Despite the fear stoked in the 1950s, love triumphs in ‘Fellow Travelers’

Washington, D.C., in the 1950s was a cruel time and place to strike up a same-sex relationship.
Couple kissing in production of "Fellow Traveler"

Washington, D.C., in the 1950s was a cruel time and place for a recent college graduate and a State Department official to strike up a same-sex relationship. But that’s the emotionally fraught setting for “Fellow Travelers,” the 2016 opera based on the Thomas Mallon novel of the same name, to be staged at the Capitol Theater on Feb. 7 and 9.

Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy waged a rumormongering crusade against communists and homosexuals in federal jobs. The Lavender Scare, aimed at gay government employees, is less well known than the simultaneous Red Scare that drummed thousands of Americans out of their federal jobs.

Madison Opera, which is taking on the production, is making sure would-be operagoers understand the local historical context of the story. Pre-show events included a Jan. 19 discussion with Richard Wagner, author of the 2019 book “We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History,” and Susan Zaeske, associate dean for Advancement, Arts and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Also, Madison Opera General Director Kathryn Smith will give a talk an hour before each of the two “Fellow Travelers” shows.

Andres Acosta will reprise his role as the college student co-lead, which he played in the Minnesota Opera production of “Fellow Travelers.”

The opera will be sung in English, with an orchestra conducted by Madison Opera Artistic Director John DeMain.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.