Gregory Spears


photo by Dario Acosta

Gregory Spears writes music that blends aspects of romanticism, minimalism, and early music. In recent seasons, he has been commissioned by The Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Cincinnati Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Seraphic Fire, and the JACK Quartet among others. Spears’ most recent evening length opera, Fellow Travelers, premiered this summer at Cincinnati Opera in a ten-performance run. It was hailed as “one of the most accomplished new operas I have seen in recent years” (Chicago Tribune) and an opera that “seems assured of lasting appeal” (The New York Times). The premiere of Fellow Travelers was also recently included in The New York Times’ Best in Classical Music for 2016. Spears’ children’s opera Jason and the Argonauts also premiered this summer at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was subsequently performed on tour this fall. His opera about space exploration, O Columbia, premiered in 2015 at Houston Grand Opera. Spears’ first opera, Paul’s Case, described as a “masterpiece” (New York Observer) was developed by American Opera Projects and premiered by Urban Arias in 2013. It was restaged at the PROTOTYPE Festival in New York, and presented in a new production by Pittsburgh Opera in 2014. He has won prizes from BMI and ASCAP as well as awards and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Vagn Holmboe Competition. He holds degrees in composition from the Eastman School of Music (BM), Yale School of Music (MM), and Princeton University (PhD). His music is published by Schott Music and Schott PSNY.

Program Note:

Opera thrives on stories with rich subtext, where characters cannot fully express themselves in words. Both politicians and gay men and women in Washington DC in the 1950s lived in a world full of coded sensibility – a culture operating under the surface and in counterpoint with the rigid formality of 1950s mores. In our operatic adaption of Thomas Mallon’s novel Fellow Travelers, the world of back room dealings and power plays underpinning DC’s political life becomes a hazy reflection of the romantic relationship between state department employee Hawkins Fuller and a young reporter Timothy Laughlin. In both the fraught political world of the McCarthy Era and the private world of Hawk and Tim, dialogue could only tell part of the story. My goal was to craft a musical language for Fellow Travelers that would foreground the undercurrent of clandestine machinations and forbidden longing churning under the surface of Greg Pierce’s elegant adaptation.

Particularly in Tim and Hawk’s public interactions, love cannot simply “speak” its name. Music must bridge the gap. In the opening scene, we witness a conversation between both men on a park bench in Dupont Circle. To any 1950s bystander, the conversation would seem unremarkable. To Tim it is a pick-up, filled with all the danger, innuendo and anticipation. For Tim it is also an awakening: love at first sight. I tried to embody both the excitement and the surface ordinariness of the exchange — a subtle tension familiar to any homosexual of the time. From this starting point, I looked for ways to express the innuendo-driven world of Hawk and Tim while maintaining a relatively cool musical surface, reproducing in the other scenes the layered experience of the original park bench meeting. I tried to do this by blending two disparate styles: American minimalism and the courtly, melismatic singing style of medieval troubadours.  Throughout the piece, minimalist passages represent the hum of office work — secretaries typing, interns rushing about — and the McCarthy-era political machine, ready to crush. The florid troubadour-like melodies, evocative of courtly longing, represent the fraught and passionate inner life of the lovers. These two styles are often present at the same time, generating the musical tension and driving the opera toward a tragic collision. The other characters find their own voices within this paradoxical musical atmosphere.

In an era where living “in-the-closet” is becoming increasingly rare, it seems more important than ever to put characters like Tim and Hawk on-stage — not simply as historical victims struggling against oppression, but as ordinary people fighting through life in an era where passionate love and political ambition threatened to destroy one’s world. My hope is that the nuanced machinery of opera might play some small part reminding us of this history, while also preserving in music the sensibility of doubleness that so often defined gay experience in this era.