Boston University alumna Emily Senturia takes the podium this month for Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Fellow Travelers.” The 2016 opera tells the doomed love story of two men caught in Senator McCarthy’s 1950s “lavender scare” purges of gay and lesbian government workers. Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, the piece premiered three years ago at Cincinnati Opera with music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Greg Pierce.
Senturia grew up playing violin and piano among a family of musicians in Oakland, Calif. In recent years, she garnered attention as a conductor-in-training at Houston Grand Opera Studio and Dallas Opera’s game-changing Hart Institute for Women Conductors. She went on to lead productions of beloved classics like “La traviata” (Hawaii Opera Theatre) and “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (Washington National Opera), even while making a name for herself as a specialist in contemporary music, most notably in several world premieres at Opera Philadelphia. She will be BLO’s first female conductor since 2000.
We caught up with Senturia last week after a piano rehearsal, and again Tuesday after the sitzprobe at New England Conservatory. The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q. How would you introduce “Fellow Travelers”?
A. Some people use “accessible” as a derogatory term. I think this music is accessible in the highest way. It’s beautiful, beautiful music. Obviously, the story is a very important one. We do not have a lot of gay love stories on the operatic stage. The music is something entirely original. There’s a little bit of minimalism, or post-minimalism, in the repetitive structure. There’s a little bit of Baroque in the harmonic rhythm and also in the ornamentation of the lines. Peter [Rothstein], the director, was saying it reminds him of Puccini just because of the vivid Romantic nature of the vocal lines.
Q. There is a lushness.
A. There really is! Made out of 17 instruments, no less. I think it’s the trombones. Otherwise it would sound like a chamber opera — strings, piano, flute, oboe, clarinet. Then you add 2 trombones, and it deepens everything. It also feels very much like an American opera. It’s not just the subject matter. There are these chords with a descending sixth in the bass, and they’re not Copland chords, but they have an openness about them, a large-ranging depth, which makes you think of Copland, and of Americana, the promise and the potential of this country, and also how we might fail that promise and fail that potential.
Q. In your preparation for this production, did you consult with composer Gregory Spears?
A. Not really. The great thing about this piece having such legs now [is that] it’s become its own being, with the freedom and stability to grow and be interpreted by different people, and to have different versions.
Q. Had you seen any of the previous versions?
A. I did not see the original production. I saw a video of [director Rothstein]’s production in Minnesota, but I have never managed to be in the same city, so, in a way, I’ve come to it cold.
Q. As you approach the score, then, what particular challenges do you encounter?
A. There are several very talky ensemble scenes with fast text. It’s notated in a way where if you follow the written rhythms they may sound very natural, but they don’t necessarily line up with the orchestral rhythmic structure underneath. So making things sound natural and not very meticulously notated as they are, lifting it from the page, is a good challenge for the singers.
Q. For example in the party scene?
A. Yes, there’s so much going on there. And also in the office scenes, where it’s almost like patter, really, like in Gilbert and Sullivan.
Q. And I notice in the piano score there are several sections where you have text on a single note to sing at your own rhythm.
A. Yes, and those are great, because the singers can just say it naturally. It’s that sort of thing that makes this understandable. Communication is the highest goal, really. The orchestra has a lot of repetition. There are these motifs that happen, that are not little Wagner motifs that come in and fade away ... you’re just supposed to subconsciously understand that it’s a reference to someone. These are long, large-scale motifs that you attach to a place, or to a relationship between two people, and they cover a period of time during which [characters] may say a lot of fast text but you still have this orchestral field going over it.
Q. Did you read the book?
A. Yes, I did read the novel, after I knew this piece. It [helped fill] out the opera that I already knew with a lot of details.
Q. It made me appreciate the music even more.
A. Yeah, the music does a lot of work, right? It does the work of 50 pages at a time. There’s a scene in Act II where Hawk has decided to do something finally to break it off with Tim. It’s not reconcilable after that. This is a really cruel thing. And so during this scene when Hawk has made his decision, it’s this very gentle, unassuming, lilting D major in 6/8, and you hear this theme in the winds, and it repeats — it’s mesmerizing — it repeats so many times that you feel suspended, waiting for what’s going to happen. You know something bad is going to happen, but you don’t know what it is, and then he whacks you with searing minor chords in a different meter.
The thing about this piece is that it’s political and it’s personal. The political atmosphere intrudes on the personal relationship. This is a fraught relationship to begin with. [The protagonists] are not very compatible. But whether they were compatible or not, the atmosphere that they were trying to have this relationship in was not going to let them be happy.
At the Emerson Paramount Center, Boston. Nov. 13-17, $32-$262. 617-542-6772 or blo.org.
CJ Ru is on Twitter at @cjruse.