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The Scarlet Professor: A new opera revisits the story

  • Harley Erdman, librettist of the upcoming opera "The Scarlet Professor," left, and Eric Sawyer, the composer, discuss their work based on the book of the same name by author Barry Werth, right, in the Mendenhall Center Aug. 3, 2017 at Smith College in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Eric Sawyer, composer of the upcoming opera "The Scarlet Professor" talks about his work based on the book of the same name by author Barry Werth, at right, in the Mendenhall Center Aug. 3, 2017 at Smith College in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Harley Erdman, librettist of the upcoming opera "The Scarlet Professor," left, and Eric Sawyer, the composer, discuss their work based on the book of the same name by author Barry Werth Aug. 3, 2017 in the Mendenhall Center at Smith College in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Eric Sawyer, composer of the upcoming opera "The Scarlet Professor" talks about his work based on the book of the same name by author Barry Werth Aug. 3, 2017 in the Mendenhall Center at Smith College in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Harley Erdman, librettist of the upcoming opera "The Scarlet Professor," left, and Eric Sawyer, the composer, discuss their work based on the book of the same name by author Barry Werth, right, in the Mendenhall Center Aug. 3, 2017 at Smith College in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Harley Erdman, librettist of the upcoming opera "The Scarlet Professor" talks about his work based on the book of the same name by author Barry Werth Aug. 3, 2017 in the Mendenhall Center at Smith College in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Librettist Harley Erdman, left, and composer Eric Sawyer, center, based “The Scarlet Professor” on the 2001 book by Northampton author Barry Werth, at right. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Northampton writer Barry Werth’s 2001 biography, “The Scarlet Professor,” serves as the source of the opera of the same name by Harley Erdman and Eric Sawyer.

  • Sumner Thompson, front right, who plays the role of U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, performs with other cast members during a rehearsal in late August at the Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts at Smith College. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cast members rehearse for “The Scarlet Professor” at Smith College’s Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Director Ron Bashford, center, talks to cast members during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Hite, who plays Newton Arvin, and Blythe Gaissert, who plays Hester Prynne, rehearse for “The Scarlet Professor” at the Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sumner Thompson, second from right, who plays the role of U.S. postmaster Arthur Summerfield, performs with other cast members during a rehearsal in late August in the Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Hite, who plays Newton Arvin, and Blythe Gaissert, who plays Hester Prynne, perform during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Director Ron Bashford, front, watches as William Hite, who plays Newton Arvin, and Blythe Gaissert, who plays Hester Prynne, perform during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • William Hite, who plays Newton Arvin, performs with other cast members during a rehearsal for “The Scarlet Professor” this past August. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eric Sawyer, who is the composer of the opera "The Scarlet Professor", talks to a singer during a rehearsal Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gregory Brown, who is the chorus master, directs during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gregory Brown, who is the chorus master, directs during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Blythe Gaissert, who plays Hester Prynne, and William Hite, who plays Newton Arvin, perform during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Blythe Gaissert, who plays Hester Prynne, talks to director Ron Bashford, center, and William Hite, who plays Newton Arvin, during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eric Sawyer plays piano as Bryan Pollock sings during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Blythe Gaissert, who plays Hester Prynne, talks to director Ron Bashford, center, and William Hite, who plays Newton Arvin, during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eric Sawyer plays piano as Bryan Pollock sings during a rehearsal for "The Scarlet Professor" Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eric Sawyer, who is the composer of the opera "The Scarlet Professor", talks to singer Caroline Lee during a rehearsal Aug. 23 at Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College professor Newton Arvin, shown here in 1951, was arrested in 1960 for possession of “beefcake” men’s magazines; police later found a diary in which he’d recorded his trysts with different men.  Photo courtesy of Smith College Archives, Smith College

  • William Hite plays the lead part of Newton Arvin during a rehearsal with a Five College chorus for the opera "The Scarlet Professor" on Sunday, August 27, 2017, in Theater 14 at the Smith College Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts in Northampton. At left, playing the part of Sgt. John Regan, is James Demler. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Composer Eric Sawyer accompanies a rehearsal for the opera "The Scarlet Professor." GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stage director Ron Bashford, left, and musical director Eduardo Leandro take part in a rehearsal for the opera. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • William Hite, seated, in the role of Newton Arvin, works with stage director Ron Bashford, right, during a rehearsal for the opera "The Scarlet Professor" on Sunday, August 27, 2017, in Theater 14 at the Smith College Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Musical director Eduardo Leandro, left, consults with music composer Eric Sawyer during a rehearsal for the opera "The Scarlet Professor" on Sunday, August 27, 2017, in Theater 14 at the Smith College Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Stage director Ron Bashford talks with a Five College chorus during a rehearsal for the opera "The Scarlet Professor" on Sunday, August 27, 2017, in Theater 14 at the Smith College Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ron Bashford, seated right, directs a scene in which Newton Arvin, played by William Hite, seated on bed, spends time in the Northampton State Hospital. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College professor Newton Arvin lived in this house on Prospect Street in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2017

It was a story that shocked the sleepy town of Northampton in September 1960 and then became fodder for the national media, particularly the tabloids: A professor at Smith College, along with two of his male colleagues and some other local men, was arrested and charged with possessing “beefcake” pornography, pictures of men in semi-nude poses.

