The federal government purged thousands of employees in the 1950s because they were gay. It was a dark time in American history that became known as the Lavender Scare.
Now, that little-discussed chapter in the McCarthy era is at the center of the Minnesota Opera's latest production, "Fellow Travelers," which tells the story through the eyes of two men who meet and fall in love in Washington, D.C.
Director Peter Rothstein, who's worked in opera for more than 20 years, calls "Fellow Travelers" an important production for him personally.
"I have never directed a gay character in opera," he said. "So, as a gay man, it's really incredibly moving to me to actually be in the room, telling this story. Number two: I didn't know a lot about the Lavender Scare and it's a part of our history that we haven't really shed a light on, and it's an important part of our history. And it's a part of our history that continues to rear its head.
"You have historical figures in the opera, such as Joe McCarthy. Roy Cohn appears, and various political figures," he added. "But at the center of it is two men and this romantic relationship as they try to navigate their sexual identity inside this witch hunt."
On a recent morning Rothstein, who is also artistic director of Theater Latte Da, worked with baritone Hadleigh Adams and tenor Andy Acosta. They sing the two central characters of "Fellow Travelers." Adams plays Hawkins Fuller, a career State Department employee.
"He's mid-30s, very handsome, very successful. Kind of has everything he needs. The world is geared to treat him very, very well," Adams said.
According to Adams, Hawkins sees his dalliances with men simply as that, a view held by many gay men in the 1950s.
"Which is that we get an hour we get to be intimate with each other, we don't get a life. That's not who we are. We are not those kind of men," said Adams.
But things change when he meets Tim Laughlin. He's younger and from a religious family. But he's just moved to Washington and is alive with the excitement of the city and it possibilities, which he discovers, includes the man he calls Hawk.
But as time passes and Laughlin realizes he wants a more permanent relationship with Hawk, Acosta says the crushing realities of the older man's worldview set in.
"We see this conflict arise, in a world that is beautiful, romantically and emotionally when in private," Acosta said. "But completely not allowed when in public."
Things get worse when Hawk is questioned by a government official who is concerned Hawk may be homosexual. Acosta says Laughlin must make tough choices.
"He eventually has to face the guilt of what's going on. And for me, that's something that really resonated when I first started studying this libretto. This idea of guilt behind religion or culture in being gay in our society."
"Fellow Travelers" opens Saturday and runs through June 26. The Minnesota Opera is using the Cowles Center in Minneapolis for the production. It's a much more intimate space than St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts where the opera usually performs. Acosta predicts that will make an already emotional show even more intense.
"You don't often get to be 10 feet away from the performers that are having some very intimate scenes, just emotionally ripping their hearts out," he said.
However, director Peter Rothstein says while this may be intimate he doesn't want it labeled as a chamber opera because it's a piece filled with big ideas.
"Because you have this love story, this complicated love story at the heart of it, but you have a much larger sociopolitical beast in the room and I think those two elements are often essential for the success of an opera," he said.
"Fellow Travelers" premiered two years ago at Cincinnati Opera. The performers say it's a tribute to its strength that this is already its fourth production.