Bad guys have always been good for opera. They betray friends, doom lovers, and disrupt the peace—mayhem that leads to melodrama and drives a juicy plot. Composer Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers, set in early-1950s Washington, D.C., deploys one of the baddest guys of all, Senator Joe McCarthy, but he appears only briefly. “Opera is a very complex system, involving a lot of resources,” says Spears. “I don’t think we need to waste the resources of the orchestra telling people that McCarthy was a villain. I’m interested in complicated characters we can get close to—and I don’t want to get very close to him.” Instead, it’s the paranoia around the senator’s witch hunts—his Red and Lavender Scares—that drives this juicy but decidedly unmelodramatic opera, giving it a darkly wistful tone.

Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same name, Fellow Travelers premiered at the Cincinnati Opera in 2016. It centers on two men, each with what used to be called “homosexual tendencies,” who attempt a love affair while working in the State Department. It’s a mismatched romance, Spears says, “that was not going to work in any world”—especially the nervous atmosphere of this straight-arrow era, when any “tendencies” led to immediate firing. The action is naturalistic and play-like; the music, minimalist but achingly expressive.