The Scarlet Professor
A new opera
Music: Eric Sawyer
Libretto: Harley Erdman
Based on the book by Barry Werth
The Scarlet Professor is based on the true story of Newton Arvin, a renowned literary critic and English professor at Smith College who was arrested in 1960 for possessing “beefcake” pornography. Arvin and his two of his colleagues—gay men living closeted lives in 1950s small-town New England—found themselves the victims of a national crusade initiated by U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield against “pornographic filth in the family mailbox,” a crusade taken up with obsessive cruelty by Sergeant John Regan of the Massachusetts State Police. Regan’s investigation resulted in the public humiliation and disgrace of Arvin and his colleagues, who lost their jobs and struggled to remake their careers amid the stigma of being labelled homosexuals. A Supreme Court decision eventually overturned the men’s convictions, but not before damage had been done. Today, this case is seen as an historical fulcrum, perched between the cultural McCarthyism of the 1950s and the new world of personal liberation ushered in by the 1960s.
This opera examines this moment through the character of Arvin, the subject of Barry Werth’s compelling and widely acclaimed biography. A brilliant literary critic, political radical, and former lover of Truman Capote, Arvin was also a man tortured by his own hidden sexual identity, and a man who deeply identified with the book he wrote about most passionately: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with its depiction of sin, secrecy, and shame in small-town New England.
The opera takes place in the weeks following Arvin’s arrest, as his world unravels amid his shame at being revealed as gay and his subsequent naming names to authorities. The erstwhile setting is Northampton Massachusetts State Hospital, where a fragile Arvin retreats from the world as public scandal envelops his name, but the true milieu of the opera is the inner landscape of Arvin’s mind, where flashbacks from his past, glimpses of his trial, and episodes from The Scarlet Letter collapse, collide, and explode. The heightened realities of the episodes, the alchemical jumping around between worlds, the intense emotions of the characters’ experiences, the strangeness of the asylum milieu, the moments of comic counterpoint reflecting the absurdity of the cultural moment, the passionate stakes for Arvin and others, their journeys through extremes of betrayal, rage, shame, and love—all these come to life, musically and dramatically, in this work that seeks hope and redemption to resist the tragic outcome of Hawthorne’s novel.
The Scarlet Professor is a compact opera, to be played in about 90 minutes, no intermission, for an eight-piece music ensemble. It is in development. The premiere is slated to take place on the campus of Smith College in September 2017.
Photo from 2015 Buckley Recital Hall workshop. Director: Ron Bashford.
Audio / Video Clips