Fellow Travelers: Q&A with composer Gregory Spears

Gregory Spears is the composer of the critically acclaimed new opera Fellow Travelers, which receives its New York premiere January 12-14 at PROTOTYPE Festival, co-presented with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and American Composers Orchestra.

The work of Gregory Spears, whose relationship with ACO extends back to his participation in our 2001 New Music Readings, has been called “astonishingly beautiful” (The New York Times), “coolly entrancing” (The New Yorker), and “some of the most beautifully unsettling music to appear in recent memory” (The Boston Globe). Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers is an extraordinary personal journey through the intriguing, gut-wrenching world of the 1950s American witch-hunts, and the often overlooked “Lavender Scare.” Tenor Aaron Blake stars as Timothy Laughlin, a recent college grad eager to join the crusade against Communism. A encounter with handsome State Department official Hawkins Fuller (baritone Joseph Lattanzi) leads to Tim’s first job, an illicit love affair with a man.

Gregory was kind enough to answer a few questions about the opera, as well as his relationship with ACO over the years.

Composer Gregory Spears. Photo by Dario Acosta

American Composers Orchestra: When did you first read Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel Fellow Travelers and what was your initial impression? Did you immediately realize its potential to become an opera, or was that sometime later?

Gregory Spears: [Director] Kevin Newbury and [Executive Producer] Sterling Zinsmeyer first introduced [librettist] Greg Pierce and me to the book, and asked whether we thought it could be an opera. I think I was most drawn to the way Mallon depicts the excitement and danger of first love, and then shows the effects of the political turmoil and homophobia swirling within the state department in the 1950s on that relationship. I also really wanted to write an opera about ordinary people, so I liked that the central characters weren’t historical figures.

ACO: In your program notes, you write that in the music you “looked for ways to express the innuendo-driven world of Hawk and Tim while maintaining a relatively cool musical surface.” Since opera is not often associated with a “cool musical surface,” can you talk about this stylistic decision? Was there any part of you worried about not having enough of the traditionally big, dramatic opera moments?

GS: Well I would like to emphasize the word “relatively” as there is still a fair share of anguished singing in Fellow Travelers as well as orchestral outbursts. But yes, in opera specifically, I try to avoid writing music that tells a listener what to feel or music that directly represents or underlines a character’s feelings from moment to moment. I agree with John Cage who once said: “I don’t mind being moved, but I don’t like to be pushed.” So I think a lot about how one might create dramatic tension without underlining a character’s emotions in a typical 19th century way. For me it’s an interesting paradox to ponder. I’m also really inspired by the many American composers who use what I think of as a “cool musical surface” to create what I find to be moving and dramatic music. Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley, and of course David Lang are just a few examples.

ACO: This is not the first time you and ACO have crossed paths. You were a participant in our 2001 New Music Readings, where you workshopped your orchestra work Circle Stories, and the ACO/Penn Presents New Music Readings in 2007, where you worked on Finishing. Can you talk about the influence these experiences had on your musical career? Was there anything that carried into your compositional process for Fellow Travelers?

GS: Those were both wonderful experiences, both as a chance to hear those pieces read by pros but also as practice for all the technical and editorial challenges involved with music preparation. Visualizing an orchestra in an actual space is the best way for me to begin thinking about orchestration. And in many cases, I visualize the ACO in the same room where my orchestral piece was read back in 2001. That’s how vivid the memory is!

ACO: What has working with George Manahan and ACO been like for this production?

GS: Working with George and the ACO have been wonderful! George has the calm confidence and experience which is absolutely necessary in the theater where there are so many things happening at once. That  comes with lots of experience and sets the singers and also the composer at ease.


Fellow Travelers opens at the PROTOTYPE Festival on Friday, January 12, 8PM at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Additional performances on Jan. 13 (2pm & 8pm) and Jan. 14 (2pm). More information here

Learn more about Gregory Spears at www.gregoryspears.com

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