As the case unfolded, with some reports suggesting the “smut ring” at Smith was just the tip of an iceberg of moral degeneracy stretching into other states, English professor Newton Arvin, the man at the center of the controversy, found his world collapsing. The secret he had tried to keep under wraps for so many years — his homosexuality — was now on view for all to see.

Worse would follow, as Arvin and two of his colleagues would be convicted and lose their jobs; Arvin gave up the names of some of the gay men in his circle to police, in turn shattering his deep friendship with one of those men, fellow Smith professor Ned Spofford.

Yet as Northampton writer Barry Werth showed in “The Scarlet Professor,” his 2001 biography of Arvin, the case would ultimately usher in groundbreaking court decisions that threw out the convictions against Arvin and the other defendants, while also expanding the boundaries of privacy and civil liberties.

If Werth’s book resurrected what had become, by 2001, an all-but-forgotten story, a new opera based on the biography brings new artistic dimensions to it. “The Scarlet Professor,” which opens tonight at Smith, builds a narrative told partly in flashback, partly in the present and partly in Arvin’s head — all in an effort to illuminate a complicated character and the wider issue of intolerance.

And if Werth’s book veered toward tragedy — Arvin, an acclaimed literary scholar and biographer himself, had struggled with depression, isolation and shame for years before his arrest — the opera offers a more uplifting note, says librettist Harley Erdman, who lives in Florence.

“It’s a horrendous story in many ways, but it’s also not a tragic story,” said Erdman, a professor of theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Arvin kind of came through [his arrest] and got to a certain level of self-acceptance, even if he didn’t live much longer.” (Arvin died of pancreatic cancer in 1964)

In keeping with that tone, the opera’s score, by music professor Eric Sawyer of Amherst College, reflects some of the popular music of that time such as blues, early rock ‘n’ roll and Broadway tunes — and as such “it gives a kind of positive spirit to what is also a painful story,” Sawyer added.

“The Scarlet Professor” marks the second collaboration between Erdman and Sawyer, the creators of the 2013 opera “The Garden of Martyrs,” which also dramatized a chapter of local history: the hanging of two Irish immigrants, Dominic Daley and James Halligan, in Northampton in 1806 for a murder it’s now widely believed they did not commit.

The new production represents a deliberate scaling back from “The Garden of Martyrs,” Erdman notes, with a smaller cast, chorus and accompanying orchestra. “It’s a more intimate story, a more domestic story,” he said.

But “The Scarlet Professor” also has a unique wrinkle: A separate cast of Five College students and graduates has been rehearsing alongside the professional crew members and will perform the opera September 23 and 24 at Smith, the weekend after the professional production opens.

For Werth, who has worked closely with Erdman and Sawyer in fine-tuning the opera, seeing his biography (or part of it) brought to life on stage has been a thrill: “I think their ability to take this true story and distill it down to its most dramatic elements and make those characters sing is magic.”

Perhaps more importantly, Werth adds, the opera reopens an important conversation about puritanism, intolerance and the fragility of privacy in an era when anti-immigrant rhetoric, as one example, has soared, and the sweep of the internet can invade anyone’s personal life.

“This is a bigger story than just several men getting arrested in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1960 because they were looking at dirty pictures,” he said.

Working side-by-side with students

In late August, as a handful of people in the audience watched, William Hite, playing the role of Arvin, walked a few steps across the stage of Theatre 14 at Smith’s Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts. Hite, in a T-shirt and shorts, then stopped and looked at the woman 20 feet away, singing in a tone of slight disbelief, “O Hester Prynne, is it thou?”

Blythe Gaissert, as Hester Prynne, sang a few lines until the opera’s director, Ron Bashford, halted the action and repositioned the singers. After a few more attempts at the scene, Hite, speaking with Bradford, said “I feel I’m not emotionally quite there yet.”

“The Scarlet Professor” is set largely in what stands in for the former Northampton State Hospital, in the weeks following Arvin’s arrest, where he has retreated in a near-suicidal depression. But as Erdman explains, much of the plot also revolves around Arvin’s memories, as well as conversations between real and imagined characters; humor is an important part of the story as well.

For instance, anyone familiar with 19th-century American literature will recognize Hester Prynne as the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” The significance? In his 1929 biography of Hawthorne, Arvin found a personal connection with the author, who struggled with the same loneliness and isolation Arvin experienced.

Truman Capote, who became Arvin’s lover in the late 1940s when the two met at a writers’ retreat (Arvin was 22 years older), also makes an appearance as a sort of comic foil — “a trickster” as Erdman puts it — trying to convince Arvin to live life more fully and to stop obsessing about Hawthorne’s novel, which, he archly notes, dates from 1832.

