it through, every line. And that changed a lot -- there was a lot of rewriting.”
“I love that character,” Pierce continues, referring to Hawk. “There was a lot of shading to do, because he does some things that people might object to. There was a lot of conversation about how far to take that -- the more reprehensible actions and behavior -- and how to make him a very real character and not just someone who propels conflict.”
Hawk’s love interest, reporter Timothy Laughlin, is “much more likeable from the very beginning,” says the librettist. “He’s a really nice guy, just a sweetheart...but in the novel he’s not just that; he’s not reduced to that. He’s also got these other qualities that make him a little prickly at times,” Pierce continues, “and he can be pretty self-righteous, and adamant that he needs to fight the Commies -- there are other sides to him.”
A compact 17-piece chamber orchestra of strings, winds and piano accompanies the singers in the intimate confines of Herberger Theater Center’s Center Stage in Phoenix and Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art, led by conductor Daniela Candillari.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful opera librettos ever,” says Lattanzi. “It immediately hooked me into the whole world of the piece, and it’s a really good emotional distillation of these characters.”
“There’s a lot of room for performer choice -- both the text and the music are so strong it allows for a really deep performance,” he continues. “It grabs you from moment one, and the pacing of the music and the story and the dramatic climaxes and everything is so well done that you get to the end and you feel like you’ve been taken on this emotional rollercoaster...it almost sweeps you away.”
“It’s tonal music, it’s lyrical music, but the vocal lines are really difficult,” describes Lattanzi. “There’s a lot of melismatic passages, a lot of fast stuff, and the range of all the parts is huge, from a low G up two octaves to a high G in the course of the show.”
“There’s definitely aria writing,” he adds. “Each of the three main characters, Tim and Hawk and Mary, have what would be considered arias, but it doesn’t feel like a Puccini opera where time stops and Tosca stops and thinks for 2 ½ minutes.” Lattanzi elaborates, “It feels like you’re seeing the inner thoughts of the character but it’s all integral to the plot.”
Lattanzi is a former Marion Roose Pullin Arizona Opera Studio artist who sang in Arizona Opera’s Don Giovanni, Florencia en Amazonas, The Copper Queen and La Cenerentola. He especially enjoyed the camaraderie of performing as the French lieutenant Audebert in Arizona Opera’s Silent Night last season. “I wouldn’t have had as many performance opportunities in many other programs,” Lattanzi recalls. “It was absolutely the right place to land...coming out of school and being able to perform big roles.”
Creating the role of Hawk was freeing, says Lattanzi. “I was the first person on earth to play this part,” he explains, “and I was honored to be kept on. To actually take something like that from workshop to performance -- it was career-changing for a young singer.” The baritone adds, “It’s pretty close to my heart. For a while there I was the only person who had ever sung it, so I wasn’t intimidated by the ghosts of great singers from the past.”
“I’m always curious to know how people are going to react to Fellow Travelers,” says Lattanzi. “In my experience, even conservative audiences are won over -- it’s a really worthy story.”
“There’s a love duet,” Lattanzi continues, “and maybe a less successful work would make it more of a sensation, but with this it feels integral and beautiful.” He laughs and, as a nod to his “shirtless baritone” popularity on the blog Barihunks, adds, “Also, I should start doing some push-ups.”
Arizona Opera performs Fellow Travelers this weekend, Nov. 8-10, at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix, and next weekend, Nov. 16-17, at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art. Find all the details at azopera.org