Monday, October 3

Opera Columbus’ “Fellow Travelers” explores LGBTQ+ passion, heart &…Senator McCarthy

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When you think opera, your mind likely goes to magic flutes or that madame of butterflies or a vie that is all kinds of bohème.

You probably don’t think of the Senator McCarthy-led Lavender Scare of the 1950s, the witch-hunt that resulted in gay people being fired en masse from the United States government.

Well, think again.

With their upcoming performance of “Fellow Travelers,” Opera Columbus is poised to challenge your very conceptions of opera.

As part of their commitment to support emerging works and talent, Columbus’ world-renowned opera company will be presenting this truly unique and truly important opera on February 25 & 27 at the Southern Theatre. “Fellow Travelers” will be sung in English with English titles and conducted by Kelly Kuo.

Justin Swain

To get all the scoop on the upcoming show, The Buckeye Flame spoke with noted performer and teacher Justin Swain, who will be playing none other than Senator McCarthy himself.

First, let’s just get this out of the way, and I want the definitive answer here: what is with the gays and opera?
JS: <laughs> Oh my goodness. We’ve always been patrons of the arts. And we are, more often than not, the artists. So I feel like it kind of goes hand-in-hand. We love a good drama, right?

If someone wanted to get started with their opera appreciation, where would you recommend that they begin?
I would definitely find a production and a company that embraces everyone and that isn’t part of the “old guard” of people who are stuffy and expect you to act and dress a certain way when you’re at the opera. I would say Opera Columbus is a great place to get started.

Look what you did there!
It’s true! We’re quite the opposite. We embrace everyone to come as they are. As we’ve said for years, “Expect the unexpected.”

Which opera speaks to the core of your soul?
Honestly, and I’m not just saying it because we’re talking, but it’s “Fellow Travelers” because it speaks to the gay experience that so many of us have experienced. We see this gay couple at various stages of their relationship and the complexities of it as well as having to hide one’s true self in order to assimilate into a government job or societal expectations.

Most people would not think the Lavender Scare would be the backdrop for an opera.
First and foremost, like many people who grew up in public school education, I had heard of the Red Scare. But I had never heard of the Lavender Scare. So it was an opportunity for me to learn. And the more research that I did, the more I came to realize, “Wow. We still see the repercussions of this today.”

In so many parts of the country, [employment discrimination]is still the reality. I’m lucky enough to work for companies where you wouldn’t be fired for being gay, but not everyone has that luxury.

Especially here in Ohio where it’s still legal to be fired for being LGBTQ+.

What do you want people feeling when they leave the theatre after the curtain falls on “Fellow Travelers”?
I want everyone to have a moment of introspection. I want them to allow the art to inspire them and to make them question, “How can I get involved? How can I do the hard work that it takes in order to actually bring true equality to all of us?”

Minnesota Opera’s 2018 Production of Fellow Travelers, Photo by Dan Norman

It sounds like “Fellow Travelers” has affected you. You’ve performed on stage quite a bit before, so how is this different.
This is the first time I’ve been able to perform something that is inherently gay. I circle back to what I said earlier of this opera speaking to the gay experience.

I see so much of myself in the primary love interests: Timothy and Hawkins. Timothy is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He’s never had romantic love before in his life. It reminds me of my first few relationships I had as a young gay man being so hopeful, romanticizing this concept of true love and what it means to be gay and what that looks like in a monogamous relationship.

The older I get, the more I see of aspects of the other main love interest, Hawkins. In some parts of my life, I have to assimilate. I have to tone down who I am in order to make other people feel comfortable

I feel like we have all dated—whether you’re LGBTQ or not—we’ve all dated someone like Hawkins who suppresses who they are in order to meet the status quo. We’ve all dated Timothy’s who are so sweet. It’s all in there.

What does it mean that an opera like this is being performed in Columbus?
It is about damn time. Recently, “As One” was performed and that is the story of a trans woman’s journey. They begin the show as their male self, and they transition throughout the show to their female self, their true authentic self.

In Columbus, we have Pride. We have one of the most vibrant gay scenes in the Midwest, And yet the artwork on the opera stage isn’t really reflecting all of that, despite the fact that we have such a strong presence and such a strong community in Central Ohio. So, yes, it’s about damn time.

I would imagine that being in a show like this has to take a toll on you, no?
<laughs> I was joking in rehearsal the other day that I’m going to be a mess at curtain call. I get to play pretty much all the bad guys in the show. I play Senator McCarthy who was at the helm of the Lavender Scare.

The ending scene is gut-wrenching and every single time I listen to a recording of it, I get misty-eyed. Even during the read-through the other night, I thought, “Damnit. I don’t know what I’m going to do in order to make it through the last little bit of the show.”

Afterwards, I’m sure I will have a good cry and do something to distract myself.

And finally, you work with so many up-and-coming singers. What’s that one piece of advice that we all need in order to make us into the diva opera singers we all secretly want to be?
Don’t give up. There’s no one path that is right for everyone. My journey looks so different than many of the people that I am privileged to perform alongside. I grew up in poverty. I did not get to go to college right out of high school because of my father not being supportive of my sexuality.

And now I am so fortunate. I own a music school in Columbus. I’m a professor down at Ohio University. And I get to perform.

I’m living the dream I’ve always wanted, but the way that I got here was not the path that is stereotypical. So don’t give up and find a way. There will always be a way. 🔥

Ignite Action:

  • Buy tickets to “Fellow Travelers,” being performed February 25 and 27 at the Southern Theatre in Columbus. 
  • Learn more about the Lavender Scare

(This piece appears as sponsored content by Opera Columbus.) 

About Author

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He received the 2021 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for the LGBTQ Journalist of the Year from the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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