A major new American opera with strong local connections is coming to Five Colleges in 2017, with an “audition tour” of the campuses taking place this fall. The Scarlet Professor, composed by Amherst College music faculty member Eric Sawyer to a libretto by UMass theater professor Harley Erdman, dramatizes the true story of Newton Arvin, a renowned literature instructor at Smith College.
Arvin, a closeted gay man, and two of his colleagues became the subject of scandal and disgrace in 1960 when they were arrested for possessing “beefcake” pornography. The libretto is based on the award-winning biography of Arvin by Northampton author Barry Werth. Arvin was a specialist on Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter. In telling Arvin’s multi-layered story, the opera explores the parallels between his public shame and Hester Prynne’s in Hawthorne’s novel.
Uniquely cast, The Scarlet Professor will be presented by one company of singers made up of Five College students and recent alumni, and another made up of guest artists, who will also mentor the students. The premiere will take place in September 2017 as a joint presentation of Five College Opera and Live In Concert, Inc. and will be hosted by the Smith College Theater Department. Ron Bashford of the Amherst College Theater and Dance faculty will direct the stage, collaborating with a team of designers from the five campuses. Opportunities will be available for student assistance in the design, construction and staging of the production.
Curricular programming across the colleges related to Arvin’s story, its background, and its continuing significance is planned for fall 2017 and the months leading up to the premiere. A public symposium will accompany the first weekend of performances, with author Barry Werth leading panel discussions involving scholars, Smith alumni and a team of screenwriters developing a feature film based on the same events. Guest artists will conduct a master class for Five College singers.