“1850,” Arvin rejoins.

“Pardonnez moi,” Capote sings in response, “for casting aspersions on its cutting-edge modernity.”

In addition, the opera opens with a farcical scene, as the U.S. Postmaster General in the 1950s, Arthur Summerfield, invites congressional legislators to view what he calls his department’s “Chamber of Horrors”: a collection of gay “pornography,” confiscated by post offices, that “isn’t much different than the underwear and lingerie ads you see in any mainstream magazine or newspaper today,” said Sawyer.

Yet the anti-smut campaign Summerfield and some U.S. congressmen led — advocates said such “filth” was part of a communist plot to undermine America — produced “the harshest censorship laws since the Civil War,” leading in turn to Arvin’s arrest, said Werth.

“It seems comical now, but it’s based on reality,” he added. “Credit [Erdman and Sawyer] with seeing that this would be a way of balancing out the personal agony Arvin went through.”

Hite, a tenor who teaches voice at UMass Amherst, also had a starring role in “The Garden of Martyrs,” which was based on an historical novel of the same name. In playing Arvin, he says he’s taking on a character “with many levels to him,” and that trying to convey that kind of complexity within the limits of a 90-minute opera is a challenge.

“The opera is like the Reader’s Digest version of [Werth’s] book,” he said in a phone interview in mid August, before rehearsals had begun. “There’s only so much you can cover.”

But Hite said he felt confident that once he had begun working with the other singers and practicing the scenes, “I’m going to find my way to really understanding the character.”

Hite is also the only singer (not including chorus members, all Five College students) who will perform in both the professional and student versions of the opera — something he says he was at first hesitant to do but now embraces as a mentor. In fact, two of the performers in the Five College opera, Uriah Rodriguez and Jessica Toupin, are students of his at UMass.

“That idea of working side by side with the students, to me, is one of the biggest selling points of the production,” he noted.

That said, Hite doesn’t look much like Arvin, who was slight, bespectacled and mostly bald. “I tried to convince Bill to shave his head,” Werth quipped.

No matter, says Erdman. “Bill sings with a lot of tenderness, and he’s also a wonderful actor. There are also subtle things you can do with costumes, and the music sets the tone as well … he’ll inhabit this role.”

‘The darkest chapter of Smith’s past’

Though “The Garden of Martyrs” was performed at Northampton’s Academy of Music, the producers of “The Scarlet Professor” opted to stage their new opera at Smith — in part because Theatre 14 is a more intimate venue than the Academy, but mostly because the events that inspired the production had occurred at the college.

“In retelling a public story in the same place, on the same campus where it took place, it feels like a kind of restitution or a public ritual,” said Erdman.

That’s important, Werth notes, given that the convictions of Arvin, Spofford and fellow Smith professor Joel Dorius, and their subsequent release by the college (Arvin officially retired and was given half his salary), represented “the darkest chapter of Smith’s past.”

Though Arvin and the other professors had their supporters on campus — Classics Department Chairwoman Helen Bacon, a character in the opera, was perhaps their biggest one — the school as a whole “did not distinguish itself at the time,” Werth added.

But much has changed since then, he notes, and not just in the college’s enthusiastic embrace of the opera. In the early 2000s, Smith publicly made amends to the professors by holding a public forum on civil liberties, and the school also established a scholarship fund in their honor, the Dorius-Spofford Fund for the Study of Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression.

And the opera, adds Werth, “is living history. Arvin had the phrase ‘The useable past,’ this idea of taking American history and seeing how we could re-envision it in light of what’s happened since. Now we have the opportunity to do that here.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The professional production of “The Scarlet Professor” takes place Sept. 15 and 16 at 8 p.m., and Sept. 17 at 3 p.m., at Theatre 14 at the Mendenhall Center of Performing Arts at Smith College. The Five College production takes places there Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 24 at 3 p.m. For tickets and additional information, visit thescarletprofessoropera.com.

In conjunction with “The Scarlet Professor,” Smith College also hosts a Sept. 16 symposium, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Earle Recital Hall in Sage Hall, with the opera’s producers and other speakers reflecting on issues raised by the 1960 arrests of Newton Arvin and two other Smith professors.

“Sex and Surveillance in America” includes a screening of the documentary “The Great Pink Scare” and a talk with director Tug Yourgrau and screenwriters Dustin Schell and Alexander Chee.

Authors Michael Gorra (a Smith English professor) and Jane Yolen (a Smith alumna) will also be part of panels on a range of themes, including the history of puritanism in America.

For the symposium schedule, visit the scarletprofessoropera.com. thescarletprofessoropera.com. scarletprofessoropera.com. thescarletprofessoropera.com. scarletprofessoropera.com.

schedule,visit thescarletprofessoropera.com.

— Steve Pfarrer